Qld chief scientist says we need to ramp up investment in R&D

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With three of Queensland’s biggest industries — mining, tourism and higher education — battling the threat of climate change and a global pandemic, Dr Possingham sees investment in R&D as part of the solution.

“Our future success as an innovative economy, a healthy and resilient community, and a diverse and sustainable environment depends on long-term strategic investment in R&D,” he says.

The new multimillion-dollar Agtech and Logistics Hub in Toowoomba, $20 million to boost the state’s vaccine manufacturing capacity, the $755 million Advance Queensland program to drive innovation and promote Queensland as an attractive investment destination, are critical.

“Money on its own is not enough for entrepreneurs and start-ups to thrive. However, funding is one of the factors that can set off a chain reaction of achievement – for instance, research funding attracts the best talent, which sparks the best R&D ideas, which fuels great enterprises,” Dr Possingham says.

He is a firm believer that it is the role of governments to create a favourable funding and business climate to encourage start-ups, without intervening too much.

“When I first set foot in the University of Queensland two decades ago as a researcher and professor, I received some astute counsel – find the best people, get them on board, give them space and time, and then get out of the way.

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“That directive contributed to a culture in which the university had many successes – such as developing and commercialising the cervical cancer vaccine, Gardasil – and the strategy remains valid today for government, business, industry, research, and me,” he says.

Professor Peter Klinken says Australia’s very narrow export profile is a risk.  

Queensland’s healthy innovation ecosystem – which has given rise to the likes of Ellume and Tritium – is no overnight success story.

It has its origins in the execution of the Smart State campaign over 20 years ago when policymakers, universities and investors realised they needed to diversify the economy by nurturing new industries to complement its strength in mining, tourism and agriculture.

It is a trajectory that Western Australian chief scientist Professor Peter Klinken hopes to emulate. He worries about WA, and Australia’s, very narrow export profile that makes it susceptible to sectoral vagaries.

“We are suffering from the curse of natural resources, Australia is a G20 country, but our export complexity ranks 90th in the world,” Dr Klinken says.

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He is pleased to see the WA government pursuing its Future Batteries strategy to move up the lithium value chain. He says consolidating the state’ tertiary institutions should be a priority resulting in strength and scale, as well as a boost in international rankings.

“The current university model is so focused on international rankings to attract overseas students to fund research, our structure is divorced from industry,” Dr Klinken says.

This is as much about graduate pathways as it is about funding sources. “Two-thirds of our postgraduate students go back into academia. In Europe and North America, two thirds of PhD graduates go straight into industry,” Dr Klinken says.

Of the three essential ingredients for innovation to flourish – physical infrastructure alongside a favourable financial and emotional environment – Dr Klinken says Australia has an abundance of the first, some ground to make up in the second, and light years to travel to overcome its loathing of tall poppies so people feel supported to take risks.

However, for proof of the influence that government and business investment can exert, Dr Possingham points to Taiwan.

“Just over 30 years ago, Taiwan had no semiconductor chip manufacturing capacity.

“Today, half the world relies on this small nation to manufacture the chips which enable our smartphones, computers and motor vehicles to work, as part of an industry that generates tens of billions of dollars in sales a year. The lesson is one that all governments should heed,” he says.