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Looking beyond COVID-19 – Innovation can provide an advantage

How does Australian industry recover and start ramping up once the current COVID-19 crisis recedes? Actually, Australia has several existing policy levers that our government can pull and some of the most effective have been pioneered in the defence sector.

As Australia reaches its COVID-19 crisis peak, commentators have started speculating on post-crisis recovery, and advocating different approaches to how Australia should approach this. One of those commentators is Jennifer Westacott, CEO of the Business Council of Australia (BCA), writing in today’s (27 April, 2020) The Australian. Among other things, she calls for more R&D investment and a much more positive approach to collaboration between the universities and industry.

One thing’s for sure: Australia has (so far, touch wood!) escaped lightly with a low infection rate and a low fatality rate. It’s starting to look as if we might, as a nation, be able to return to some vestige of normality before other countries, even if our international links remain heavily constrained.

If that’s the case, then we might be presented with an unlikely advantage. If there’s unsatisfied demand for high-technology goods and services, including advanced manufacturing, then we might be in a position to capitalise, simply because we’re better positioned, as a nation and as an economy, to exploit the opportunities that we see.

Of course, we need to be able to spot them first, and recognise then for what they are, but Jennifer Westacott paints a good picture of what we might be able to achieve.

One of the things she advocates is R&D and innovation. These are her words: “A central part of growth will be playing to our strengths. Our industry policy needs to support what we are good at and allow us to reach for areas where we can excel, all underpinned by foundation capabilities and supported by digital infrastructure such as 5G.

“We finally have the chance to crack the code between innovation and commercialisation, so we can convert our great ideas into economic gains for the country. This needs a more positive approach to investment in research and development, and improved incentives for collaboration between universities and industry.”

It’s short and sweet, but she hits the mark. Innovation will help industry’s competitiveness.

However, she’s building on the intent first espoused in the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) of December 2015 and the Defence White Paper and Defence Industry Policy Statement (DWP and DIPS) of 2016. The NISA stands by itself; the other two address industry policy in the context of defence capability. But their strategic intent is similar: heightened innovation strengthening industry sectors that enable Australia to play both domestically and globally to its strengths.

What Jennifer Westacott says is unremarkable in itself, to anybody who works in the high-technology manufacturing, or bio-tech or similar sectors – its important lies in the fact that anybody is saying it at all. Innovation matters; collaboration matters; we need to be doing more of both, and doing them better. Go Ms Westacott!

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