Science and tech key to economic recovery

Australia’s scientists and tech workers have a vital role in helping lead the country out of the socio-economic trauma caused by COVID-19, the woman in charge of our peak science and technology body says.

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Misha Schubert is the chief executive of Science and Technology Australia (STA), a federation of different scientific bodies and technology associations that represents the nation’s 80,000 scientists and technology workers.

Ms Schubert has been heartened by Australian governments listening closely to science-based expertise when crafting policy responses to the virus.

“This pandemic and its effect on our workforce, our communities and our economy has been devastating,” she told InnovationAus.

“Through it all, one of the things Australians have found reassuring has been the clear and unwavering commitment by governments of all political persuasions to seek out and follow the expert scientific and medical advice to keep Australians safe.”

With COVID-19 infections nationwide slowing to a trickle as of late May, Ms Schubert puts science and technology input as a major factor in getting the virus under control and believes maintaining that openness will help turbo charge our economic recovery.

“The fact that science and technology expertise has been right at the heart of government policy making has been the makings of our success.”

“If there is a lesson to be learned about how the public has responded to embracing that expertise by governments it is that we should carry that model forward into recovery and reconstruction.”

STA wants to see Australia swiftly build up its translational research capability.

“We perceive there’s a gap in the ‘nearly there’ stage of the research pipeline,” says Ms Schubert.

One method to fix this gap is to establish a new Research Translation Fund that could be funded from proposed changes to the R&D Tax Incentive scheme.

Translational research funding would help to quickly propel new products and techniques onto the market.

“For example, if we are thinking about the approach of the next bushfire season as fire chiefs are seeing new and wildly unpredictable fire behaviours you could have the translational research fund play a role of taking the intelligence from the front line fire fighters and quickly look at better testing of protective equipment.

“Or a rapid advance in using satellite technology to spot fires breaking out. That’s just one context. In every industry there will be examples of the need for translational research.”

The advent of COVID-19 had Australia and much of the world scrabbling to secure everything from N95 masks to ventilators.

As we head into the first stages of recovery, STA has backed Industry Minister Karen Andrews’ call for greater sovereign capability in our manufacturing sector.

Ms Schubert sees our need for sovereign capability extending well beyond medical equipment. Initially it started with medical equipment like masks, sanitisers, surgical equipment and ventilators,” she said.

“But quickly, every business in the country looked closely on their own operations because it focused the mind on whether you can have reliable supply of goods for any kind of product or even the services sector.

“I believe there has been a deep reflection across our industries on how they want to secure supply chains from sources within Australia and a diversity of (offshore) suppliers to give themselves greater security in the future.”

The skilled work force to help quickly build up sovereign capability and recharge Australian business in general is sitting in plain sight in the form of post graduate science students.

Entry level research jobs have been hit hard in the COVID-19 lock-down, Ms Schubert says, and the STA believes post graduate science students need to be kept in the research system.

She says those students are very cost effective as many are on study stipends of around $28,000 per year.

“They are our future pipeline of brilliant research talent. If you think about the road to recovery, science and technology will be our engines,” says Ms Schubert.

STA has proposed a one-off boost in the budget for science stimulus so that post graduate students can be kept in the research system.

“There is a very strong return on investment now because those students are helping run research programs for the country and there is a long-term gain for the country in keeping those people in the system.”

STEM related jobs for women have been particularly hard hit in the pandemic, says Ms Schubert, a situation that threatens to undo years of work in elevating women’s involvement in the sector.

Another measure that would help the nation’s reconstruction of is a collaboration premium.

In its submission to the Senate inquiry into the Research & Development Tax Incentive, STA called for a 20 per cent collaboration premium for R&D projects that collaborate with Australian research institutes, universities or government agencies.

“When businesses tap into the expertise of universities, there are benefits to both their bottom line and to our national economy,” Ms Schubert said at the time of the submission in late March.

“On average, businesses that collaborate with universities see a return on investment of almost $4.50 for every dollar they invest.”

“A collaboration premium would also encourage businesses to invest in R&D here in Australia.

“Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest the amount of R&D money that Australia’s business sector spent overseas actually rose by half a billion dollars – $534 million – in 2017-18.”

This story was originally published by Stuart Kennedy in InnovationAus.

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