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Science and technology policy for the 1990s



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HON. ROSS FREE, M P MINISTER FOR

SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY POLICY FOR THE 1990s

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ROSS FREE

MINISTER FOR SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

ANZAAS CONGRESS 1991 - ADELAIDE

THURSDAY 3 OCTOBER 1991

Embargoed 3pm EST Thursday 3 October 1991

Check against delivery

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen and distinguished guests. It is a pleasure to be invited to address the 60th ANZAAS Congress.

Today I want to trace the directions of science and technology policy, its achievements, and to outline the strategy for future development of policy and programs in the 1990s.

There are parallels between what is happening with the Government's strategy for science and technology in the 1990s and your theme of 'reproduction and renewal' for this year's Congress. The Government's policy sets out to reinforce the science and technology infrastructure

and to reinvigorate the science and technology system in the national interest. The policy framework is currently undergoing seme healthy renewal.

In the 1980s the Government established a new policy base for Australian science and technology. That policy base will provide for the growth of a stronger and more productive science and technology

capability in the 1990s and beyond. It has achieved a realignment of our scientific and technological effort to meet high priority national needs, namely our socioeconomic development. There

is no future in science and technology existing in isolation. It must serve Australia's national interests.

The Ccnmonwealth Government provides the lion's share of support for science and technology in Australia. In 1991-92, overall Ccnmonwealth support through major science and innovation programs and other activities will rise by 4.3% in

real terms to reach $2.6 billion.

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This is not a one-off increase. It follows a real increase of 2.4% in the last financial year and reflects the Government's continuing commitment to develop the science and technology system.

A dramatic indicator of the success of the Government's strategic framework for science and technology has been the impressive increase in the level of research conducted by industry.

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Government funding for research and development compares favourably with that of governments of other OECD countries - ranking 11th out of 23 countries in 1988. However, throughout the past

decade, Australia has also had one of the strongest rates of increase in business research and development among OECD countries.

Over the period 1981-82 to 1989-90 the average real rate of growth in business research and development expenditure has been about 14% per year. The commercial importance of research is starting to become better understood by industry. Research and

development is, of course, a strong component of successful innovation capacity.

The latest figures show that in 1989-90 total business enterprise research and development activity continued to increase, regrettably at a much slower rate, but understandable in the recent

economic climate.

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I would be pleased if, in the coining period, business could match the real increase in research funding achieved by the Government. Australia's competitors are continuing to increase their expenditure on research and development and we

cannot afford to be left behind - or to stand still.

How we are to achieve a further lifting of business sector research and development is not an easy question. However I expect the White Paper process currently underway to throw up some interesting

ideas for debate - for example, should we set a target for business R&D of a set percentage of GDP?

Recent increases in the level of research and development have been reflected in a sharp increase in inventive activity. From 1981 to 1989, the number of overseas patent applications made by Australians has increased at an annual growth rate

of over 17% compared with an OECD average of 9%.

This indicates not just growth in innovation, but growth in internationalisation.

Australian companies have, in the past, correctly been criticised for being too inward-looking. Hopefully, times are changing. Many of our firms are now looking to a world stage for their

activities - not just a domestic one. This should, in time, substantially improve our overall international competitiveness.

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The Government's strategic framework for science and technology has elicited other pleasing developments in the last few years. Not least of these has been the acceptance of the need to take a national perspective in planning research and development activities.

I draw to your attention the sound performance of Government research agencies in seeking to match their activities more closely to national needs. External funding targets set by Government for a number of agencies have certainly played a part in

this, but the agencies have achieved a great deal themselves. Many of you will be familiar with the priority-setting mechanism developed by CSIRO. It has been a substantial achievement and one that

should have application for other agencies.

A further indicator that leaders of research and development agencies are taking a less narrow perspective is in the response to the Cooperative Research Centres Program.

The CRC Program is a major initiative designed to draw together groups of outstanding researchers to create large, integrated research units linked with those able and intending to make practical use of their research findings.

In short, a major objective is to instil an emphasis on achieving a commercial outcome from research.

