'Science is a global business'

After assuming office in 2007, the Labour Government in Australia instituted a separate Ministry for fostering innovation, for the first time in the country's history. Two years later, the government published a White Paper, titled “Powering Ideas,” which reflected the understanding that research policy needs to incorporate a substantial role for international collaboration.

In this interview, done in Bangalore with V. Sridhar, Senator for Victoria Kim Carr, a former school teacher for 10 years and now Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, outlines the challenges facing Australia, which have influenced the government's priorities for scientific research. Excerpts:

You have followed science, innovation and research affairs during the last decade, first as a shadow Minister and later as Minister in the Labour Government. What are the key elements of Australia's strategy of fostering innovation?

My portfolio brings together university research, science and business innovation for the first time in Australian history. It is aimed at building on our strengths. We understand that we are working in an international context. What we do in the economy is linked to what we do as a society.

The key issue is about improving the living standards of our people. But we are also trying, through international cooperation, to assist other people to build their standards of living. Also, the social agenda is as important as the economic agenda.

How has the ordering of your priorities been shaped by your understanding of the areas in which Australia is strong, and of areas in which you need to develop partnerships with other countries?

We want to collaborate in all areas. We do not discriminate between areas of research. We will encourage our best and brightest to work with the best and brightest in other countries. The big problems facing humanity — climate change, the problem of ageing [populations], the global problem of food or water security — are such that no one country can ever hope to solve [them] by itself. It is in everybody's interest to collaborate.

Is there an attempt to focus on the relatively new industries such as biotechnology and ICT?

We want to transform all industries. No industry can remain the same. We want to transform our economy firm by firm — whether in traditional areas or in new, emerging areas. We should pay attention to traditional industries such as automotive, textile, steel and heavy industries, areas in which we have considerable capabilities. We will lose these industries if we do nothing.

How do your policy choices reflect your determination to make Australia “richer, greener and fairer”?

Our fundamental premise is that you need constant improvement if you want to maintain the quality of life at a certain level. No society can survive on the presumption that the status quo is good enough. Only societies that are capable of profoundly questioning themselves will be able to build better living standards. The key to innovation is problem-solving, identifying ways of improving the way you find answers to big problems.

If you look at the historical record, you find that one of the sources of inequality in the modern world (at least since the 1980s) has come from technological change. It can be threatening if it is mishandled, misused or misunderstood because it can deskill people. My view — what I call the Social Democratic view of innovation — is that policies must ensure that no one is left behind, which means that we need to pay attention to the skills agenda.

What has been the Australian experience in dealing with inequality arising from technological change since the 1980s?

In some areas, we have done very badly. For example, with reference to our indigenous communities, we need to do a lot more. Despite our weaknesses, we have done well in supporting people through change.

The structure of the Australian economy has changed dramatically in the last 30 years; it is going to change a lot more in the next 30 years. We have to provide support to enable people to move to new jobs. We need to ensure that people are qualified to take the new jobs. Educational opportunities must also be genuinely spread across society. People must not only have education but also the jobs to go to — what I call high-skill high-wage jobs.

The “greener” part of our agenda is not just about being politically fashionable, it is an important part of being able to modernise our economy in a sustainable way, especially in the use of resources.

Mr. Carr, you have met several leaders of the Indian scientific community while in India. Can you please provide an account of the partnerships, and their relevance to your strategy of fostering innovation?

Science is a global business. The problems are so big that no one country has the answers — not even by the U.S., the most powerful country of the world. The scientific method is predicated not on the individual, but on teamwork and the sharing of knowledge, despite all the fantasies of Hollywood.

Australia produces three per cent of the scientific papers published worldwide. Our scientific contributions may be disproportionately large when compared to our share of the global population, but that is not good enough.

With Indian scientists and institutions we are talking about nanotechnology, biotechnology, water conservation, and astronomy — we have a broad engagement. The Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, which started in 2007, has a contribution of A$65 million from our side, with an equal amount committed by the Indian counterparty, the Department of Science and Technology. We have spent A$31 million so far on 90 projects in India and Australia.

You have an MoU with the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO), which is due for renewal. What have been the achievements of this collaboration?

Neither country at this time has the capacity to launch a manned space vehicle. It is more about collaboration on spatial technologies. In particular, it is about having a better understanding of earth observation systems, especially in relation to climate change. It also includes other areas, such as understanding the oceans, issues relating to geology, and monitoring natural disasters. We are also working with NASA, and the European and Japanese space agencies, along similar lines.

Our collaboration with ISRO complements these other engagements. The beauty of it is that we have much to contribute because of our geographical location.

What has been the progress in the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project? What is India's contribution?

The decision on the siting of the project — whether it will be in Australia and New Zealand or southern Africa — will be taken next February. We welcome India's entry with an observer's status on the governing board of the project. Two Indian institutions — the Raman Research Institute [in Bangalore] and the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, Pune (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research) — have apparently sought to join the board, but are awaiting ministerial approvals for funding allocations, which are actually small.

The SKA is a 50-year project. It will probably be the single most important project in global radio astronomy in the next generation.

Australia's bid for the project is backed by a commitment of up to A$42 million. The cost of the project, just to build the infrastructure, is expected to be €30 billion. Australia is ideally suited for the project because large areas of the country are electronically sterile (radio quiet). We have a 5,000-km baseline, from the deserts of Western Australia to New Zealand, which provides a wide-angle view for radio astronomy.

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Feb 25, 2021 4:12:44 PM |

Next Story