Australia, lagging in science and technology, needs big leap forward

When most foreigners think of Australia they conjure up images of kangaroos, vast desert, or actor Mel Gibson. That, say many business leaders, is exactly the problem. Better that the country's strides in software development be as familiar to the world. The economic future of this continent-sized nation is at stake, according to many experts, and greater commitment toward science and technology can go a long way in alleviating its woes. ``If we can restructure and get industry more efficient,'' says Homer Paxton, economist with the Chamber of Manufactures, ``our future will be bright. If not, we are in deep trouble.''

Yet, plans to upgrade Australian technology are at a standstill. A key to boosting several currently lagging sectors is to develop greater links between innovations and technological breakthroughs with commercial processes. Australian manufacturing plants and equipment are outdated, as many as three decades behind the United States and Japan. The structural changes that other nations have gone through are not progressing as smoothly as they are in other parts of the dynamic Pacific Rim. Exports are considered essential to any recovery -- and to long-term growth.

``There is little hope that the country can compete with rapidly industrializing neighbors,'' declares business forecaster Philip Ruthven in Melbourne. Productivity is low in most industries -- another problem that technology can alleviate as things now stand. Telecommunication is far behind other nations; word processing is only now catching on.

Exports today are low-value-added, high-bulk goods, an anethema to high-tech advocates. While a base for adapting high-tech to manufacturing exists, many research and development programs do not have continuity.

To deal with this, Barry Jones, minister for science and technology, last September called for a national strategy. He hopes to unveil specific details within the next few months. Mr. Jones says there is ``the need for ringing a few alarm bells.'' Considering the stagnant level of technology exports, few would disagree with Mr. Jones. A scant 4 percent of foreign sales were in those goods last year, compared with 60 to 70 percent in some countries.

John D. Martin, director of the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales, argues that the lagging manufacturing sector would do well if those problems were addressed. ``Scientific development is a must. The R&D is in the pure area, not usually in the applied area, and makes it hard for industry.'' He feels strongly, however, that where it is applied, results are often positive. For example, a government-backed Council on Science and Industrial Research venture helped wool producers when a new treatment process enabled consumers to wash wool garments.

Still, Australian scientific achievements are impressive. Some collaboration with American researchers enables Aussies to claim a stake in a prototype bionic ear. The atomic energy agency pioneered synroc, a tenchnique of storing nuclear waste. A gene that directs blood cell growth was credited recently to a Canberra team.

Geoff Billingsley, manager for Prime Computers, considers his country's software to be a superior product. ``In the applications code and in structure, it is better than the US product. Our data-processing machines are not run with spare capacity, so must perform better.'' While the size of a domestic market makes a home-grown industry unlikely -- and unnecessary -- some pieces of high-tech are taking root.

But any plan must include universities. In the past 15 years fewer than 100 patents were granted to the nation's campuses. Their small tally is relative to numbers, argue defenders of the status quo. But what is troubling for Aussie R&D is that growth rates are static. US schools doubled the number of patents received during this period.

``University research should be tapped for business,'' says Eric Bedford, minister for technology and small business in New South Wales. ``Right now, too little of it is.''

The government plan probably will emphasize raising the skills base, stressing more technical training. A higher percentage of GNP is needed for R&D. ``Unless the gap between industry and technological research is bridged,'' says an official, ``the brain drain will continue unabated.'' The several regional economies based on primary products, coal and mining, cannot be left out of a transition plan. Greater information sharing is needed at both state and federal levels. ``It's beginning to happen'' says Mr. Bedford.

A recent plan was approved by the Academy of Technological Sciences. It created an oversight board to manage and invest in manufacturing ventures that incorporate high-tech methods. Modest tax incentives should raise $15 million to $25 million in a small-scale quasi-industrial-policy plan that will seek ``sunrise'' industries.

The precise private-sector role has yet to be determined. More venture capital is needed if a liaison between R&D and commercial process is to flourish. Export opportunities in cutting-edge innovations have been lost for lack of investors. Consensus that marked Prime Minister Hawke's early months is eroding. Many in his own Labor Party resist productivity measures, remaining suspicious of market-oriented approaches. At the same time there is more recognition that balance-of-payments difficulties, unemployment, federal deficits, and other maladies are inextricably tied to industrial modernization.

While other countries complain of technologies that are not truly user-driven, technology here may be politically driven, interwoven in a complex economic fabric. But technological catch-up, say experts, is not impossible in a vibrant nation which overcame many past hurdles.

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