Blueprint has potential to catalyse science and research sector

Dr Cathy Foley

This week’s Blueprint for Critical Technologies has the potential to catalyse our science and research sector by using breakthrough science to deliver on the technologies that it sets out.

Australia is already strong in foundational research. And we have world-leading innovation and expertise in sectors such as cyber and data analytics, quantum and biotech.

The task now is to ensure we achieve the greatest impact. The accompanying Action Plan supports research and industry to come together to solve what are non-trivial scientific challenges in these sectors, and to develop the technologies and products that will secure Australia’s place in the deep-tech supply chain. This is a job that starts with science.

Although our exports are often measured as low in complexity, we have actually developed world-leading technologies in mining and agriculture, and we have the wherewithal for complex manufacturing. In agriculture, the adoption of digital technologies is moving fast, including robotics and geospatial monitoring. 

In critical minerals, we are extraordinarily well placed to extract and process rare earths using low-emissions and low-polluting techniques. Australian researchers have developed alternative mineral processing methods, including bioprocessing, that use minimal energy, water and chemical resources. This opportunity opens the way for Australia to engage more in the high-tech supply chain for components used in electronics and aeronautics, among other applications.

We’re also well-placed in cyber security, where researchers are, for example, developing systems to secure pacemakers against hacking and safeguard critical infrastructure such as our traffic control systems. 

Digital technologies, and specifically quantum, are at the heart of what’s to come.

Whether you learned the basics of computer programming via punch-cards in applied maths class, or through the modern language of apps, gaming and graphics, you are unlikely to have been taught about quantum. But that is about to change. I anticipate a functional quantum computer this decade. And it won’t be long before our kids can speak this language.

The first quantum revolution was based on the invention of the transistor and laser; now, we are entering the second quantum revolution, as we begin to control materials at the nanoscale. This will see the creation of sensors to detect what was previously undetectable, communications that are virtually unhackable, computers that are exponentially more powerful.

The massive parallel computing power of quantum computers will enable new molecules to be built and tested in the virtual realm where their behaviour and interactions can be simulated. From new materials for industry such as intelligent paint, and new catalysts, to new therapies and vaccines.

Quantum sensing will allow us to detect and map with extreme precision through barriers and at distances. This will also change our ability to map and understand the brain, the heart and other organs and to detect and diagnose disease at minute scales. It will allow much more detailed mapping underground and underwater.

We have world-leading experts in quantum here in Australia, and I am particularly energised by the sector, both because of my own scientific background and because it is an enabling technology that will bring breakthroughs across many fields. I am pleased to be supporting the Australian Government in guiding development of its new National Quantum Strategy. This is an exciting time to be Australia’s Chief Scientist, to bring my experience in emerging technologies and research commercialisation to the task.

The history of science can be viewed as a series of moments in time when the long slog of building scientific knowledge coalesces in an insight, a sudden shift in understanding, or an acceleration in technology propelled by an ambitious goal. We are at one of those points now.

The new technologies will change the way you and I live our lives, from the cars we drive to the materials we use to build and power our homes, from the way diseases are diagnosed and treated, to the way we communicate and interact. They are the tools in our toolbox as we navigate the challenges before us: bushfires, floods, a pandemic, the urgent need to address climate change. These are the technologies that can help protect our planet, and take us to space.

This is also an opportunity to drive the development of new skills and job opportunities. Science careers are not just in a lab and it takes more than scientists to deliver a result. There are science jobs in start-ups and industry, in government and in teaching.  As we add the language of quantum and digital technologies to our kids’ backpacks, we must also ensure they understand the career pathways, so they can access the opportunities, and provide the workforce to fill what will amount to tens of thousands of jobs in critical technology sectors.

More than anything, what we need now is to lean in. This will take a collective shift in mindset, an optimism about the promise of the new technologies and a determination to incorporate them with trust, transparency and regulatory rigour into every aspect of our economy. And it starts with science.