Regrettably, I am not currently persuaded that the CRC Program has to date successfully focused on that objective and outcome. I am, however, confident that it will.

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The CRC selection process is not a static operation. In the second round, for example, the CRC Committee was asked to play a more active role in bringing together the strongest possible

applications in areas of clear economic, social and environmental importance to Australia.

I expect there to be further refinements to ensure that the program meets its objectives. In the near future I will be having discussions with the CRC Committee to this effect.

Initiatives such as the Cooperative Research Centres Program will help to increase interaction between the government, education and business leaders in science and technology. The Program is

establishing strong and effective linkages between some of Australia's best research groups and linking those groups more firmly than ever before to the users of research, whether these be in industry, or in government.

Interaction will help all players to understand the constraints and priorities of the others. The output of the Cooperative Research Centres will be research and development targeted to national priorities.

In the 1990s, the major challenge for the Government, and for industry and the science and technology ccnmunity, is to build on the gains made in the 1980s and ensure that science and technology

yield the benefits of which they are capable. Inevitably this will involve coming to grips with seme difficult issues.

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The Government is taking up this challenge. Science and technology policy in Australia is new going through an exciting period of review and redefinition. The Government has instituted a wide-ranging examination of Australia's science and

technology system. A major process of consultation and policy development is underway to identify inpediments to the more effective operation of the system and the mechanisms needed to overcome them.

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In May 1992 the Prime Minister will table in Parliament a White Paper on Science and Technology. This will be the first such White Paper to be produced in Australia. We intend that the White Paper will renew the sense of direction

and purpose given by the 1989 Statement Science and Technology for Australia.

The White Paper will set strategic directions to guide decision-making on science and technology into the future. It will cover the key science and technology issues - such as major facilities and the balance of research funding - which have been dealt with in the past in a less coordinated

fashion. In effect, it will chart the path for Australian science and technology in the 1990s.

At a recent function I was asked to name the main areas in which I would try to have a significant impact as Minister for Science and Technology.

There are two: to build on the progress already made in integrating science and technology with user and national needs; and to promote an increased appreciation and understanding of the

roles played by science and technology in our social, economic and environmental development.

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The first area is familiar, being a continuation of a policy theme that is beginning to mature. The second is perhaps less well known, and certainly less well understood.

I will address these areas in turn.

Economic and social benefits are not generated directly from research, but from the successful application and exploitation of research findings. Australia is not sufficiently adept at applying

research to its significant and increasingly international industrial capability.

We have missed opportunities for improving economic performance and social wellbeing because of weak linkages between researchers and the commercial world.

In July this year I established a Commercialisation Task Force, in the context that many exploitable discoveries have not been successfully commercialised in Australia. The Task Force's objective is to analyse our performance in this

area, the impediments to commercialisation and methods of removing these inpediments.

The Task Force has already identified the main problems. These include a lack of knowledge within firms about how to manage the innovation process, and the difficulties faced by young,

technology-oriented firms in obtaining finance.

I will be receiving the report of the Task Force this month and expect that it will provide some useful material with which to develop solutions.

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The issues that it will raise go beyond research and development. The commercialisation of research will not take place unless there is capital available for the exploitation of research.

Consideration must now be given to how to make capital, both development and venture, more readily available to small, innovative Australian firms to facilitate their growth.

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In the past, attention has been drawn to cases where it was said Australia possessed significant competitive advantage, but that required injections of capital were not forthcoming through the

operation of the market.

We must now find solutions to repairing the market's record in this respect. I must say I did not find the Industry Conmission's draft report on the Availability of Capital overly helpful in this

respect.

I look forward to vigorously pursuing this issue both as Minister for Science and Technology and Minister Assisting the Treasurer.

To move now to my second area of interest: to instil in all groups of Australian society an appreciation of the integral role of science and technology in national life - to create a science

and technology culture, if you like.

Progress in this area is a precondition for progress in all other areas of science, technology and innovation. Our society cannot realise the full benefits of science and technology if it fails

to value them and does not recognise their importance in our individual and national lives.

