Australia’s Place in the STEM Race

STEM research and innovation has historically been a primary driver for building civilisations and improving the lives of people. Traditionally, the Western world has used breakthroughs made on the frontiers of scientific research to change the lives of individuals in a way that benefits society as a whole. Whether it’s using the discovery of thermally induced cathode rays to invent the first phosphoric screen televisions or using the discovery of subatomic particles to create the first nuclear bombs that ended a world war, it has always been the advancements made in STEM which have paved the way for later cultural progress.

In recent decades, however, rather than STEM being confined to the traditional areas of research and development, companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Google, and Facebook have used STEM to revolutionise the way our world is shaped in almost every way from how we access information to how we conduct our social interactions. The rapid improvement in the world’s technological capabilities combined with the natural motivation of businesses to seek a more profitable output-to-work ratio has resulted in an exponential increase in the sophistication of new software tools that are at the disposal of both companies and individuals alike.

However, with most countries sprinting away at an unrelenting pace in the tech race, we urgently need to address the fact that Australia’s economic infrastructure surrounding the technology sector does not provide favourable conditions for talented Australians to run the start-up tech companies needed to create innovation hubs here in Australia. As a consequence, rather than being at the forefront of the new technological wave, Australia is constantly on the back foot, responding to rather than participating in the rapid technological evolution driven by innovation hubs in Asia, Europe, and the USA.

Despite this setback, Australia does have one tech giant success story in the Australian-headquartered software company Atlassian, founded in 2002 and now worth over $26 billion (USD). In a 2016 interview with the AFR (Australian Financial Review), Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brooks admitted, “…there are two reasons forcing Australian businesses to go offshore – the cost of living for imported skills coupled with the lack of home grown talent.”

From his comments we can gather that the future of our technology industry rests on either importing foreign talent or in properly preparing Australians for the jobs of the future by means of an educational focus on technology. It should be a serious priority for us to ensure that Australians become more technologically literate. This also relies on providing the appropriate industry-relevant STEM education much needed in Australian universities, which would in turn require greater collaboration between industries and university researchers. In a 2015 AIG report it was revealed that out of the 33 OECD countries Australia ranked at 32 for “Firms Collaborating on Innovation with Higher Education”. Based on this finding we can suggest that if Australia is able to bridge the gap between industry and higher learning it would have a profoundly positive impact on the quality of our STEM education and therefore in the ability of our STEM graduates to competitively enter the relevant workforces which require STEM talent both at home and overseas.

As exciting as this possibility might sound, the harsh reality is that we are far from achieving anything of that sort. Australia languishes well behind the rest of the world when it comes to the culture surrounding STEM as is evident in the same 2015 AIG report revealing that Australian citizens graduating with STEM degrees has declined from 22% in 2005 to a mere 16% in 2015. This, in contrast to the 51% of Singaporean students and 40% of Chinese students graduating with a STEM degree in 2015, is a dire state of affairs for the future of Australia’s science, technology, and engineering sectors. If we are not producing sufficient numbers of STEM-educated citizens who can confidently sustain our future in this increasingly technologically sophisticated world then Australia will be left seeming industrially primitive in comparison to our neighbouring countries over the coming decades.

It is not a wild suggestion that Australia should be redirecting its economic infrastructure from agrarianism to centring on technology-based development if it is to remain an advancing nation in the coming future. As the primary driver of the growth of civilisations, STEM research and development must become a key focus for the Australian Government, and it’s something that needs to be taken seriously. The ability to focus our scientific and technological efforts to ALL other economic sectors will bring about necessarily permanent changes in the way we live. In turn, this will also allow Australia to securely preserve its agrarian economy, because if we look at practically applying our scientific research efforts to improve our farming on an industrial-scale we have the potential to reform the market structure of our agricultural industry forever in such a way that will make Australian farmers globally competitive and greatly profitable again. An example of one of these potential science-based reforms to traditional farming can be seen coming from many independent American biotech labs which have been swiftly researching (with success) methods of producing meat without the need for killing animals. This method is based on incubating matured animal cells collected via non-invasive methods and taking advantage of the cell’s natural protein-forming mechanisms to create “cultured meat” grown in a laboratory. More than just being a solution to reducing the impact of the meat industry on the planet’s climate, this ability to produce large volumes of meat relatively inexpensively while simultaneously eliminating the time needed to raise and slaughter animals will give American meat growers a clear advantage in the future poultry industry. This is just one of the consequences of allowing STEM to truly flourish and serves as a testament to the potential it has to shape the future.

When faced with the question of “Why aren’t we doing more for STEM?” the response from Government has traditionally been to immediately fund research institutions with lofty cash dumps without much comprehensive thought given to the allocation of the funding to specific areas of scientific research required to achieve any specific national STEM research goals. An opportunity to change the Government’s attitude towards the importance of STEM in this country can now be achieved while the looming impacts of climate change are literally lingering in the air.

It is vital that the Australian Government works to facilitate STEM research efforts in bringing about safe and renewable alternative sources of energy, not only to combat climate change, but also to ensure the national sustainability of our energy generation methods for a future where coal/oil reserves will eventually run dry. For many conservatives the solution to a problem such as climate change is not “direct immediate action” but rather to rely on invisible-hand market forces over time which will supposedly act in such a way that the demand for alternative energy will eventually lead to a reasonable supply of new alternative energy generation methods. However, what this line of thinking overlooks is the fact that in order for any supply of alternative energy to exist we require considerable amounts of scientific research into the optimisation of conceivable alternative energy generation methods to bring about a seamless transition from a coal-powered Australia to a clean-powered Australia.

Our past, present, and future has, is, and will always be deeply rooted in our ability to allow scientific and technological progress to flourish in our nation. It is time we as a nation do more to accelerate the progress in our STEM fields through reforming education, aiding Aussie tech start-ups, and adequately directing scientific progress to build a better future for all Australians.

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