Embracing the vital human element in building critical technology futures 

Industry and Science Minister Ed Husic has called for a national conversation on revitalising Australia’s science priorities. Few countries have the resources to be competitive in all technologies that might be critical to their national interest. Through its trade agreements and security partnerships—particularly the Quad—Australia has the potential to strengthen its research and development, entrepreneurial and investment systems focusing on critical technology. Reform of the labour market—as highlighted in the government’s recent Jobs and Skills Summit—needs to be undertaken as part of a strategy that draws on the talents of our like-minded partners.

The critical technology team at ASPI has commenced work focusing on talent flows—the global brain gain—to highlight the human element in building critical technology futures.

In policy conversations about critical technology, the machine is often prioritised at the expense of the human. Investments in computing hardware, pharmaceutical equipment, energy systems, manufacturing and robotic gadgetry might dominate our conception of what technology is, but it’s the human element—knowledge and ingenuity, both manual and cognitive—that makes the machine come alive.

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

In the current strategic context, the control factor—the element that governments and the commercial sector can actively work towards—is ensuring that the development of critical technologies buttresses 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; reducing inequality; promoting gender equality; providing opportunities for safe and productive work; and contributing to peace and security. In the context of the Quad, these aspirations are expressed in terms of commitments to strengthening regional prosperity, supply chains, healthcare systems, infrastructure, environmental resilience, cybersecurity and maritime security.

These are decidedly human challenges, meaning that the locus of decision-making lies with humans. How democratic governments form collaborations will help to determine the next stage of advancement on critical technology.

We think that a prime avenue is the advancement of policy settings to attract and retain global talent so that Australia is at the forefront of the global brain gain.

Policies on migration, higher education and vocational education are obvious areas for government action. However, technology workers—both those with professional qualifications and those with technical qualifications—make decisions to study and work overseas for a range of reasons, including quality-of-life factors, indicators such as pollution levels in cities, wage settings and, most importantly, attractive career progression. Some countries have built or promoted a high-tech industry by creating avenues for entrepreneurial investment.

ASPI’s work on the global brain gain will present an overview of global data on talent pipelines across critical technology areas in which Australia, India, Japan and the US have the most promising prospects for collaboration.

For each area of critical technology, we’ll make suggestions for policy adjustments that may support collaboration between Quad countries. In each instance, the policy adjustments may be particular to the critical technology area—for example, policy enhancements will differ for the research-to-application pipeline in additive manufacturing compared with nano-biology.

The tendency in public policy is to oversimplify potential solutions. Harmonisation of policy sounds seductive, but in practice it’s difficult to achieve. Proposals for public policy 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 patterns of response even to similar policy instruments.

Whether in pharmaceutics, biotechnology, chemicals, mining or software, the players vary from large corporations to new firms, universities and venture capital funds. In each, regulation, intellectual property rights and funding are meant to converge so that human skills and equipment inputs to R&D processes lead to innovative outputs that can be measured and compared. The sources of innovation are not universal across these sectors.

Each Quad country has its own strategic priorities for and approaches to developing critical technologies. Policymakers will need to grasp the clear differences in technology assessment and innovation systems across the four countries and with other potential partners. Some of these differences are to be celebrated as a means to ensure the continued robustness of democratic systems.

Tackling the critical-technology challenge is a question of setting human priorities and promoting avenues for developing human skills. In this, promoting safe and secure work for those with advanced and intermediate skills is paramount, and that will look different in each country. The work of critical technology is not just for those with advanced skills; there are also important roles for technicians. Equally, there’s important work to be done by legal practitioners, ethicists, economists and business analysts. And there’s scope for building links between the vocational education systems of Quad countries.

It’s always difficult for governments to align policy instruments so that they draw together the right mix of skills, intellectual property and infrastructure, as well as set appropriate framework conditions (for example, competitive cooperation and well-functioning capital markets).

What kind of government investment strategy is effective to shift the overall direction of technological development? On this, the OECD offers an understatement: ‘[L]ittle consensus exists on an industrial policy paradigm.’ There’s a vast set of instruments ranging from the design of intellectual property protection regimes to public procurement and R&D incentives. This means that there is vast scope for experimentation and heightened ambition.

In Australia, the critical technology fund—part of the proposed national reconstruction fund—will be looking for opportunities to reshape Australian industry. Japan has announced a ¥100 billion ($1.08 billion) fund for critical technologies as part of its economic security law. The US has passed legislation including the CHIPS and Science Act 2022 to ramp up investment in critical technologies. India has committed funding through its technological missions.

Hyperconnectivity, power diffusion and technological transformation are significantly shrinking the policy space available to governments in what’s been called the 21st century of complexity.

The scale of global problems can instil a sense of powerlessness or a tendency to resort to simplistic solutions. But now is not the time for status quo thinking or for pretending that cataloguing existing programs is innovative. Advancing the prospects for human-to-human linkages among like-minded countries firmly cements the foundations of the next phase of technological and economic growth with democratic characteristics.

ASPI’s critical technology team is investigating the potential for collaboration among Quad partners in areas of critical technology. The team is composed of data scientists and policy experts and includes Jamie Gaida, Jenny Wong-Leung, Huon Curtis, Stephan Robin and Urmika Deb.