At this watershed moment in American political history, it is timely to consider the legacy of outgoing President Barack Obama in science and innovation.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is the chief source of advice to the President on science matters. The OSTP published its Cabinet Exit Memo on 5 January, manifesting a vibrant, ambitious and optimistic vision – in stark contrast to the unimaginative, stale and duplicitous approach of our own Government.

Building on President Obama's 2009 pledge to restore science to its rightful place, the Administration sought to improve scientific talent within government, strengthen scientific integrity, enacted a historic increase in research and development funding, prioritised broad participation in STEM education, launched new science initiatives in health, expanded broadband access, fostered a space industry sector and supported manufacturing innovation and jobs. 

The OSTP made a powerful and conclusive case for the role of the state in fostering a favourable environment for innovation, industry, science and research – to the benefit of business, scholars, workers and citizens. It sought to ensure that federal investments in science and technology are making the greatest possible contribution to economic prosperity, social equality, sustainability and national security. 

Contrast this with the record of the Abbott-Turnbull Liberal Government and Australians can only lament the missed opportunities.

While the United States sought to increase R&D funding, the Australian government has made billions of dollars in cuts. While Obama expanded broadband access, Malcolm Turnbull’s NBN has proved a fizzer – overdue, over-budget and below par. While the US supported manufacturing innovation to save and create jobs, the Liberal-National government attacked manufacturing innovation and drove the car industry offshore. While Obama brought scientists and researchers into the public sector, Turnbull is shovelling millions of taxpayer dollars out the door to outsource as much ‘innovation’ as possible.

The OSTP memo not only enumerates the achievements of the Obama Administration, but also looks to the future. It recommends expanding federal investment in fundamental research; increasing access to high quality STEM education; maximising the economic and social return from federally funded R&D; and strengthening international scientific collaboration. It urges investment in science and industry collaboration to ensure America remains a nation that makes things – and that employs Americans to make them.

The OSTP identifies a wealth of opportunities for American science and industry, in health care innovation, artificial intelligence, data science, automation, advanced computing, clean energy revolution and advanced climate intelligence. It also shows how science and research can address problems, such as antibiotic resistance, threats to global biosecurity, and deficiencies in the criminal justice system.

Australia, by contrast, has the damp squib of the lacklustre National Science and Innovation Agenda (NISA) with its piecemeal initiatives, obsessively narrow focus on start-ups, and disregard for manufacturing jobs – while CSIRO is gutted and the country’s most respected climate scientists are sacked. Even the New York Times has seen through the Prime Minister’s fine innovation rhetoric, questioning his Government’s cuts to globally significant climate science research.

And despite the imminent closure of auto manufacturing in Australia, there is no plan for the redeployment of the remarkable skill base of our workers in the high tech auto industry, or for attracting new investment. All the Liberals have is a massive $50 billion corporate tax cut and a bankrupt theory about trickle-down benefit.

Instead of cutting the very investments that will support Australian enterprise and create Australian jobs, Malcolm Turnbull could learn from Barack Obama’s success, by undoing the damage wrought through the billions of dollars in cuts that the Liberals have taken from science, research and innovation since coming to power. 

The OSTP warns the new administration that, ‘Driving further progress… will require continued focus on sustained investment in research, development, and innovation; the importance of diverse, cross-sector, and multi-disciplinary collaboration for solving difficult challenges; education innovation to develop skills for Americans at all levels; job creation and workforce-skills development across these sectors; and equity, to ensure all Americans help create these innovations and have access to and benefit from advances in these frontiers.’

In his 1962 moonshot speech at Rice University, President John F Kennedy famously said that America would rise to scientific challenges, ‘not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ In that context, he said,

‘it is not surprising that some would have us stay where we are a little longer to rest, to wait. But … this country of the United States was not built by those who waited and rested and wished to look behind them [but] by those who moved forward.’

These are not warnings only for Americans, but for every nation. The Australian Government should take heed and establish a long term innovation policy with real investments in research, science and technology to drive social inclusion and economic prosperity.


This Opinion Piece was first published in The Australian on Wednesday, 25 January 2017.

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