Written by Professor Hugh Bradlow, President, Australian Academy or Technology and Engineering
The Covid-19 pandemic has shown Australia the risks in relying on global supply chains. There’s a growing awareness that Australia needs to achieve a measure of independence (without sacrificing its global outlook) and this will require advanced technological sciences to create local industries in current and emerging fields.
The urgent need to build sovereign capability and competitiveness has accelerated the transition of our manufacturing sector to Industry 4.0. Australian universities have a vital role to play in ensuring that we have sufficient people with the advanced skills needed to run such sophisticated industries.
Emerging industries present an even greater imperative for advanced skills. For example, quantum computing will, over the next decades, start to transform many industries, as it will improve machine learning, financial systems and drug discovery among many other possible uses.
It will also require a whole new skills base: hardware and software engineers, mathematicians and physicists, instrument and material scientists. The key point is that universities have the capabilities to pioneer new technologies and develop the skills to implement them.
Australia is fortunate in that it has a strong research base across all these fields. University research groups, such as that led by Professor Michelle Simmons at UNSW, have been working to make quantum computing a reality for 20 years or more.
To ensure that quantum computing emerges as a successful industry in Australia, the scientists/engineers who develop it will have to look to commercialise their work. This is happening at UNSW through its Silicon Quantum Computing spinoff.
Australia’s industrial sector will need to look at ways in which it can capitalise on these advanced developments and absorb the skills coming out of university research groups to create new wealth.
There is also a role for government. Increased investment is needed to build on our leadership in these emerging fields.
The United States and the United Kingdom have recently agreed to strengthen ties in science and technology to create global leadership in emerging technologies. Their agreement aims to strengthen cooperation in areas such as the resilience and security of critical supply chains, and also realise the full potential of quantum technologies. Australia cannot replicate their financial commitment, but it needs to play its part.
First published in Australian University Science, Issue 6