August 22, 2002

Article at Canberra Times

OPINION | Australia suffers from innovation illiteracy

A comprehensive strategy needed to tell the rest of the world about our scientific and technological advances, says Wilson da Silva.

EVERYONE agrees science is a good thing, that innovation is important to the economy. But when it comes to ‘science communication’, people go blank. Most visualise interactive museum exhibits or wacky science experiments the whole National Science Week shtick.

What they don’t visualise is a multi-million dollar industry in which the major economies spend heavily to gain competitive advantage for their innovation output. Where scientific advances drive share prices or establish a company’s pre-eminence in an emerging technology.

Outside Australia, policymakers and corporate leaders understand that science communication is the oil that greases the wheels of innovation.n That it engages society in the race to innovate, and helps disseminate technological advances to a wider community.

Without it, you end with a society that is not only profoundly unaware of its own scientific prowess, but unable to tap it. How can you exploit a technology if you don’t know it exists? No wonder traders brand our economy ‘low-tech’ and mark down our dollar. No wonder Australian technology companies have trouble raising US capital.

How often do Americans read about an Australian innovation in The Wall Street Journal? When was the last time BusinessWeek ran an article on an Australian technology company?

We spend $9 billion annually on research, but next to nothing on telling people about it. If Australians don’t know about our fabulous innovations, how can we expect the world to know or care?

If Australians don’t get it, they won’t invest in innovation companies, managers won’t spend on R&D, and newspapers won’t report on innovation.

No wonder most Australians don’t really believe a local technology company can cut it in global high tech (despite evidence to the contrary!). It’s not a public relations problem you can fix with a funky science exhibit. It’s a cultural problem.

Australians are not averse to risk; they happily sink money in mining companies whose assets are prospective leases and holes in the ground. And yet, they go wobbly at the thought of investing in a biotech company whose promising drug is entering Phase II trials. An investment manager would tell you which is the better bet; and it’s unlikely to involve picks and shovels.

Why? We as a society lack ‘innovation literacy’. We don’t have a broad cultural understanding of how science and technology works and what it can do for us.

We want to play in the big league of world innovation, but we don’t really understand it. And yet, if anything is going to secure us long-lasting wealth, it isn’t going to be a new mine or mountains of wheat.

For advanced nations like Australia, with high labour costs and a well-developed education system, innovation is the only solution.

But if we’re going to make it, we as a society need to understand science and how innovation happens. If we understand it, we’ll appreciate it. If we appreciate it, we may well invest in it. If we invest in it, we’ll generate jobs, economic growth and export revenue.

Science communication is an essential part of this mix. Some years ago, I was one of the few foreign correspondents who bothered to write about Australian science and technology for an overseas readership.

Until we see science communication as more than something to entertain the kids, we will continue to underperform on innovation.

I cannot count how many times I’ve been told that one or another story I wrote all those years ago led to an international scientific collaboration, or foreign interest in a local company. That’s just one guy showing a bit of interest; imagine what could be achieved with a targeted, well-designed science communication program like the many that exist overseas.

Creating innovation literacy requires root and branch reform of how we as a society think about science. That requires more than a science quiz game at a local high school during National Science Week. However worthy, in truth it is the soft end of science communication.

What’s needed is a long-term effort to turn science and technology into a field of endeavour that is regarded as serious, respectable and a wealth generator.

Let me give you an example: a decade ago, the German government thought level of news coverage of science was too low. With German companies, it funded the salaries of science journalists in media outlets for a number of years, on the proviso that they were trained as such, and only covered science and technology stories. Today, there are nearly 100 science journalists working in Germany, and every newspaper even the smaller ones have a weekly science section. Some have a daily one! Every TV channel and radio network has a science program.

Science reportage is now considered ‘part of the furniture’ in German journalism. The program wound up this year, its job done.

That’s one way to boost innovation literacy; an example of a strategic program with a well designed and quantifiable long term outcome; there have been many others.

Until we see science communication as more than something to entertain the kids, we will continue to underperform on innovation. If we don’t want the brilliant ideas of our scientists to wither on the vine, we need to let people know about them.

Wilson da Silva is a science journalist and is president of the Australian Science Communicators. This is an edited extract of a speech to a science communication symposium at the Australian Academy of Science on August 5.