Australia's 'Clever' Culture Is Suffering Because Scientists Go Into Finance And Law: Panel

A panel of Australian company chairmen has suggested that the nation has produced less technology than it could because the local research sector is generally far less attractive than the well-trodden business arena.

CSIRO chairman Simon McKeon highlighted a 2012 report on innovation and business by GE Australia, which ranked Australia 16th out of 30 countries in terms of innovation leadership.

Australia and the US – which topped the list – both had about 8 research scientists for every 1,000 workers in the country. But in the US, 6 of the 8 were employed in the private sector, compared to only 2 of 8 in Australia, McKeon said.

Here’s what he said:

Simon McKeon, 2011 Australian of the Year

The challenge is to get those 6 of the 8 [Australian research scientists] in the public sector much more engaged with the private sector so that the impact is more like what it needs to be.

I would have loved to have said that we’re a clever country, but I don’t think that that’s our culture. We have pockets of brilliance, but the trouble is they’re pockets.

[…]

I don’t see enough discussion in boards driven by an urgency to take up technology in this country, versus others.

We’re very good on health and safety, we’re very good on compliance, we’re very good on last month’s sales figures but … as a nation, culturally, we do have this gap.

David Gonski, who is chairman of Coca-Cola Amatil and Australian Government Future Fund, chancellor of the University of NSW, and has been approached to chair the ANZ Group next year, suggested that a lack of early-stage funding and short-term investment culture may be to blame.

Gonski argued that Australia was “full of innovators” but even those who studied science tended to filter into the business world. Here’s what he said:

David Gonski

There are two problems and that may be why we don’t do as well in the numbers. The first is we move our innovators into particular areas that are not necessarily areas of great discovery.

If you look at how many people study science, it’s quite high [but] it’s hard for us to inspire Australians to say ‘science is where I’ll make a contribution’; many innovators go into business. Macquarie Bank, as you may have heard: fantastic innovation, world class. Or the law.

The second thing that I think is a problem in Australia is that we have the ability to start innovation but if you are innovative, you have to go continue it overseas.

I think that it’s a tragedy that people have to leave here to make their fortune or indeed their discovery.

Panellist Belinda Hutchinson, who chairs the board of insurer QBE, is a director of St Vincent’s Health Australia and AGL Energy, and is chancellor of the University of Sydney, argued that there were many anecdotal examples of Australian innovation.

She said Australia would benefit from better partnerships between the business and research sectors, suggesting that better links might emerge as companies recovered from the effects of the GFC:

Belinda Hutchinson, QBE

I do think there are innovative companies – for example at AGL, we do have a focus on new technology for renewables, energy storage, all of those things and we do have a specific space in our agenda where every year we look at what’s happening in terms of technology and who we can work with and who we can partner with.

But one of the big issues we [in Australian universities] have, one of the missing links, is the partnerships with business.

Maybe it’s because we have been so focussed on the financial crisis … I think the last few years have been really focussed on costs and making the business as effective and business as we can.

We’re a small economy in a global sense and we don’t have that base that the US has. So whether we can start to think more strategically about that and leverage those business partnerships, I think that’s what we need to do.

Now read: GONSKI: Short-Term Investing Has Stifled Early-Stage Venture Capital In Australia

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