Federal budget

Invest in STEM for a brighter future

14 October 2020

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

Professor Hugh Bradlow FTSE

President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering

The Government recently presented the delayed Federal budget. It is gratifying that they plan to make significant investments in technology and STEM education, advanced manufacturing, improved healthcare, digital adoption by business and government, infrastructure, cybersecurity and encouraging a STEM-skilled workforce.

These are all areas ATSE wholeheartedly supported in our submission to the Government on the budget.

In times of crisis, building long lasting infrastructure and human capability is the most beneficial approach a government can take. Not only do such programs create jobs and strengthen the economy but they create a legacy for future generations. We all recall that the GFC of 2008 was the stimulus for the creation of the National Broadband Network (NBN).

While I personally thought that the actual implementation plan proposed by the Government of the day was somewhat flawed, despite the vagaries of the implementation over the years, the NBN has served the country well during the pandemic crisis of 2020. We would have been in considerably deeper trouble without it.

Just imagine 2020 without Zoom meetings, telehealth consultations, remote education, on-demand entertainment, etc. While it has not gone perfectly smoothly (I plan to give a ‘scorecard’ at my CAETS seminar presentation next week) the circumstances would have been much worse without NBN.

Looking forward, the legacy infrastructure we should build now is an abundant clean energy supply.  Most of today’s population want it and our children definitely need it. It was therefore welcome to see the government will be investing in clean energy and low emissions technology development, although I would like to see more detail about how the government will shift us toward a clean energy economy.

It has been disappointing to me that we seem to be hamstrung by a debate mired in the tactics of the implementation (not too dissimilar to the discussion around NBN). I believe it does not matter whether we do it with gas and carbon capture and storage (CCS), hydrogen, batteries and renewables, or nuclear, providing we reduce the greenhouse emissions to zero. If only we could just set the parameters and let the market decide, we might actually achieve progress.

On the subject of clean energy, last week I virtually attended the annual Innovation for Cool Earth Forum (ICEF) in Tokyo. One of the insights from the ICFF was how different countries are approaching clean energy. The Japanese and Koreans are creating the demand, and hence the stimulus, for a hydrogen economy, and at the same time the Europeans are looking at repurposing their gas industries into “blue hydrogen” (hydrogen created from natural gas but preventing the C02 emissions using CCS).

In addition, innovation around nuclear continues unabated despite all the naysayers. Literally dozens of private investors around the globe are building new technology nuclear systems that are both safer and more affordable than today’s reactors. Australia is clearly on the hydrogen train but I am still concerned that we are making a mistake in ignoring nuclear. One of the take outs from ICEF for me is that if we are to keep global warming below 2oC, in addition to renewables, we shall need both nuclear and direct removal of CO2 from the atmosphere.