From ITEE College Board Chair Geoff Sizer Sunday, 10 April 2016

Innovation and Engineering

Recent initiatives by the federal government to foster innovation via the National Innovation and Science Agenda reflect a commitment to transition Australia’s economy away from its primary resource dependency, towards an innovation-driven industrial base.

Measures to restore funding to Australia’s research agencies are welcome. Initiatives to encourage Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills in schools will be beneficial to the future of the engineering profession.

However, the measures announced to date fall short when it comes to building innovation-based industries. One must also question the focus on providing relatively small amounts of grant funding to technology start-ups. It is difficult to plot a path by which this approach will transform Australia to become an innovation-driven, knowledge-based economy. It is more likely that the vast majority of start-up initiatives will fail, with the few that are successful perhaps enriching a small number of individuals, but with questionable long-term benefit to the economy. History sadly teaches us that commercialisation of successful start-up technologies is far more likely to be undertaken offshore than in Australia.

Much greater focus is required on arresting and reversing the long-term downwards trend affecting Australia’s industrial base and engineers have a major role to pay in this process. However, it is apparent that the role of engineering in innovation continues to be under-appreciated by both the government and the public. The image portrayed by the media that innovation involves white lab coats and pipettes persists. In reality, an overwhelming proportion of the economic benefits arising from innovation are a consequence of hard-core engineering activities that turn scientific discoveries into useful products and systems.

As engineers, we should speak with a loud, united voice to ensure that innovation initiatives in Australia fully recognise and support engineering which is fundamental to successful realisation and commercialisation of innovation outputs.