Australia’s future health and economy is a vibrant, interactive ecosystem with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at its core. STEM is central – and essential – to Australia’s ongoing success in the next 50 years. Australia is considered an incredible place to do cutting-edge research, pursue blue-sky ideas and commercialise innovative products. Pioneering discoveries fuel the innovation process. Students cannot wait to enrol in science and maths. Policies are developed using peer-reviewed evidence and broad consultation. Aspirational goals are backed by practical solutions and half of our STEM leaders are women – it’s the norm.
Sounds good doesn’t it?
To excel in science and innovation, however, Australia needs a major culture shift. We can all ‘talk the talk’, but as OECD figures demonstrate, we cannot ‘walk the walk’. Australia rates lowest compared to other OECD countries when it comes to business-research collaborations – not just large businesses, but small to medium-sized enterprises as well.
Academia blames industry. Industry blames academia. Everyone blames the government. It’s time to turn the pointing finger into a welcoming handshake and engage across sectors to actually make innovation happen.
Literally thousands of researchers in this country want to see our academic and industry leaders reach across the divide and make change happen. With every decision made, their future is impacted.
Paradigm-shifting science and innovation takes time and requires a diverse workforce of highly-skilled researchers and professionals that specialise in these fields.
The lack of a skilled workforce and poor collaboration are significant barriers to innovation. As part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the industry engagement and impact assessment aims to incentivise greater collaboration between industry and academia by examining how universities are translating their research into social and economic benefits.
Australian academic institutions have begun to break down silos within their own research organisations with some success. In medical research for example, the breadth and scale of interdisciplinary collaborative projects has expanded exponentially – spanning international borders, requiring a range of skills and expertise, terabytes of data, and years of research.
Research teams have become small companies with synergistic subsidiaries – diagnostic, basic, translational and clinical teams – working toward a common goal.
Yet their engagement with industry is low. Industry struggles to navigate the ever-changing complex leadership structures in higher education and research. When you speak one-on-one with researchers and industry leaders, however, they seem almost desperate to cross the divide and connect! It’s a detrimental dichotomy.
How can we harness the full potential of our research workforce?
We can energise innovation by fostering a culture that values basic research as well as translation of discoveries to product, practice and policy. A culture that opens the ivory tower and is not so sceptical of industry-academia engagement. That responds to failure with resilience and determination rather than deflating, harsh judgement. That sees the potential of our young researchers.
We need to lose the tall poppy syndrome and openly celebrate the success and achievement of others. We must hold ourselves to higher standards and in particular, women must be equally recognised and rewarded for their leadership.
As a nation, we must ensure we are prepared and resourced for the challenges ahead. Not only do we need the best equipment and technologies, but we also need a readily adaptable workforce that is highly-skilled to address these issues.
To facilitate a culture shift and increase engagement with business and industry, we need to provide researchers the skills and know-how, as well as opportunities to hone these skills. Young researchers are ready to engage and hungry to learn; and they must be encouraged to do so without penalty.
They then need to be connected with industry leaders to identify the qualities and expertise they need to strengthen, and to extend their network.
We can change this now. The solution is not expensive. It is simply about letting down our guard and providing real opportunities to meet, to connect, to network, to exchange ideas and expertise – and to share that welcoming handshake.
Executive Director, Industry Mentoring Network in STEM, Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering, Melbourne
CEO and Co-founder, Women in STEMM Australia
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