‘Sovereign capabilities’ in peril unless Australia ramps up digital research focus, AAS warns

Digital Skills AAS

Australia risks falling behind global peers in broad-ranging expertise of emerging digital technologies (including AI, IoT and blockchain) – with the country’s investments in digital innovation noted to be well behind the OECD average – unless decisive steps are taken to promote research and innovation, a new report warns.

The self-declared “policy primer” report, jointly released by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) and the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE), challenges Australia’s myopic, industry-specific approach in harnessing these technologies.

It has urged government to champion scientific leadership by “elevating” emerging digital technologies as a national science priority. This, the report’s authors said, would promote a greater flow of investment into research and development.

Another key recommendation from the AAS/ATSE report is to include research and innovation into emerging digital technologies as part of the Federal Government’s agenda-shaping 2021 Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

Apart from AI, IoT and blockchain, “emerging” technologies covered in the report also include big data, digital system security, quantum computing, 5G networks, as well as augmented and virtual reality.

“While it is difficult to predict what future innovations might arise, a strong national focus on fundamental science and engineering behind emerging digital technologies will allow Australia to stay ahead of the curve in a dynamic and fast-evolving landscape,” the report said.

According to the AAS/ATSE report, only 7.4 per cent of Australia’s GDP currently stems from digital innovation. The OECD average stands at 11.2 per cent.

Speaking to FST Media, chair of the AAS national committee for information and communication sciences Professor Shazia Sadiq, stressed the need for policymakers to recognise emerging digital technologies as one of Australia’s “independent growth sectors”.

Other “growth sectors” include advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, food and agribusiness, medical technologies and pharmaceuticals, mining equipment, technology and services, and oil, gas and energy resources.

“The footprint of digital technologies is really wide, impacting almost all sectors,” Sadiq explained.

As a result, she acknowledges it can be easy to see the potential of these technologies from only an “application lens”.

“Our point of view is that we need the scientific expertise and sovereign capabilities from emerging digital technologies through which we can help create and foster growth opportunities [in other sectors],” she said.

According to the AAS/ATSE report, once these technologies are identified as an “independent growth sector”, they should be promoted through schemes such as Innovation Connections, which connects small businesses to relevant researchers.

Another suggestion is to promote digital technologies as a “cross-cutting theme” in broader economic initiatives, as is being done through the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources’ Modern Manufacturing Strategy campaign.

The report further welcomed the Federal Government’s $1.2 billion investment from the 2021-2022 budget’s Digital Economy Strategy 2021 – more than half of which is earmarked to uplift government services – as well as strategic investments forming the Modern Manufacturing Strategy’s $1.3 billion inflows.

Finally, Sadiq stressed the need for governments to prioritise the building of a highly skilled digital workforce, affirming that Australia’s demand for digitally skilled workers is fast outstripping supply.

“When we talk about digitally skilled workers, it’s not just talking about savvy users of these technologies, but also experts [who are] able to build, create, and innovate as scientific leaders as well,” Sadiq said.

“That’s the thing that has been trying.”