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31 January 2018


This opinion piece written by Bill Ferris AC was published in the Daily Telegraph.

Australia's global relevance depends on us celebrating innovation and investing in our kids' education

Innovation drives productivity, which drives GDP growth which drives living standards. And fastgrowing companies that innovate and export are responsible for virtually all new net jobs in the economy.

Innovation should be celebrated and encouraged in Australia, not feared or tiptoed around like some elephant in the room.

Australians are smart enough to know that new technology is inevitable and most already understand that innovation can enhance our competitiveness and future living standards.

That's why we need to equip our kids with skills relevant to the jobs of 2030. Indeed, in our conversations around the board table we sometimes refer to education as setting the "speed limit" for our economy Yet, just at the time when Australia needs to accelerate its innovation performance and raise its economic speed limit, we are falling behind our global peers, particularly in student performance in science, mathematics and literacy.

The data shows that while Australia has pockets of excellence in our education system, overall results in science, maths and literacy have declined in the past decade, despite increases in funding. This must be reversed.

Therefore Innovation and Science Australia's recommendations focus on changes necessary in secondary school curricula, quality of teaching, and student performance.

We focus on increasing teacher quality and training, noting for example that 40 per cent of maths teachers are teaching without any formal maths knowledge or training.

Given that digital literacy will be just as important in future work as basic literacy and numeracy, we support increased emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects with an expanding role for the STEM Partnerships Forum, bringing industry and education leaders together to lift student awareness of the relevance of STEM skills to a range of careers.

The changing nature of work in the future means that reskilling and lifelong training and learning will be essential to establish a competitive workforce and to maintain a fair and inclusive society out to 2030 and beyond. The plan therefore recognises and recommends the urgent need to restore and enhance the reputation and capability of the vocational education training (VET) sector.

I have made a career of investing in talented Australians, both in the notfor-profit world and in companies, who have gone on to achieve incredible things. I know ability is not the barrier to Australians succeeding globally. Where I see a big gap between Australia and the world's leading innovation nations is in the level of our aspiration, and our willingness to tackle big problems on a global scale.

To help build a culture that inspires Australians to take on some of the really big challenges, the plan recommends a program of National Missions - large scale initiatives that address audacious challenges.

Australia has a grand tradition of such visionary projects, for example the Snowy Mountains Scheme and SKA telescope.

Such a program would invigorate the public's excitement and imagination for science and innovation, and inspire our best thinkers and entrepreneurs to solve our greatest challenges.

A great example of what that kind of advanced thinking in healthcare looks like is happening at the Garvan Institute in Sydney. It is trialling a program for sequencing the genomes of individuals with rare conditions.

A couple of years ago, seven-year-old Alan, who has a rare blood disorder, was admitted to the trial. His condition had rapidly deteriorated and he was left critically ill in hospital.

Working through the weekend, researchers at the Institute used his sequenced genome to pinpoint the genetic variation responsible for his condition.

That allowed them to scan medical literature and find a new drug on trial in the US to treat patients with this same variation. Alan was out of danger in a week. Within six months, he was well enough to go to school and ride a bike like other kids.

Stories like this are a reminder that we have a good healthcare system - we are already in the top half dozen of OECD nations in terms of life expectancy.

But why not aim to be great, rather than just good? Why not have a crack at becoming No.1? To become the healthiest nation on the planet. I'd call that a challenge worth taking on.

I believe our recommended suite of reforms and actions will enable Australia to extend its world record run of 26 years unbroken GDP growth and become a top tier innovation nation by 2030.

Of course we cannot, and do not, leave this heavy lifting to government alone. Indeed the thrust of our recommendations is to stimulate significant increases in business investment.

About the author

Bill Ferris AC is a pioneer of Venture Capital and Private Equity Investing in Australia and chair of Innovation and Science Australia.