Is our Workforce STEM able?

Posted on: Tuesday, 5 May 2015 at 8:46:06 PM

Through its ECU FutureNOW series, the AICC(WA) has established an alliance with Student Edge, a member based organisation to assist young students.  This delivers critical engagement for young and future business leaders, particularly apt for an event as important as Peter Klinken’s address “Broadening the knowledge-based economy in WA”.  It was no surprise to hear one of the Student Edge participants suggest the Chief Scientists address “should have been a globally viral TED talk”. 

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Hosted at the prestigious Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research the April 2015 AICC(WA) ECU FutureNow Sundowner was a timely, thought stimulating and provocative presentation.  Through a facility tour and introduction, Director Professor Peter Leedman was able to show how the Harry Perkins Institute exudes the same passion, enthusiasm, and innovation culture as both the AICC(WA) and the Chief Scientist himself.  Professor Leedman also spoke of his inspirational participation in an AICC(WA) Israel delegation, which he described “as a week of science and research in a country that does not fear failure”.

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In attendance, from L to R - Professor Peter Leedman, Director, Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research, Mrs Sue Clough, McRae Investments Pty Ltd, Mrs Jean Perron , Mr Stan Perron, Founder & Chairman, The Perron Group, Professor Peter Klinken, WA's Chief Scientist, Mr Larry Lopez, Vice-President, Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (WA) and Partner, Australian Venture Consultants, Mr Charles Bass, The Bass Group and Mrs Sylvia Bass, The Bass Group

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         Professors Peter Leedman (L) and  Klinken (R)                          

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ECU Vice Chancellor and President Professor Steve Chapman

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From L to R - Professor Peter Klinken, WA's Chief Scientist, Mr Charles Bass, The Bass Group, Honourable Liz Behjat MLC, Member for North Metropolitan Region, Mr Larry Lopez, Vice-President, Australia-Israel Chamber of Commerce (WA) and Partner, Australian Venture Consultants, Professor Margaret Jones, Director, Office of Research and Innovation, Edith Cowan University

AICC(WA) delegates were also able to hear for the first time from recently appointed ECU Vice Chancellor and President Professor Steve Chapman.    The ECU, whose vision aligns with the Science Statement – Growing Western Australia launched by the Premier on 21 April 2015, also champions innovation and shares a vision for economic growth through enhanced scientific discipline.   

Professor Peter Klinken has clearly enjoyed and prospered during his 9 months as Western Australia’s Chief Scientist, and has already made his mark in shaping an economic future founded on the knowledge of science, technology and innovation.  Demonstrating cultural sensitivity, commercial foresight, practical objectives and long-term vision, he submitted that future generations will look back and justifiably ask “why?” if we do not take the opportunity we have at this moment in time to transform Western Australia from a resources economy to a knowledge economy.  

Citing examples such as geological research that have evidenced Western Australia’s capacity to develop self sufficient expertise, Professor Klinken challenged the perception that goods and technologies need to be imported to be cost competitive.   He noted our State is stable and secure, clean and green, and these elements need to be leveraged to attract new talent into local growth industries.

The State Strategy identifies five areas within which the advancement and application of science can help broaden the economy and create a new generation of jobs.  These are mining and energy; medicine and health; agriculture and food; biodiversity and marine science; and radio astronomy.  AICC(WA) Chief Executive John Cluer was quick to note that Israel has applied scientific strength in each of these industries, and that collaborative activity can deliver substantial benefits. 

Amongst some of the more critical elements of the presentation, Professor Klinken submitted the following:

  • WA can be a global leader by developing future industry technologies in markets such as sustainable energy infrastructure, supercomputing, omics capabilities, ground penetrating imaging, and water utilisation.
  • Hard work is needed to develop and commercialise solutions in Western Australia. There is a disconnect between academia and industry that costs significant opportunity to the local economy. Professor Klinken offered a VIP formula – Vision, Investment, Planning. This is similar to the Israeli model of technology transfer through the provision of venture capital and commercialisation that is inherently built into the tertiary sector.
  • There is an underinvestment in STEM (Science Technology Engineering Mathematics) education, and the value placed on these disciplines. Of the fastest growing occupations, 75% are reliant on STEM technical competence.
  • Scientists need to communicate better and excite the market. They have a story to tell and a profession to sell.
  • The City of Perth is maturing in a physical sense, inclusive of arts, culture and lifestyle attraction. An emotional evolvement that is cultural and attitudinal needs to follow such that creativity and risk taking entrepreneurship is embraced.
  • All levels of Government have a role in de-risking projects for industry. “Governments can now play in the middle space previously reserved exclusively for venture capitalists”.

Professor Klinken concluded that Australia’s future as a knowledge nation requires systemic change.  He posed that “If Australia was a company, what questions would you ask the Board?”  His rhetoric response was to demand a vision statement, a longer-term growth plan, and a direction for R&D investment.  The analogy was complemented by the critical observation that frequent board member turnover would stifle longer-term outcomes. 

Above all, the economic drivers within Australia need to focus on reduced commodity prices driven by local production, the development of a next generation of industries, visionary leadership and advanced STEM education. 

“Time is running out.  These are matters of urgency that we need to work together to address.  Now is the time to display resilience and embrace transformational change to bring forward a practical and viable broadening of our economic base”. 

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