In 1964, Donald Horne coined the term “The Lucky Country” in relation to Australia’s reliance on its abundant natural resources for its economic prosperity. In the late 1980s, Prime Minister Bob Hawke put a twist on the phrase to shift the focus of the debate to the need for Australia to become a “clever country” – to invest in science and R&D as a means of creating prosperity rather than relying exclusively on our natural resources.
Since the late 80s, significant trends affecting our capacity to remain a clever country have included greater emphasis on budget-driven decision-making and increasing competitive pressures arising through the effects of globalisation. Australia must necessarily transition to a knowledge-based economy with a focus on improving innovation, productivity and competitiveness with science and R&D central to that economic strategy. Jobs growth will rely on investment in non-mining business activities, while engaging in international markets and collaborating with international players.
As Professor Ian Chubb pointed out in his keynote address at the launch of the Still the Clever Country? campaign on 3 March, the conversation about science and R&D must however engage the community not only about the economics of investing in or cutting science funding, but a vision of what sort of nation we want to be. What we do – where we invest – reflects who we are and how we position Australia for the future. While we recognise the need to manage critical decisions about investment and economic imperatives, we hold the firm view that our science program should be driven by strategy, not finance – not what programs must be cut, what offset or tradeoff is required in order to maintain an important initiative, or the quickest path from deficit to surplus. While fiscal responsibility is critical, we must be driven by a shared strategic vision and then prioritise our resource allocation accordingly.
Australia currently faces myriad challenges including declining commodity prices and resource sector investment, infrastructure backlogs, a need to fund rising health care costs, an ageing population and shrinking tax base, the decline of the manufacturing and mining sectors, ongoing global financial instability, climate change, food and energy security, indigenous disadvantage and a slowing rate of growth.
Investing in science and technology to create a sustainable planet, committing to evidence-based policy-making, investing in the science workforce and STEM education, protecting our national security interests with a highly developed surveillance, communications and technology capability and proper funding of the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease will be central to how effectively we respond to the challenges.
The need to position Australia for a future as a science and innovation leader – being led by professional scientists who are uniquely placed to help us through the complex and serious issues which arise – is the key message of Still the Clever Country?
Sharing this vision with the community is what our campaign’s about.
President, Professional Scientists Australia