Science and technology discovery will underpin the jobs of the next two decades

Dr Cathy Foley

As the Jobs and Skills Summit considers important questions of job security and wages, the role of science and technology-led discovery in the jobs of the next two decades must be front and centre. 

Science and research are the catalysts for discoveries that will define Australia’s economic and social future, and it’s great to see the Government so focused on this reality.

Critical technologies are at the heart. These are the technologies across medicine, agriculture, minerals processing, energy and recycling that are essential for well-being and for our nation’s security and prosperity. 

There are significant opportunities in many areas, including digital and biotechnologies, which can speed emissions reduction and climate adaptation.

But each of these fields has job shortages and requires new skills from kindergarten all the way up. Each requires significant investment. Importantly, each requires new discoveries. 

For example, the reality is that we don’t yet have all the tools to get to net zero. Certainly, we know the steps, but some of those steps require technologies that are yet to be invented.  There has been a strong focus on commercialisation, which I absolutely support and we absolutely need. However, we will only find the answers if we invest in research and experimentation, and build foundational knowledge. 

This might sound obvious, but it actually requires a shift in mindset on three levels. 

First, an understanding that a sustainable research system is one that includes redundancy. Not every question has a neat answer. Not every idea will spark a breakthrough and some will meet a dead-end – just as there is no such thing as overnight success in business. 

The process of discovery and experimentation is not easily packaged into funding agreements and deliverables. But it is nevertheless where ideas - fresh ideas, excellent, unlikely, even bonkers ideas – ignite the spark of innovation. 

Just consider quantum technologies. There is a reason that Australia is now a source of quantum talent and innovation, and a destination for multinationals. This success can be traced to various innovation policy settings since the mid-1990s, including establishment of the Australian Research Council Centres of Excellence. The initial funding round included two centres with a quantum focus, creating critical capacity at a scale not normally seen in Australia. This fostered a culture of multidisciplinary collaboration, in turn creating its own positive feedback loop, helping that “brain regain” from which we are now reaping the benefits. 

As with quantum, the dividends of blue-skies investment are realised not on a scale of months, or a few years, but with decadal commitments that require patience. 

The second reason job creation requires a shift in mindset is that we can’t predict with certainty where the emerging technologies might lead. They are inherently disruptive. 

This means that a job-ready graduate is one with maths, science and digital literacy, a broad knowledge, and an ability to tackle and solve problems they have never seen before. The implication is that as we build skills, they must be transferrable skills. 

Reskilling and upskilling on the job should not be seen as a way of plugging gaps, but as a deliberate and planned-for culture of continuous learning in the workplace. 

Third, as we seek to create new industries and develop new workforces, the approach cannot be piecemeal, a confetti of programs and initiatives. Australia doesn’t have the scale to head in too many directions at once. 

We are a Goldilocks-sized country that can afford to take a systems design approach and embrace fresh ideas. The problems we face are complex and interrelated, and require governments, industry and academia to work collectively to solve.  

Linking up makes sense for another reason, and that is that the new technologies have applications across both civilian and defence spheres, for sovereign capability and for international partnerships. In this context, siloed approaches are not only inefficient; they’re counter-productive.

We live in an era of great possibility. As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I hope to see a clear direction from the Jobs and Skills Summit that acknowledges the shared responsibility for change that is patient, cohesive and embraces the value of science. 

Skilled migration remains an important part of the mix, but it is only one avenue and not the main game.  The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in relying on overseas workforces. Plus, no country wants to give up their people; everyone is facing the same workforce challenges. 

The major task that cannot be delayed is the development of a local workforce with high-tech capability and deep scientific knowledge, a workforce that makes use of the full human potential and the untapped human resources that exist already within Australia.

Australian sovereign capability demands this, as does our prosperity and economic competiveness. 

These are also the settings necessary to build a cohesive and inclusive community and to give our children a sense of clarity around their place and their pathway. 


An edited version of this article appeared first in The Australian Financial Review under the title Jobs summit can be catalyst for quantum shift on science and research.