Embedding the Vital Human Element in Building Critical Technology Futures

Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic has called for a national conversation on revitalizing Australia’s science priorities. Few countries have the resources to be competitive in all the technologies that may be essential to their national interest. Through its trade agreements and security partnerships, in particular the Quad, Australia has the potential to strengthen its systems of research and development, entrepreneurship and investment focused on critical technologies. Labor market reform, as the government’s recent Jobs and Skills Summit emphasized, must be undertaken as part of a strategy that draws on the talents of our like-minded partners.

ASPI’s Critical Technology team began work on talent flow – the global brain gain – to highlight the human element in building a critical technology future.

In political conversations about critical technologies, the machine is often privileged over the human. Investments in computer hardware, pharmaceutical equipment, energy systems, manufacturing and robotic gadgets may dominate our conception of what technology is, but it is the human element – knowledge and ingenuity, both manual and cognitive – that brings the machine to life.

While conversations about technology often intersect with speculative futures and science fiction, we’re not talking about creating Terminator- or Frankenstein-like man-machine hybrids. All types of technology carry risks of unintended consequences such as long-term environmental degradation, monopoly ownership, draconian monitoring and control, and erosion of job security.

In today’s strategic context, the control factor – the element that governments and the commercial sector can actively work towards – is to ensure that the development of critical technologies reinforces and supports the aspirations of democratic systems.

These aspirations include mitigating the effects of climate change; ensuring the provision of safe and secure food, water, housing and energy globally; reduce inequalities; promote gender equality; provide opportunities for safe and productive work; and contribute to peace and security. Under the Quad, these aspirations are expressed in terms of commitments to strengthen regional prosperity, supply chains, health systems, infrastructure, environmental resilience, cybersecurity and maritime security.

These are resolutely human challenges, that is to say that the place of decision is the human. How democratic governments form collaborations will help determine the next stage of critical technology advancement.

We believe one of the key avenues is to advance the policy parameters to attract and retain global talent so that Australia is at the forefront of global brain gain.

Migration policies, higher education and vocational education are obvious areas for government action. However, technology workers – both those with professional and technical qualifications – make the decision to study and work abroad for a variety of reasons, including quality of life factors, indicators such as pollution levels in cities, wage setting and, most importantly, an attractive career path. Some countries have built or promoted a high-tech industry by creating entrepreneurial investment opportunities.

ASPI’s work on global brain gain will present an overview of global data on talent pipelines in critical technology areas where Australia, India, Japan and the United States have the best prospects for collaboration. more promising.

For each critical technology area, we will make suggestions for policy adjustments that can support collaboration between Quad countries. In each case, the policy adjustments may be particular to the critical technology area – for example, the policy improvements will be different for the research-to-application pipeline in additive manufacturing versus nanobiology.

The tendency of public policy is to oversimplify potential solutions. Harmonization of policies sounds attractive, but in practice it is difficult to achieve. Public policy proposals often treat targeted critical technologies as homogeneous enough that a particular policy instrument can have uniform applicability and universal effect. However, there are major national differences in comparative and competitive advantages, implying potentially different response patterns even for similar policy instruments.

Whether it’s pharmaceuticals, biotech, chemicals, mining, or software, the players range from large corporations to start-ups, universities, and venture capital funds. In each, regulation, intellectual property rights and funding are expected to converge so that human skills and equipment inputs to R&D processes lead to innovative results that can be measured and compared. The sources of innovation are not universal in these sectors.

Each Quad country has its own strategic priorities and approaches for the development of critical technologies. Policy makers will need to understand the obvious differences in technology assessment and innovation systems in the four countries and with other potential partners. Some of these differences should be celebrated as a way to ensure the continued strength of democratic systems.

Meeting the challenge of critical technologies means setting human priorities and promoting avenues for developing human skills. In this regard, promoting safe and secure work for people with advanced and intermediate skills is paramount, and this will be different in each country. Critical technology work is not just for those with advanced skills; there are also important roles for technicians. Similarly, there is important work to be done by legal practitioners, ethicists, economists and business analysts. And it is possible to establish links between the vocational education systems of the Quad countries.

It is always difficult for governments to align policy instruments so that they bring together the right mix of skills, intellectual property and infrastructure, as well as to define appropriate framework conditions (e.g. competitive cooperation and well-functioning capital markets).

What type of government investment strategy is effective in changing the overall direction of technology development? On this point, the OECD offers an understatement: “[L]there is little consensus on an industrial policy paradigm. There is a wide range of instruments ranging from the design of intellectual property protection regimes to public procurement and R&D incentives. This means that there is a wide field for experimentation and increased ambition.

In Australia, the Critical Technologies Fund, part of the proposed National Reconstruction Fund, will seek opportunities to reshape Australian industry. Japan has announced a 100 billion yen ($1.08 billion) fund for critical technologies under its economic security law. The United States has passed laws, including CHIPS and the Science Act 2022, to increase investment in critical technologies. India has pledged to fund its technology missions.

Hyperconnectivity, the diffusion of power, and technological transformation are dramatically shrinking the policy space available to governments in what is being called the 21st century of complexity.

The scale of global problems can lead to feelings of helplessness or a tendency to resort to simplistic solutions. But now is not the time to think about the status quo or pretend that cataloging existing programs is innovative. Advancing the prospects for human-to-human ties between like-minded countries firmly cements the foundations for the next phase of technological and economic growth with democratic characteristics.

ASPI’s Critical Technology team investigates the potential for Quad partners to collaborate in critical technology areas. Parameters include the development of comparative indicators of publications, patents and human capital as well as the exploration of policy parameters in areas such as funding and venture capital investment. The team is made up of data scientists and policy experts and includes Jamie Gaida, Jenny Wong-Leung, Huon Curtis, Stephan Robin and Urmika Deb.

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