Can Australia lead global R&D?

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Can Australia lead global R&D?

The Australian technology industry needs the support of the Government to secure an innovative advantage for the country, according to the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA).

Discussing a recent study of scientific research and development by U.S. think-tank RAND, AIIA Chief Executive Officer Ian Birks said leadership in scientific innovation would be “critical to the future of the Australian economy”.

“It is very important that Australia is competitive in the emerging global information economy,” Birks told iTnews.

“It will be our ability to establish ourselves as a centre for innovation and technology excellence that will to a large degree determine our success,” he said.

But in the global arena, Australia may be lagging behind in generating sufficient opportunities to attract and retain the world’s top talent.

According to the RAND study, which was sponsored by the U.S. Federal Government, the U.S. currently is considered the dominant world power in science and technology.

RAND researchers James Hosack and Titus Gallama found the U.S. to account for 40 percent of global spending on scientific research and development (R&D), 70 percent of the world’s Nobel Prize winners, and three-quarters of the world’s top 40 universities.

By analysing wage data about foreign-born science and engineering workers, the researchers concluded that the U.S. has become “increasingly reliant on foreign-born workers” to build and maintain its lead.

AIIA’s Birks attributed the historical success of the U.S. in attracting foreign talent to the country’s ability to finance a supportive policy environment.

“The reality is that talent gravitates towards the most interesting work and the best packages on offer,” he said. “Silicon Valley is an excellent example.”

Phil Robertson, Chief Operating Officer of NICTA, agrees.

“There is no doubt that the US is an example of a country that has used sustained long-term funding programs, such as DARPA and NASA, to underpin long-term research programs and fund the attraction of people from other countries to work in the US,” he told iTnews.

Noting the importance of technology as a driver for change across society and economy, Robertson expects countries that have invested in ICT R&D to reap dual benefits from being technology producers, as well as being on the forefront of technology use.

While Australia previously has settled for being a user -- and not a creator -- of technology, the situation is changing, Robertson said.

“We are now recognising more widely the importance of building an Australian ICT industry,” he said.

“By creating technology that is used across the world we will make greater economic gains than just productivity gains.”

“Government, research and industry need to work together to achieve this vision and I think there is growing momentum behind this,” he said.

In the U.S., economic fluctuations and tightening immigration restrictions could create a window of opportunity for other countries to take the lead in dominating the technology industry.

In an interview with iTnews, RAND’s Hosack said that the U.S. government’s recent decision to reduce the availability of H1-B skilled immigration visas from the current 195,000 limit to 65,000 is “not a step in the right direction”.

And with the U.S. economic recession yielding unexpected reductions in federal and corporate revenues, Hosack expects R&D spending to be on the decline.

“We view this as a globalised market for science and engineering development. Any country with a serious interest in scientific development is going to be a competitor,” he said, mentioning Europe, Brasil and China as competitors.

But according to NICTA’s Robertson, nations should approach technology R&D as a global collaboration and not a competition.

“The technology research industry is a global one, so we should no longer be thinking in terms of ‘brain drain’ or ‘brain gain’,” he said.

“What matters is the total amount being done in this country, and researchers will have a healthy flow between countries.”

Much of NICTA’s research is conducted in collaboration with research institutes around the world.

An estimated one-third of NICTA’s researchers are from overseas, the attraction of whom Robertson attributes to the organisation’s well-defined research areas, vibrancy, and funding certainty.

On a global scale, however, Australia’s funding of ICT R&D is low when compared with OECD peers.

According to statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, overall funding for R&D is 1.76 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), which is below an OECD average of 2.26 percent and the European Union’s 2010 target of three percent.

Applied research in ICT accounts for a mere 1.6 percent of the Australian Government’s total expenditure of more than $1.3 billion on applied research across all industries.

“I think there is a growing awareness in Australia that international competitiveness in support for R&D is linked to our future economic success,” Robertson said. “We need to turn this awareness into increased funding for ICT R&D.”

“If Australia offers an environment to tackle new and exciting problems in a strategic way we will attract research talent with the drive to make a difference,” he said.

AIIA’s Birks pointed the finger of responsibility at government and industry bodies, which have the opportunity to create an open environment that attracts the investment of global companies.

As in the RAND analysis of the U.S. environment, policy initiatives that stimulate and support infrastructure, workforce and education will be critical to Australia’s success, Birks said.

R&D taxation incentives and industry development programs such as the recently discontinued Commercial Ready scheme also were mentioned as important components in developing an innovative environment.

“While there are many things that we are doing well, I think we are still in middle of the pack in these areas,” Birks said.

“Australia has a recognised talent base and a strong spirit of entrepreneurship that both promote international investment in science and technology leadership in this country.”

“What we need to take advantage of current opportunities, however, is consistent policy and government support across the board to stimulate that investment and Australian innovation in general,” he said.

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