Water Journal : Water Journal December 2013
WATER DECEMBER 2013 6My Point of View There are many examples of good technology and design succeeding in advanced economies against competition from low-cost countries. One very good Australian example is the export success being achieved by SMR Automotive, based in Adelaide. This company is a participant in the Automotive CRC and has worked with the University of South Australia on the development of new plastic mirrors for vehicles, that are lighter, more robust, have better optical properties than conventional automotive mirrors, and are cheaper to manufacture. Perhaps if this sort of quality investment in research and innovation had been more extensively utilised across the Australian automotive sector then the current parlous state of that industry might have been avoided. Collaboration between industry and the research community is a feature of some other sectors, such as defence. However, it is not common practice for many areas of Australian industry to seek the services and support of the research community with a view to enhancing innovation or to develop new products and services. Many small to medium enterprises (SMEs) do not even seem to recognise that their business competitiveness could be improved through innovation. Fortunately there are exceptions and SMR Automotive is one of those. ADDRESSING AUSTRALIA'S DECLINING PRODUCTIVITY Australia's productivity has been declining over the past decade and organisations such as the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) have been pointing this out for some time, as well as detailing a range of reforms and other changes that they see as necessary to address the decline. As a country we seem to have embraced a range of economic rationalisation measures to address the increasing global competition issue. Competing on cost alone is unlikely to achieve successful outcomes for Australia. Investment in research and innovation seems a better option. However, if we are going to be a successful country and economy in the longer term there are some issues that need to be addressed. High among these are: • The declining rate of Australian students studying STEM subjects; • Poor levels of science literacy among the general population; • A risk-averse culture in many areas of business, investment and government; • Australian industry generally nding it too dif cult to engage and collaborate with universities; • The current ERA (Excellence in Research in Australia) system that rewards university researchers based on publication in high- ranking journals. This system is a disincentive for those working with industry on commercially sensitive developments that often preclude publication of research undertaken; • The very low level of PhD-quali ed STEM professionals (ie, with research training) employed in Australian business and industry. Most are in academia and government. This is the opposite situation to leading economies such as those mentioned above. THE DISENCHANTMENT OF THE LONG-DISTANCE RESEARCHER Australia is blessed with many outstanding research scientists, engineers and mathematicians covering a broad range of important areas of national and international interest. Many depend on Federal and State Government funding for research support and the funding of key research infrastructure. The success rates, particularly for early career researchers, are frustratingly low. This leads to disenchantment with research as a career in Australia for many of our brightest young people. Some drop out of the system and others go overseas. The German company, Bosch, which is based in Stuttgart, has an annual budget for research and development of some $4.2 billion -- a larger annual budget than the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council and CSIRO combined. Even although size isn't the only thing that matters, it certainly often helps. We de nitely need to improve our funding and support for research on areas that align with national priorities and where collaborative links between industry and the research institutions will optimise the chances for the best social, economic and environmental outcomes for this country. The level of literacy and numeracy skills has been declining for many years, yet there are regular calls for schools to teach skills that should, in my view, be a family responsibility. A broader curriculum tends to lead to less time on literacy and STEM subjects. The number of Australians studying most STEM courses at university level, and the quality of their skills on entry, are declining. The opposite trend is the picture we see in many countries in our region with whom we are competing. This is an important issue for any industry that depends on STEM professionals in its workforce. More broadly, it is of concern that many in the community have low levels of appreciation of science or even how it works. Surveys undertaken by the of ce of Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, show a low level of appreciation among the community of the value of science in our daily lives. Even with Year 12 students it appears that only 1% of those not studying science thought science was almost always relevant or important to their future, while just 4% thought it useful in everyday life. Of those studying at least one science subject only 19% thought it almost always useful in everyday life. Interested readers may nd out more on Professor Chubb's initiatives from www.chiefscientist.gov.au RAISING AWARENESS OF KEY WATER ISSUES It is important that the community understands how our knowledge base is expanded and improved. It can be confusing at times when scientists are taking differing positions on key topics. Scienti c debate is part of the process of moving forward. Differing views among scientists should not be used as an opportunity to completely undermine positions on important issues. There is substantial scienti c knowledge on issues such as uoridation, inoculation of children, management of marine parks, desalination and climate change. Yet scienti c debate at the margins of these issues is used to present outlandish positions based on superstition, doctrine, or vested interests, rather than applying an objective assessment of the evidence base. Water issues can evoke passionate debate from the broader community. It is important that these debates are well informed and based on a high level of understanding. Notwithstanding the solid efforts of some water utilities and water agencies, the water industry could do better in keeping the community better informed on key issues. Continuing to build on the collaboration that exists between our best water researchers and the industry helps to keep the knowledge base current and provides enhanced opportunities for innovation. It would appear that there is a current focus on cost reduction processes in the industry following the huge infrastructure investments prompted by drought and climate change impacts. Investment in research and innovation often retracts under such circumstances. Relatively recent history shows this to be foolhardy. Perhaps it would be better to look at export opportunities with a view to improving bottom lines. In any event it would be disappointing if the levels of innovation in our sector were to decline to the mediocrity seen in some other areas of our economy at present.
Water Journal November 2013
Water Journal February 2014