Challenges for Australian research and innovation post Covid-19

Pearls and Irritations
13 May 2020

Australia is looking to rebuild its industrial base to achieve greater self-sufficiency in manufacturing. But we are seriously under-investing in creating the engineering and technology knowledge and skills that will be required to achieve this outcome.

The COVID-19 crisis has demonstrated that Australia has been well prepared with a substantial and sustained investment in health and medical research over a 100 year period. And this is to be celebrated. There is, however, a substantial mismatch between Australia’s very high level of public investment in medical research and the very modest commitments to investment in industrial research that lie at the heart of the current phase of global industrial development.

Medical research has been driven through over 40 medical research institutes linked to strong university medical faculties. The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) was established in 2012. Notwithstanding the formation of the CSIRO in 1920, initially, to coordinate agricultural research, there is no parallel system of Advanced Engineering and Technology Institutes to drive research in building and maintaining Australia’s manufacturing industrial base.

Without this engineering capability, the challenge for building Australia’s industrial base is formidable, and perhaps insurmountable.

Currently, Australia faces both a public health and economic challenge due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The public health response has been widely embraced by the community but has also created a national economic crisis with a collapse in employment and output in many sectors. This has exposed the vulnerability of an economy reliant on the minerals boom.

If ever there was a “burning platform” for change, this is it. The health crisis has devastated the accommodation, food service and tourism sectors, whilst the minerals boom accelerated the decimation of the manufacturing sector and put off the need for fundamental industry adjustment following the removal of tariff protection. In particular, the crisis has drawn attention to the fragility of international supply chains.

Industry economists have been concerned for over 20 years that Australia has been losing its capacity to make things. This concern is now revealed as a serious gap in our industrial capability and capacity to “build a bridge”, in the Prime Minister’s words, to a “better, stronger economy” in the future.