Labor backs Australian drive for research commercialisation

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Australia’s opposition has backed the government’s move to foster the commercialisation of science, with deputy Labor leader Richard Marles describing it as “the single most important piece of microeconomic reform” for the nation.

Mr Marles told the Australian Technology Network’s innovation summit that the country could expect a “radically poorer future for our kids and our grandkids” unless it heeded an “urgent call for action…to climb the technological ladder”.

“Turning science into jobs has been something that we have not been good at, and we simply need to turn that around,” said Mr Marles, who counts science, employment and skills among his shadow portfolios.

The comments echo those of his political opponent, education minister Alan Tudge, who said that research commercialisation was his “number-one priority” during an opening address to the summit.

Mr Marles flagged a joint ticket on the issue. “There’s no inherent reason why this should be a matter of political divide,” he told the summit. “Some public policy – and this is an example – doesn’t have a chance [without] bipartisanship, because governments change.”

He said that global league tables illustrated the scale of Australia’s problem. Harvard University had ranked the country 87th in its Atlas of Economic Complexity, which he described as “the most important long-term index of prosperity”.

Western Australia’s chief scientist, Peter Klinken, said Australia was “sitting between Uganda and Burkina Faso” in the Harvard index, below any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development nation. “That makes us incredibly vulnerable to changes on a global scale,” Professor Klinken told the summit.

He also echoed Mr Tudge in criticising universities’ focus on a “virtuous cycle” of research grants that generated journal publications and led to more grants. “That’s really good for international rankings [and] attracting students. But what Australia desperately needs is mechanisms to diversify its economy. We need innovation and new industries to create jobs. Things are changing rapidly and we have to do things differently. A new dialogue needs to happen between government, industry, the education sector and the community,” Professor Klinken said.

He highlighted the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope as an “exciting example” of industry, government and academia working together. The federal and state governments had invested in the project about 20 years ago, when “there was not a single radio astronomer in Western Australia – a case of build it and they’ll come”.

The state now hosted 200 radio astronomers and would soon have one of the world’s fastest supercomputers, which would be linked to a privately owned supercomputer to boost processing power. The precursor telescopes had already generated enough data to enable project partners Curtin University to map a million previously unknown galaxies in a matter of weeks, Professor Klinken said.

But Mr Marles said that the project had drawn comparatively little media attention. “The SKA will give us the best answers we have had to the origins of the universe, searching for planets [with] biomarkers in their atmosphere. Many scientists believe it will happen this decade – a profound moment in the human story. All of this is happening in Australia, and who knows about it?” he said.

“If our aim is to be at the cutting edge of modernity – and have that as the basis of our economy – it’s unlikely to happen whilst we don’t even notice when we’re doing the biggest science project in the world today.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com



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