The employment summit could be a catalyst for a quantum leap in science and research

For example, we don’t yet have all the tools to get to net zero. Sure, we know the steps, but some of those steps require technologies that have yet to be invented.

There was a strong focus on commercialization, which I absolutely support and we absolutely need. However, we will only find the answers if we invest in research and experimentation and build fundamental knowledge.

We are a Goldilocks-sized country that can afford to take a systems design approach and embrace fresh ideas.

This may sound obvious, but it actually requires a three-level mindset shift.

First, the understanding that a sustainable research system is one that incorporates redundancy. Not every question has a clear answer. Not every idea will be a breakthrough, and some will fall flat – just as there is no such thing as an overnight success in business.

The process of discovery and experimentation is not easily packaged into funding and deliverables agreements. But still, ideas—fresh ideas, great, amazing, even crazy ideas—ignite the spark of innovation.

Just think about quantum technologies. There is a reason why Australia is now a source of quantum talent and innovation and a destination for multinational companies. This success can be traced to various innovation policy settings since the mid-1990s, including the establishment of Australian Research Council Centers of Excellence.

The initial round of funding includes two quantum focus centres, creating critical capacity on a scale not typically seen in Australia. This fostered a culture of multidisciplinary collaboration, which in turn created its own positive feedback loop, aiding this “brain recovery” from which we are now reaping the benefits.

As with quants, the dividends of blue-sky investments are realized not within months or a few years, but with decades-long commitments that require patience.

The second reason job creation requires a shift in thinking is that we cannot predict with certainty where emerging technologies may lead. They are inherently destructive.

This means that the work-ready graduate is someone with mathematical, scientific and digital literacy, broad knowledge and the ability to tackle and solve problems they have never seen before. The bottom line is that as we build skills, they should be transferable skills.

Retraining and upskilling in the workplace should not be seen as a way to fill gaps, but as a deliberate and planned culture of continuous learning in the workplace.

Third, as we seek to create new industries and develop a new workforce, the approach cannot be piecemeal, confetti of programs and initiatives. Australia doesn’t have the scale to go in too many directions at once.

We are a Goldilocks-sized country that can afford to take a systems design approach and embrace fresh ideas. The problems we face are complex and interrelated and require governments, industry and academia to work collectively to solve them.

Connectivity makes sense for another reason, and that is that new technologies have civil and defense applications, for sovereign capabilities, and for international partnerships. In this context, individual approaches are not only ineffective; they are counterproductive.

We live in an age of great opportunity. As Australia’s chief scientist, I hope to see a clear direction from the jobs and skills summit that recognizes shared responsibility for change that is patient, cohesive and embraces the value of science.

Skilled migration remains an important part of the mix, but it is only one avenue, not the main game. The pandemic has exposed the weaknesses in relying on foreign labor. Plus, no country wants to give up its people; all face the same workforce challenges.

The primary challenge that cannot be delayed is the development of an indigenous workforce with high technological capabilities and deep scientific knowledge, a workforce that utilizes the full human potential and untapped human resources that already exist in Australia.

Australia’s sovereign capacity requires this, as does our prosperity and economic competitiveness.

These are also the settings needed to build a cohesive and inclusive community and to give our children a sense of clarity about their place and their path.

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