National Science and Technology Council: Seventh meeting

The seventh meeting of the National Science and Technology Council was held via videoconference on 10 September 2020, chaired by the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology, the Hon Karen Andrews MP, and attended by the Minister for Agriculture, Drought and Emergency Management, the Hon David Littleproud MP. Guests included Professor Stewart Lockie and Dr Kate Fairley-Grenot, Chairs of the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) Future of Agricultural Technologies Working Group; Professor Bronwyn Fox, Chair of the ACOLA Internet of Things Working Group; and Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, Australia’s newly re-appointed Women in STEM Ambassador.

Professor Lockie presented on the opportunities for the agricultural sector outlined in ACOLA’s Horizon Scanning report, The Future of Agricultural Technologies. Minister Littleproud was congratulated by the Council on his recent announcement of new initiatives under the National Agricultural Innovation Agenda, including the development of a Digital Foundations for Agriculture Strategy, and establishment of eight Drought Resilience Adoption and Innovation Hubs under the Future Drought Fund. The synergies between the findings in the ACOLA report and the future activities under this agenda were discussed. Dr Fairley-Grenot noted that the legal and regulatory aspects of new agricultural technologies must be considered. Minister Littleproud emphasised the need to connect Australia’s brightest minds to agricultural communities to deliver real impact on the farm and along the supply chain.

Professor Fox drew the Council’s attention to three key points from ACOLA’s Internet of Things (IoT) Horizon Scanning report: the potential for IoT to transform the manufacturing sector; the capacity for greater sustainability in supply chains; and the industry push to refocus from cyber security to creating trust in data. Council members congratulated Professor Fox on the clarity and insightfulness of the report, and discussed the range of benefits that IoT and automated systems have brought to the mining sector, and the significant opportunities across the economy.

Minister Andrews congratulated Professor Harvey-Smith on her recent re-appointment as Australia’s Women in STEM Ambassador. Professor Harvey-Smith briefed the Council on the significant work that she has been undertaking to promote gender equity in STEM, including broad public-facing STEM outreach and a focus on data-driven evaluation of existing programs.

The Council discussed its further work on increasing engagement with STEM in the community, with an emphasis on parents as key influencers. Members agreed that a data-driven and evidence-based approach is essential.

Professor Bell outlined focus areas needed to prepare for and navigate the challenges associated with establishing an AI-ready society. Council members discussed the role of government in enabling the adoption of AI and whether there are common issues across different technologies. The Council shared insights into the benefits of addressing key issues holistically, to ensure the most value for the science and technology sector, industry and the broader community.