It's time for Australia to leverage our resources and tech skills to prosper in the new economy
Dr Cathy Foley, Australia’s Chief Scientist
Australia is a tech-savvy nation, with excellent research, great start-ups, and relationships with some of the best science minds in the world. But how do we use these advantages to reap the benefits of the new economy? This is where it gets tricky. While Australia is good at many things, we are not so good at making the leap from ideas to commercial outcomes on a global scale.
We have built prosperity from resources, but we have not made the most of those natural advantages to lift the complexity of our economy and use our high-tech skills. Now, it’s catching up with us and unless we work hard to switch gears, we risk losing our edge, and with it, the prosperity we have come to expect. The new economy will be built on clean energy, recycling and reusing. It will be built on finding new ways to live and work that protect the Earth’s fragile ecosystems. It will support human health and wellbeing. The tools will be those of the next digital revolution – based on quantum technologies, artificial intelligence and big data; where computing power will unlock possibilities that are hard to imagine. These new digital capabilities bring new and urgent risks, alongside enormous potential for good.
All of this means we can no longer rely on business as usual. If we continue to invest strongly in our research system, good ideas will continue to bubble up. But good ideas need to be carried through to impact, and that means taking a new approach to how we tackle challenges, and an understanding of the need for scale.
Modern science is a story of scale – from the gravitational-wave detectors that stretch 4 km across Louisiana and Washington State, to the Large Hadron Collider 100 m underground near Geneva, to the Square Kilometre Array being built across 70 km of desert near Murchison in Western Australia. From the 13 years it took to map the 3 billion letters of the human genome, to the mega-effort to develop a COVID-19 vaccine – an extraordinary achievement that has accelerated RNA research and applications across many aspects of medicine. From the supercomputers that have a power increase proportional to the number of transistors, to hybrid quantum computers whose power exponentially increases with the number of qubits, to a full stack quantum computer that will be built, I predict, in the next decade.
The common thread is size. Big infrastructure, big teams, big data. For science and research, this means working in bigger teams at the discipline level – and working across disciplines to find new ways of tackling problems. The message is the same for industry and government – this can only be done with a collective focus and with scale. Scale is where we often get stuck as a nation with a relatively small population, a small domestic market, and a limited pool of venture capital. This needs attention because scaling-up is how innovation creates prosperity.
I want to see a big, ambitious, deep-tech manufacturing capability in Australia. If we’re going to enter high-tech supply chains, or ride the wave of RNA innovation, or lead the development of quantum sensing or computing technologies, we need infrastructure built for scale. We don’t want to end up with a desk and a pot plant.
We also need innovation in a deep, thoroughgoing sense. We’ve become adept at adopting gadgets and trends over the past two decades of digital acceleration – and more of this is not what I have in mind. Innovation is not only about early adoption. We also need innovation in how we approach discovery and commercialisation. We need to be innovative in how we develop and use infrastructure and data, and how we connect up between research and industry.
Innovation is about our willingness to consider different ways of educating our kids, news ways of making policy and new business models. It’s about a mindset that accommodates risk. This means accepting that not every project will lead to success, just as not every experiment will have a positive scientific outcome. A null result might not be ideal, but it builds knowledge and so it is a good and valid outcome.
This is especially relevant in the current landscape, where Australia – and the world – needs to implement new technologies at scale, alongside an intense research effort. As we adopt and scale-up technologies that we know will work, we also need to double down on the research to accelerate new discoveries. We’re playing the long game as we switch to a zero-emissions economy because some of the technologies that are needed haven’t been invented yet.
This means, if we’re going to be successful, we need to live with uncertainty and, yes, failure. It’s interesting to me that we often celebrate individuals who have run up against adversity, picked themselves up and triumphed. We should be able to apply this mindset across science, government and industry. Put simply, we should learn to live with failure, because failure lives with experience.
This doesn’t mean switching off our brains when getting behind the wheel. Nor does it mean ignoring the voice that says, “hold on a minute, have you considered what might go wrong?” Quite the opposite. It means keeping an eye on what’s coming over the horizon and searching for possible pitfalls ahead of time. That way, you can reduce the likelihood of failure by partnering where you are weak, and you can reduce the impact of failure by having more than one option on the table.
The use of vanadium as a battery material is one example. Vanadium fell out of favour when attention turned to lighter materials for batteries, but now it’s back in contention for stationary batteries where weight isn’t crucial. We’ve been researching vanadium for decades; suddenly it has a pathway to development.
I would encourage investors, business and government to live with uncertainty, and be prepared to take a chance on promising avenues rather than insisting on definitive ones. I'd also encourage organisations across Australia to understand that engagement with deep tech is a path to success. Hardware is higher risk and so we have often tended to shy away from it. But we can be more than a nation known for expertise in software and regulation. We can also become a nation that is known for hardware.
Barely a day goes by when I don’t hear about a new possibility in science, whether that’s advances in health, smart building materials, new ideas for sustainable minerals processing, batteries or solar cells, or new options for carbon sequestration and biomaterials. These exciting technologies are all within our capability; many are areas of strength for Australia and build on our natural advantages. We have pockets of high-tech production – a photonics company that makes a component in Sydney that’s in 40% of all high-speed internet connections is one example.
Now, we have an opportunity to make this the norm and become a different kind of economy – an economy where we value-add – through processing minerals into energy materials, through entering producer supply chains for semiconductor manufacturing and battery manufacturing, and, with the dawn of the quantum era, where we manufacture quantum hardware.
Deep tech takes nerve; I trust we’re up for it.
- First published in The Australian as part of The List: Top 100 Innovators, 15 September 2023.