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A recent survey commissioned by the Science and Technology Awareness Program within my Department revealed very poor perceptions among young Australians of scientists, careers in science and

the relevance of science to the future. It showed that the education system is not well positioned to address these perceptions.

I would like to quote seme excerpts from that report. x

"School students claimed that often the subject (science) appeared to have little relevance and was merely learning for learning's sake. It was evident that much of the science curriculum

seemed unrelated to their daily lives or the world around them ...

"There was almost no association between science and things of value in society ... There was, for example, no association between science and basic products and services. Nor was there any significant association between

science and industry, certainly little understanding how science would be used in industry ...

"Unlike studying English or maths, which are felt to be important for day-to-day living, no such relevance was apparent for science."

The picture drawn by these quotes is worrying in its implications. We are living in a world in which we are surrounded by technology and use it all the time, but in which many people do not know

that this is the case.

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We have somehow created an impression that science and technology are irrelevant, or that they are the province of 'clever people'. Not only are scientists seen as 'clever', they are seen as

'peculiar'. Let me quote again:

"Students described scientists as nerds and losers. ... It was felt that scientists in the broad community were isolationist ...

"They were also thought to be lonely ... they devoted their lives to hopeless causes while everyone else was looking after number one. ... They were not accepted in society, because they did not want to be."

Science and technology cannot make their full contribution to our socioeconomic development while attitudes like these prevail. Negative perceptions like these obviously have serious implications for Australia's ability to attract young people to

study and pursue careers in science and technology, and hence to provide the skilled human resources that our economy and society will require in the next century.

I am concerned at the low level of participation by Australian students in senior high school science and mathematical studies.

However, regardless of whether students pursue a career in science, the study of science, technology and mathematics at school will be of benefit to them and ultimately to the nation. They will need a broad understanding of scientific principles in order to make important decisions in their everyday

lives.

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As citizens, they need to have confidence to participate in debate about the important social and scientific issues which will affect them in the future.

The importance of science and technology is a message that needs to be understood by Australians at all levels: in industry, in the media, among young people, and in the science community itself.

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We need a scientifically literate population that understands the role of science and technology in economic and social development. Australians must appreciate that science and technology pervade all aspects of our lives - health, entertainment, sport

and food, the workplace, the state of the economy.

The Government is promoting an understanding of science and technology through a number of excellent projects.

Firstly, the Australia Prize. This is an international award for outstanding achievement in a selected area of science and technology promoting human welfare.

The second award of this prestigious prize will be announced early in 1992 and will recognise achievement in 'physical sciences related to mining or the processing of mineral resources'.

Another project worthy of mention is the Michael Daley Awards for Science and Technology Journalism, which I presented at a function earlier today. I am very conscious that in Australia, as in most

countries, the media is the primary avenue through which ccnmunity attitudes are influenced.

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We need high quality, effective media coverage of science and technology to convey the right messages.

The Government supports the Michael Daley awards with the objective of attaining the highest standards in the communication of science and technology in Australia. I am pleased to say that

this year's awards attracted a record number of entries, many of which were of a high standard, pointing to the growth in demand for and quality of reporting on science and technology in this

country.

A third project aimed at enhancing attitudes towards science and technology is the National Science Festival, the details of which are in your Congress binders.

The Festival will be a showcase of Australian science achievement and a focus of science education for the Australian comnunity. It will aim to show that science is fun and a part of everyday life, and provide opportunities to encourage young people to choose science as a career.

I am pleased to see that this Congress has tackled the areas of comnunity attitudes and communicating science head-on. It has sought to provide information to scientists and the community about

science and technology in a way that facilitates both change and innovation.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, I have said on a number of occasions that I have taken up my responsibilities as Minister at a very exciting time for the development of science and technology. We are in

the midst of a major examination of the science and technology effort - further developing and refining our vision of how our future effort should be directed. I will be devoting my attention to this task, and look forward to receiving the close

assistance of the science

Thank you for the opportunity of speaking to you today.