Australia: The not-so-clever country
Have a guess how many of Australia’s top 50 companies have at their very heart a good idea.
Not mineral resources, selling other people’s goods or repackaging money in increasingly intricate ways, but an actual good idea which spawned the genesis of a new business.
It’s a pretty easy answer - none.
While there are obviously innovators amongst the top 50 companies in Australia, and at an individual level certainly within pretty much all of them, there is a depressing paucity of Australian companies which have sprung from research in any of the hard sciences, to grow into substantial companies.
To be fair, internationally the list of heavyweight companies is dominated by old industries such as oil and gas and banking.
But there is also a fair whack of companies that have sprung from the minds of extremely bright well-educated people to become world-beaters.
Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the ancients of the IT industry Microsoft and IBM are great examples.
Drug companies such as Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline also do pretty well for themselves.
And the one thing they all have in common is a fundamental need for a strong grounding in hard sciences among their workforce.
Virtually everyone who saw The Social Network would have looked cross-eyed at the algorithm a fictionalised Mark Zuckerberg scrawled on his window - the genesis of one of the antecedents of Facebook.
To have any chance of producing a generation of people who can even seek to work with such concepts in these global industries, let alone create new ideas of their own, there needs to be a strong focus on science education.
But far from being the clever country - a phrase which surely is said most often with heavy irony these days - we are scaling back on support for both science education at a high-school and primary-school level and research funding at the university level and beyond.
It is doubly ironic that our major mining companies have been lamenting the lack of science education in Australia because they too are not able to find adequate candidates with the scientific acumen to fill their workforces.
Federal Education Minister Peter Garrett recently scrapped two programs which boost science teaching in primary and high schools.
Researchers at the National Health and Medical Research Council are also gearing up for a fight to protect their funding.
Presumably this is all in the name of bringing the Federal Budget back into surplus - an aspiration which is much more important in terms of short-term politics than short to mediu- term economics.
The problem is, Australia’s lack of scientific and high-tech achievement is all about short-termism.
Investment in good science education is not something which will pay off within a few electoral cycles. Nor will investment in higher level research.
But one day, most probably well within the next couple of electoral cycles, commodity prices will crash once again.
To be able to weather such storms in the future, we need to be prepared. Australian politicians in the past have not been wary of implementing major structural changes which they knew would bring about long-term benefits.
At the moment, however, we remain much too focussed on the easy money which is flowing from the mining boom, and is not being reinvested in the development of intellectual capital.
It would be great, when the commodities down turn comes (again…and again) to be able to fall back on an intellectual resource which can go some way to filling the gap.
Sadly, if things don’t change soon, the closest I fear we’ll get to this is a mutual lamentation of the situation on Facebook and Twitter.
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