Last updated March 6, 2017 at 3:22 pm
Science Meets Business is an annual event run by Science and Technology Australia. It’s an opportunity to get the conversations happening between science and business: how can science help business to innovate? How can business help science to conduct its research? Clearly there is a lot to discuss.
The statistics were rolled out quite early in the day; while we are the 10th most innovative nation in the world when it comes to our researchers generating innovation, we rank a lowly 81st when it comes to the translation of that research by business. Early in the day it was noted that several other countries including the UK and Switzerland, do research better than we do with a proportionately smaller GDP spend. Why is that?
Former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb suggests that there is a cultural problem here. Science and research is not valued by the Australian population. He goes further to suggest that this is woven through the fabric of the education system which is skewed against excellence in science and mathematical studies.
And then we have to address the funding question. Rather than part fund lots of scientific research programs, would it not be better to fully fund a chosen few? If so, I want to know who gets to make those choices? And how would the defunded sciences survive, given that they still contribute to the welfare and well-being of the nation in other ways? If we only fund science that can promise an eventual financial return, how do we conduct the other science that is not constructed for financial exploitation?
But I found the whole day’s conversation very one-sided conversation. For me, it was Hon Craig Laundy, Assistant Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science, who nailed this problem when he said that today should be about business meets science, rather than science meets business. “Business” and “Industry” were significantly under represented at the conference and the emphasis of discussions tended to focus on the science and research side of the equation: What could they do to improve interactions with business? Should an undergraduate science degree include a component of marketing or business management? Ian Chubb made the point that we already expect our scientists to be great at research and education, can we really burden them further by expecting them to be great at business and management?
What we didn’t really hear was, ‘What’s in it for business’? How do we skill up the corporate and business sectors in the language of science and research such that they can recognise the opportunities on offer from our innovative researchers? There was some discussion around how to make research more attractive as an investment but I don’t think we went far enough. Yes, you can bring in (or back) greater tax deductibility for R&D, that would be something that would help attract more funding from industry. But business needs a proposition written in terms that they understand. What are you asking me to invest in? What are the proposed outcomes of that research and how will it profit me to be involved?
It’s always fascinating when you hear representative from both sides of politics talk on an issue, both for the differences in their messages but also in their congruence. While Laundy told us what the Government was doing to get business into the equation, Senator Kim Carr, Shadow Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science cautioned that the vast majority of Australians were suspicious or even fearful of innovation, that they had not been carried into the discussion and that change usually means loss of jobs, not the creation of new ones. But there was agreement between the two (although they would probably loath to admit it) that we need to broaden our understanding of what innovation is. It’s not all big industry and it’s not a bunch of hipsters setting up new digital platforms. And the point was made that we have had more innovation in the healthcare sector than in high tech. But, if any sector really needs innovation, it is the Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs) but, all too often, they don’t know that they need to innovate, let alone how to go about actually doing it.
By the end of the day I was more than a little frustrated that we had really only covered one conversation that needs to be held between science and business (and, you could argue, we only really talked about one side of that discussion in any depth). Surely another discussion science needs to have with business when they meet must be how science can help business survive in a world that is two degrees warmer than it is today. Or how can you do business in a world of 9.6 billion people when one third of them are on the move searching for food and water? What about how to operate a business in a zero growth economy? There are big questions of sustainability around resource use and energy production that will severely impact business operations and where science can help inform business how to survive. Perhaps that’s for next year.
Science and Technology Australia are to be applauded loudly for getting the conversations happening between science and business. While there is clearly a long way to go, today’s discussions held a torch to light that path. Business needs science and the question is not how we can help, but how business can listen.