ATSE President's Reflection

Why we need a tech-ready workforce

16 September 2020

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

One of the numerous unfortunate by-products of the pandemic is an ‘infodemic’ of conspiracy theories. This is cause for considerable concern, as it undermines scientific expertise at a time when there has never been greater need for trust in authoritative scientific advice.

At the start of the pandemic we saw a high level of trust (at least in Australia) in the advice of medical experts. However, as time wears on, I am concerned that the infodemic of conspiracies may be an indication that people are starting to lose faith in that guidance.

At the best of times, the general population has difficulty understanding the scientific process, particularly the notion that evidence creates a balance of probabilities rather than definitive proof (e.g. “I can’t prove to you that mobile phones definitely don’t cause cancer, but on the balance of a huge amount evidence gathered to date it is extremely improbable”).

It does not help that the COVID-19 virus is so mysterious and that there are a number of critical unknown factors, even after six months of intensive global research.

For example, after you have recovered from the virus how long does immunity last? How did New Zealand get reinfected after 100 days without a case (I gather evidence is swinging to returned travellers, but how did it get out with strict quarantine procedures)? Do masks protect the wearers or just others and, if the latter, why aren’t they mandatory everywhere? When will we get a vaccine and for how long will it provide immunity? When will we see a quick test for asymptomatic carriers of the virus?

To address these concerns, it is imperative that we raise the technological capability of our workforce and that governments, industry and the technology/scientific research communities collaborate effectively. With these priorities in mind, ATSE has made a submission to the Australian Government’s budget funding process, which includes a tool to strengthen industry and university collaboration through the adoption of the collaboration readiness index developed by Erol Harvey and the ATSE Industry and Innovation Forum.

We have also sought funding for industry internships to encourage postgraduate students (who represent the most highly skilled workers in the economy) to seek careers in industry through an opportunity to experience the sort of exciting challenges an industry career can provide. If we are successful in our submission, ATSE will be supporting STEM careers from school (through STELR) to university (through IMNIS mentoring) to the workforce (through an internship program).

To quote Dickens, while currently it feels like “the worst of times”, there are opportunities to turn it into the “best of times”.