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Four questions for our new PM that will define Australia’s future

Four questions for our new PM that will define Australia’s future

1. Where will Australia purposefully become a world leader in the coming decades?

From Wi-Fi to ultrasounds to nuclear fusion, Australia is capable of technology breakthroughs that spawn entire industries.

But these breakthroughs didn’t arrive as fully formed products. They followed decades of breakthrough R&D investment.

We’ve made a start by outlining several priority sectors in the 2021 National Research Infrastructure (NRI) Roadmap, which the Universities Trailblazers program seeks to catalyse with $1.5 billion invested into these sectors. Labor also pledged a $1 billion fund for critical new technologies before the election.

But this is a drop in the ocean: under 0.1 per cent of GDP.

We lack a clear federal vision on how to galvanise trillions – not billions – of investment to bring world-leading discoveries to market, in a systematic fashion that ensures Australia reaps the future economic rewards.

We now need a leader who puts a stake in the ground like former US President Kennedy when he announced: “We choose to go to the Moon in this decade”.

Our new prime minister must similarly make a choice on a concrete goal, within a specific timeframe.

2. How will you improve the calibre of R&D investment?

Realising a grand vision requires galvanising significant, long-term investment.

Yet Australia’s R&D investment is woefully inadequate at 1.79 per cent of GDP, and declining, by comparison to other much-touted innovation nations: Israel (4.9 per cent), South Korea (4.6 per cent), Germany (3.2 per cent), or the US (3.1 per cent).

Our Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is also just one year old and only in one state.

Compare this to the US’s federal SBIR which has run for 40 years regardless of who is president, invests over $2.5 billion per year with an ever-increasing budget, and spans across 11 Government departments from Agriculture to Energy to Space and Science.

And this is just one of many R&D investment programs in the US.

With systemic ongoing policy support at federal levels for R&D in high-risk technology development, we would see significantly more Australian companies matching or exceeding the R&D investment of our innovation leaders like CSL.

The new Prime Minister should create a comprehensive national program akin to the US SBIR, to open the floodgates for private capital to also finance cutting-edge deep technologies for decades to come.

3. How will we build future-critical national research infrastructure?

For investment dollars to be put to use building groundbreaking technologies – and for those technologies to remain in Australia – we require national research infrastructure on home soil.

We have a taste of what this looks like with our world-leading National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

NCRIS sets a framework for investment into research facilities and physical resources, and currently generates a $7 return for every $1 invested.

It supports critical initiatives such as the Heavy Ion Accelerator Facility at ANU, which is enabling research and commercialisation in future-critical industries such as quantum dynamics, new materials, medical physics and space.

Without it, we’d be forced to send our space ventures to NASA for support instead.

Yet we are barely maintaining the NCRIS, let alone increasing our investment to levels that could create global leadership for Australia.

You only have to consider our mRNA vaccine shortfall during the pandemic to see how much further we need to bolster the NCRIS and build research infrastructure that future-proofs Australia, and removes our co-dependence on other countries.

4. How will you attract and foster specialist talent onshore?

For investment to be deployed into the development and commercialisation of world-first innovations using onshore infrastructure, Australia must also attract exceptional talent.

As an example, Australia’s current leadership in quantum technology was driven in a major way by British-born Professor Michelle Simmons.

Simmons was attracted to Australia’s visionary approach to the emerging field, saying, “In Australia, there was this real sense there’s a good chance that [quantum computing] could happen”.

Fast-forward several decades and Simmons has been instrumental in putting Australia on the global quantum map, becoming Australian of the Year for her work, and building quantum computers throughout our world-leading universities.

Our new prime minister must create a legacy that inspires thousands of the world’s leading experts in future-critical industries to join team Australia.

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