The Australian: Cracking the Code

Saturday, 01 August 2015

The Australian newspaper interviewed the Chief Scientist as part of its 'Cracking the Code’ series on how Australia can transform its economy using technology and innovation to fuel future growth and prosperity.

The full text of Professor Chubb’s answers is below.


Ian Chubb, Chief Scientist of Australia, on transforming Australia.

Can Australia prosper as an early adopter of technology rather than an industry innovator?

We are wrong to think we have to make a choice between the two – leading or following when it comes to innovation. If we only plan to lead, we are seriously mistaken about our abilities. If we only plan to follow, we are no less mistaken about how innovation works. To be an early adopter, we need to be a smart buyer: sufficiently capable to take the ideas of others, apply them to our specific needs, and turn them to our advantage in the global market. We need to know where we ought to be self-reliant because no-one else is going to do the hard work for us. And we ought to be bold – confident enough in our own abilities, and strategic enough in own investments, to carve out fields of genuine competitive strength.

What can we learn from nations with stronger innovation cultures, such as the US (Silicon Valley), Israel and Singapore?

Nations which do better than we do think about innovation as something that comes about through strategy rather than serendipity. Progress will always require the spark of individual genius, but it also benefits from an environment which nurtures ideas, fosters collaboration and develops the complex mix of skills to make something of raw potential. Schools shape our attitudes and skills, long before we enter the workforce. Breadth and depth in research, and capabilities in industry, take just as long if not longer to establish. Other nations plan, so they will have the sort of choices they might want to make in 10 years’ time. We can learn from them, and do the same.

Does our school/higher/further education system equip aspiring entrepreneurs with core science technology, maths and engineering skills?

Participation rates in science subjects at Year 11 and 12 are now at their lowest level in 20 years, and more and more students are opting to take mathematics at a level below their true ability. Students who do go on to study a science at a higher level are encouraged to become research scientists – they are rarely given the same encouragement to think about all the other roles where people who understand science might be useful. What industry doesn’t need science or people steeped in the scientific method? We need to change the way we think about science training and science trained people to change the attitudes we pass on to students. And we need to alert them to all the opportunities – in all sectors of the economy – their skills make available to them.

Does government provide appropriate support for entrepreneurs, through, for example, seed funding programs and tax treatment of start-ups?

The experience in other countries suggests that public policy can make a difference to the way that businesses, and other people – like researchers – behave. We do have to consider the incentives and support for entrepreneurs, but we have to do that as part of a broader strategy in which entrepreneurs are simply one part of the puzzle. What are we doing in schools? What are we doing in universities? What conversations are we having with other countries? How does that cohere with our industry policy?

In what industries does Australia have an innovative advantage?

The National Science and Research Priorities announced by the Prime Minister in May set out nine areas where we have a need or an opportunity. We are currently looking at the capabilities which support each of the sectors named, so we can put evidence behind our intuitions about where we do well. We are drawing on other nations which have undertaken this process, including the UK, by bringing people in government, industry and research together to build a stronger Australia.

What do you say to entrepreneurs with great ideas and no capital?

My mantra is passion, persistence and patience. I would never claim that every good project will be funded and every person who ought to do well will succeed – just as I would never claim that markets will always allocate resources to worthy and important ideas. Being an entrepreneur is never easy, no matter where you, but one of the key things is to maintain the fire in the belly, believe in what you are doing and keep your eyes on the goal. And never be afraid of failure.

Last updated: Tuesday, 07 January 2020