David Cruickshanks-Boyd on fostering a knowledge boom
AUSTRALIA, now is the time for us to move from an economy based on mines to one based on minds.
Our higher degree science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates are Australia’s next great resource boom.
Not only do they possess a great wealth of knowledge in their area but they are experts in critical thinking, problem solving and innovation.
These are the skills and knowledge Australia needs to become a competitive, innovative, knowledge-based economy of the future.
This sentiment is one shared by Chief Scientist Prof Ian Chubb, and forms the basis of the Government’s Vision for Science paper, currently open to consultation.
Engineers Australia is a strong supporter of the paper’s focus on better connecting industry and universities as we believe this is where Australia can get the most “bang for our buck”.
Engineers have a vested interest in solidifying industry links with universities.
More than just being the “E” in STEM, engineering is the practical application of science and mathematics to solve real world problems.
Engineers rely on the university sector’s basic research to inform and inspire our solutions to everyday problems.
While there is much talk of needing more STEM graduates to fulfil Australia’s future, our problem is not just one of quantity but of distribution.
There is an assumption in Australia that those who pursue higher education to a PhD level will stay in academia for good.
In most industrialised countries more than 70 per cent of researchers are employed in industry.
Australia lags with only 30 per cent — we have one of the lowest numbers of researchers applying their skills in the private sector in the developed world.
With fierce competition for shrinking government research funds, our STEM PhD graduates must look beyond the lab and into the marketplace.
At the heart of the imbalance between academia and industry is the significant cultural disconnect that forms the centre of each of the two worlds. In the commercial world, you patent then publish. In the academic world you publish first, which often precludes you from patenting at all.
This outlook means academics often struggle to commercialise their research.
And who can blame them — it isn’t easy navigating the legal minefield of commercial patents, while writing for academic journals to meet university metrics.
Academia and industry can no longer be discrete entities, but must form part of a commercialisation continuum.
Australia’s future economy will only be as strong as the ties we form between industry and academia today.
Associations and not-forprofits have an important role to play as the conduit between the tertiary sector and industry.
For example, Engineers Australia is participating in the pilot Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, which connects second-year PhD students with industry mentors, and actively promotes industry-based learning programs run by universities in Victoria and across Australia.
Universities need to foster stronger connections with industry to ensure graduates have the mix of skills industry requires and to ensure students get practical industry experience.
This is particularly pertinent in engineering where many degrees have an “on the job” component and Engineers Australia’s university accreditation program requires universities to reach out to industry and forge these connections.
Industry needs to work with universities to ensure the opportunities are available for STEM students to become the work-ready graduates employers need.
Stronger ties between the two sectors will also allow industry to better identify research with commercial applications and inform research direction towards areas of industry need.
Australia needs creative thinkers to have the big ideas — the STEM intellects whose “aha” moment will be the next Wi-Fi, the next Cochlear implant or the next clean energy source. Australia also needs the commercial knowhow to make these ideas a reality, to bring them out of universities and into the wider world where society can benefit from them.
We need universities and we need industry, but what we really need is for them to work together.