Australian innovation has the ability to protect us: our environment, our digital world, our borders and our health. These are all focuses of this year’s federal budget.
But the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) sector has been sounding the alarm for years that our research system is in crisis. Ongoing reviews – including the Universities Agreement, National science and research prioritiesand the Australian Research Council – are an opportunity to explore and respond to systemic issues.
However, they lack an industry wide vision in designing a research and innovation system that is not only functional but also harmonious and that makes the best use of Australian talent.
While we wait for these assessments to be complete, here is the budget for 2023-24 in terms of the Australian science, technology and innovation sectors as per my assessment as CEO of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE).
More STEM courses
The Advanced accelerator for strategic capabilities will see A$3.4 billion over a decade to translate disruptive new technologies – such as hypersonic examination and quantum decryption – in defense capability.
The nuclear submarine workforce will be strengthened by $128.5 million for 4,000 new tertiary STEM places. This is necessary to fulfill our obligations under AUKUS. We will never say no to more STEM degrees in this rapidly innovating world with few engineers.
This budget also aims create safer online spaces with a welcome $7.9 million for fighting misinformation and disinformation through the Australian Communications and Media Authority, and $101.6 million for cybersecurity.
But here, too, there is a miss in the education and career paths to train, support and develop Australia’s digital workforce. We are already lagging behind our OECD counterparts – Australia is educating an insufficient number of engineers, with only 8.5% of Australian university graduates earning an engineering degree, compared to over 12% in Canada and over 23% in Germany. Our engineering and technology workforce is riddled with gaps in areas such as civil engineering, telecommunications and mining, to name a few.
The National Quantum Strategythe Australian Center for Quantum Growth and the National Center for Artificial Intelligence (AI) are a necessary trio to keep pace with this rapidly changing field.
Small businesses are supported to commercialize research through the $392 million Industry growth program, in addition to the already committed Australia’s Economic Accelerator program. This will continue to provide a positive commercialization environment and lead to more of Australia’s world-class research becoming world-class innovations.
Towards a net zero superpower
In a low-carbon global economy, Australia has the potential to become a clean energy superpower. We are home to leading minds in most of the key technologies that will drive the clean energy revolution: next-generation batteries, computational power, machine learning and clean hydrogen to name a few. We have abundant critical minerals, sun and wind.
The new Net Zero Authority is an important step towards the urgent need to decarbonise and transform our domestic and export energy markets. But to achieve this bold transformation, government investment in research and development must match innovation-leading countries such as Japan, Germany and the United States.
We need a cohesive plan for clean energy research, development and implementation, with the support to realize the vision. To keep the best tech and innovation minds here, we need to invest about 3% of our gross domestic product (GDP) in research and development (R&D).
Direct government spending on R&D currently stands at 0.49% of GDP – the lowest level since 2014, leaving researchers vying for scraps. Visionary investments, on the other hand, prioritize the long-term creation and application of new knowledge, and invest in building Australia’s new economy.
We now need a structural review of research and development funding to make the system future-proof.
What is missing from the budget for STEM
Research funding grants have leveled off: inflation means their real value is falling. While we wait for the results of the University Accord, the government has avoided supporting the full cost of teaching STEM degrees. Nothing has been announced to address the urgent shortages of STEM professionals and to support the diversity of the STEM workforce.
Likewise, there is silence about much-needed industry associations – a National Engineering Council and the National Indigenous STEM Professional Network.
International STEM collaboration is more important than ever, but it’s taken a hit with a $25 million cut to the Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund. The fund was intended to support international collaboration in advanced manufacturing, AI and quantum computing, hydrogen production and emerging applications of RNA vaccines and therapies to improve health outcomes.
In our region and around the world, collaborative and diplomatic relations in STEM are essential.
We have yet to tap into Australia’s true capacity to grow a thriving R&D economy that supports our health, wealth, well-being and sustainability, and enhances our status as an innovative and forward-looking, inclusive international leader.
Every budget has winners and losers. Next year assessments of our STEM sector will be completed, the government will be in power for two years and the window for breakthrough investment will shrink.
My hope is that Australia’s long-term future as a safe and resilient nation will be the winner. We need a comprehensive and well-funded plan to drive national progress and prosperity through research and development.