Setting up the smart state
TWO events last week focused attention on state government attempts to build up the technology sector in Western Australia.
One was Premier Alan Carpenter’s commitment of $20 million in funding for a radio astronomy research centre.
The second was global communications company Motorola’s decision to close its software development centre in Nedlands.
Motorola’s exit will result in the loss of about 100 staff and contractor positions, which happens to match the number of high-skill jobs that Mr Carpenter says could be created at the astronomy centre.
The two events are not related.
However, the Motorola experience shows that backing individual companies – as the state did in this case through $5 million in payroll tax concessions – is a risky exercise.
Investing in radio astronomy research is also a risky exercise. The government is seeking to maximise WA’s chances of winning what could be one of the world’s biggest science projects – the Square Kilometre Array.
WA is already on a short-list of two locations for the radio telescope project, which is backed by 19 countries and has an estimated cost of $2 billion.
The federal government has also been talking up this project.
Innovation, Industry, Science and Research Minister, Senator Kim Carr, says the SKA project will create hundreds of high-skill jobs over it 50-year life.
“Establishing the SKA would be one of the world’s largest ICT projects, with enormous implications for Australian industry – including fibre optics, data storage, transport and many other areas,” Senator Carr said recently.
If the SKA proceeds, and if WA is the chosen location – we won’t know for another four years – the big challenge is ensuring WA provides more than the location.
Mr Carpenter acknowledged this when he said he wanted to also provide the infrastructure, and the scientists and engineers.
ICT sector seeks policy setting
ICT is one of Industry and Enterprise Minister Francis Logan’s targeted growth sectors.
Mr Logan has spoken many times about promoting growth in four sectors that are not dependent on the resources boom – ICT, biofuels, biotechnology, and marine and defence.
The ICT sector may gain spin-off benefits from radio astronomy, but the sector is waiting for the state government to finalise a dedicated ICT strategy.
Successful research organisations such as the Western Australian Telecommunications Research Institute (WATRI) have been left in a funding limbo while the state finalises its policy.
WATRI has been backed by the University of Western Australia and Curtin University of Technology, and fostered four spin-out companies, but currently faces an uncertain future.
It is based at Nedlands, where it was supposed to leverage its proximity to Motorola’s software development centre. However, the announced closure of Motorola’s centre has put an end to that logic.
University research funding unclear
ONE of the big unknowns for the research community is future federal government funding policy.
Senator Carr scrapped the Howard government’s research quality framework after winning office and is developing a new funding framework.
The policy hiatus has encouraged the universities to engage in some vigorous posturing.
One school of thought is that funding should be concentrated in universities that are capable of being world class. This would benefit the Group of Eight universities, which includes UWA.
An alternative view pushed by Curtin vice-chancellor Professor Jeanette Hacket is that research funding should be spread more equitably.
“Recent calls for more funding to be channelled into the Group of Eight universities ignore the value a diverse cohort of universities with differing strengths and areas of excellence provides to Australia,” Professor Hacket said.
“University education should not be a zero-sum game with winners and losers, where a select group of students at a select few universities receive a world-class education while the rest receive something perceived as less.
“We must move towards inclusively rather than elitism.”
UWA vice-chancellor Professor Alan Robson says “it’s not about elitism, its about excellence”.
He said the reality is that about 70 per cent of university research is conducted by the G8, which have gained most of their research funding through competitive grants.
Professor Robson also cites financial support provided to UWA by companies such as BHP Billiton, Mitsui & Co and Monadelphous to support its credentials.
“If you are going to be world class, you are not going to do it on government funding,” he said.
Curtin, and to a lesser extent other universities in Perth, have also gained backing from industry.
Each university has its strengths, and playing to those strengths to maximise government and corporate support has to be healthy.