The panel discussion on science and innovation in Western Australia featured the Premier and Minister for Science, the Hon. Colin Barnett, and senior WA representatives of academia and industry.
To kick start the discussion, facilitator Professor Peter Klinken shared a few key statistics.
“We have five universities in the world’s top 100 and our university sector is our fourth largest export industry, bringing in about $18 billion per annum,” he said.
“In 2014, The Global Creativity Index ranked Australia fifth in the world; this year we came first.
“The Bloomberg Innovation Index rates Australia 13th in the world, and the Global Innovation Index rates Australia 17th, with our human capital and research capabilities ranked seventh in the world.
“But our innovation efficiency – that’s our ability to take new discoveries and turn them into economic benefits – is ranked at 81st in the world.”
A Science Statement for WA: the state’s advantages and strengths
Mr Barnett said that the April 2015 Science Statement for WA was intended to elevate the importance of science, whether that’s science infrastructure or policy, or identifying and building on existing advantages.
“Distinguishing between science and innovation … we have a successful history of innovation mainly in mining, petroleum, farming …” he said.
“Setting priorities now will help us focus on new areas … biodiversity, marine science and radio astronomy … to achieve tangible goals such as increasing crop yields; ensuring sustainable food supplies; lowering the cost of mining; and finding cures for medical conditions.
“I think government should do what industry, universities, or hospitals can’t do … in the medical research area … government can provide facilities, infrastructure … without which the projects simply wouldn’t happen.”
Mr Barnett said that Western Australia’s $137.4 million Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project establishing radio astronomy infrastructure and capacity in the state's Mid-West region was the standout science project of this century.
“The associated high-performance super computer can process the equivalent of the entire World Wide Web every hour,” he said.
Supporting start-ups and linking academia and industry
Curtin University Chancellor Colin Beckett said it was important to build capacity in the research sector and collaborate with industry “at the big end of town” to better support start-ups and incubators.
“We need to draw these people onto our campuses … create closer physical relationships … exchange knowledge … reducing the failure rates of ventures,” he said.
Woodside Senior Vice President, Strategy, Science and Technology, Shaun Gregory said the environment is changing in relation to intellectual property (IP), which has posed huge stumbling blocks in the past.
“If we distinguish between core and non-core IP, it’s the non-core IP that offers the opportunities for successful collaboration while resolving many of the competitive risks,” he said.
“It’s important to have the principal discussions up front about who brings what to the table and who will own what when it’s commercialised. It’s no good waiting until day 360 by which time it’s too late. These discussions are critical at day one, especially for smaller enterprises and start-ups.”
He said ‘directed innovation’ is one approach that helps refine a problem and the desired business outcome, to maintain the focus on that outcome. But, to achieve this overall, academia needs to learn how the private sector works.
“Most importantly, consider what happens when you fail. How are your people moving on?” he said.
“There’s a new business concept called ‘Flearning’ because of the crucial role failure can play in turning loss into achievement – the key is to learn from it, and keep the cost of failure low.
“If you’re going to fail, fail early, fail fast and learn,” he said.
Increasing innovation in medical research
Telethon Kids Institute Director, Professor Jonathan Carapetis spoke about the turning point for the previously competitive and fragmented health and medical research sector.
“The catalyst for change was about three years ago when a graph showed the breakdown of National Health and Medical Research funding between the states, identifying ‘The WA Problem’,” he said.
“The West Australian funding component had been steadily dropping … less than five per cent and reducing. We had to stop saying that it’s because they don’t like us and recognise that we were probably putting in crappy applications: we weren’t acknowledging that the research world was changing.
“We have now embraced the new way of doing research … the sector has now coalesced from its previous silo mentality into a highly collaborative environment.
“Our new strategic plan integrates research into the health services environment … involving the hospitals, the major research institutes, the universities … led by the department.
“Our challenge, our ‘bottom line’ in health and medical research is the public good: health.
“Publications in peer reviewed journals are OK, but the end game for us is how the knowledge can translate into something useful; ideas into practical outcomes.
“Western Australia has 50 years’ worth of data currently sitting in government departments, representing huge opportunities for research and analysis.
“The risk is processes getting in the way. When researchers try to get access to linked data … it can delay projects by years … privacy issues becoming obstacles even though people support the projects.”
The workforce of the future
Mr Barnett said we are currently dealing with declining interest in STEM skills that is not helped when 40 per cent of our kids are learning maths from people who don’t have a maths grounding.
“We need to work with universities and high schools, develop STEM Centres of Excellence, scholarships … people don’t like to hear it but parents have a big role in turning this around … Australians tend to pursue happiness before success.
“Parents need to explain to kids why STEM subjects are critical for the new jobs … why they need to stick with it, even if it’s hard.”