THE decision to name Professor Fiona Stanley as Australian of the Year is a very important one for WA.
Not only does it recognise Professor Stanley’s contribution to health research, it also highlights the fact that leading scientists who call WA home can still make a significant contribution to the nation and the world.
As the founding director of the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, our newest Australian of Year has led the pack in this important field.
She is also head of the Australian Research Alliance for Children and Youth and, as a member of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, is known to influence Canberra’s decision making on family issues with her concerns about youth suicide, child delinquency and juvenile crime.
These achievements have obviously taken great foresight, leadership, patience and powers of persuasion.
Those who work with her say Professor Stanley also has the great gift of management talent.
For this reason it is important that she has achieved so much in one of the world’s most isolated places. Such talents are so often lured away.
While I can’t claim to know too much about the institute’s structure, I believe Professor Stanley’s success also shows that the strategy employed by those behind the Telethon fund-raising machine is very apt for WA.
By channelling significant funding into a specific area, it has allowed the creation of a centre of international excellence in WA – a place that can hold talent in the State or attract it from other places.
That is the kind of strategy that government needs to consider.
We need to look at the strengths in our economy, environment and people to find the best places to focus our limited resources.
While everyone hates the ‘picking winners’ approach, that doesn’t preclude government and industry from being strategic.
Take a peek at our future industries focus this week.
Funding failures resonate
LAST week’s special report on the crisis in research and development funding certainly hit a nerve.
I have had a number of comments about the timeliness of the piece, which revealed that WA is failing to pull its weight in the national tug-of-war over money for cutting edge projects.
In a key indicator, WA accounted for just 1.2 per cent of the $478 million in Cooperative Research Centres funding provided by the Federal Government.
While the State Government says we get more than that through sharing grants with other States, academics argue that we are missing out on the long-term benefits of having projects based here.
It is all very disturbing and compares very poorly to good news offered by Professor Fiona Stanley’s recognition as Australian of the Year.
We need to put more resources into winning this sort of funding, through identifying where we believe it is appropriate and then helping projects needing finance to win it.
Otherwise we risk losing our best people and projects to States where the money is available.
An individual approach
THAT doesn’t mean that I am suggesting we can’t come up with great new industries without government assistance.
John Rothwell and his crew at Austal have led a revolution in global shipbuilding and established an new industry here.
While the export industry has had some assistance to fight European subsidies and help finance entry into new markets, few in government would have been aware that such a development was possible.
It just shows that individuals with a great idea and strength of character can become global players from a WA base.
While the shipbuilders constantly face the highs and lows of international markets, there is no doubt that their foresight has created a significant business for the State.
And it is not just as valuable exporters of technologically advanced products.
The basic building blocks of aluminium ships require skilled labour in a variety of fields.
Mr Rothwell highlighted the fact that in the US his firm has struggled to find such skills and has exported its apprenticeship program to alleviate that problem. It is important that we keep those skills here.
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