Minister tightens ICT research purse strings

Australia’s ICT (information and communications technology) research and development community will receive no new federal money from the government’s election war chest, with ICT research policy left as it stands until after the polls.

Addressing the ICT Forum in Canberra yesterday Science Minister Peter McGauran told delegates from academia, industry and the military that the Australian ICT industry must embrace the globalized economy on its current budget.

The conference was jointly organized by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, Defence Science and Technology Organization, National ICT Australia and the ICT Council of Cooperative Research Centres.

Skirting around funding issues, McGauran said Australian ICT depended heavily on its ability to respond to change and needed to produce offerings which were scalable in relation to an expanding client base — including seizing opportunities offered by the opening of new markets.

“We must realize that there are opportunities for Australia in this increasingly competitive, globalized business. India and China are not the only winners,” McGauran said, nominating the mining sector and the computer games industry as commercial opportunities heading up “opportunities for Australian firms to provide specialist skills and services for multinational companies”.

The government’s commitment to research was also fleshed out by controversial part-time Australian government chief scientist Robin Batterham, who is also chief scientist for mining giant Rio Tinto. Batterham argued that coordinated funding to forge long-term scientific capabilities through “centers of excellence” paid far higher, long-term dividends than chasing the latest, greatest technological trend.

“The notion (Australia) ought to be a fast follower was fundamentally flawed. As a 2 percent (contributor to the global economy) a lot of others can do that a lot better (than Australia can),” Batterham said, adding the establishment of excellence centers in countries such as Germany consistently produced technology that was both ahead of the curve and commercially viable.

Batterham said true innovation, as opposed to technological breakthroughs, frequently came from the hard grind of extracting cost cuts and efficiencies. However, the chief scientist warned that while excellence centers and truly collaborative research provided big dividends, they did not come cheap, noting that German government funding for R&D routinely stretched to 12 years rather than Australia’s seven.

A representative from the University of New South Wales questioned whether current funding cuts of 25 percent per ICT (across a range of faculties) student would produce second-rate graduates to address ICT development in Australia.