Can Canada learn from Australia's success?
By Walter Stewart
There's no doubt that Canada has made impressive gains in advanced networking. Led by CANARIE, Canada's pioneering work in optical research and education networks, advanced applications and user-controlled lightpaths are being replicated by countries around the world.
But we should not be na‹ve in thinking that other countries are standing still. Australia is a case in point. Earlier this year, I traveled with CANARIE president and CEO Dr Andrew Bjerring, to Australia to learn more about the progress that country has made in just a few years in developing national strategies for E-research.
We participated in more than a dozen meetings in Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne with representatives from the national and state governments, National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Taskforce, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australian Research and Education Network, Australian Partnership for Advanced Computing, National ICT Australia, state organizations for high performance computing in both New South Wales and Victoria, and leading academics from several universities.
Australia's turnaround began just five years ago when, in 2001, the government introduced the largest, most comprehensive and far-reaching initiative in support of science and innovation in its history. It committed $3 billion over five years to a wide range of projects overseen by a committee chaired by the Prime Minister and advised by the Chief Scientist. In 2003, the government committed a further $5.3 billion.
Its innovation strategy, entitled Backing Australia's Ability: An Innovation and Action Plan for the Future (BAA), has three main elements: Commercialization; Research and Development; and Skills Development. Of the total $8.3 billion in funding for the strategy, $5.3 billion is committed to R&D. Of the money for R&D, $1.8 billion is committed to infrastructure.
However, it wasn't the dollar amounts that impressed us most. After all, they are not radically out of line with the new funding Canada committed over the past decade. There were two things that we found most striking - Australia has integrated all of its R&D efforts into one clear policy framework, and it has successfully rallied the collective might of its various levels of government, its bureaucracy and its research and educational communities to work collaboratively to make everything happen.
Embracing the "collaboration habit"
Collaboration seems to be a habit in Australia, perhaps enabled by an environment where collaboration is rewarded. This is reflected in what appears from a Canadian perspective to be an extraordinary level of co-operation among states and between states and the national government. Universities are caught up in this spirit as well.
Even at the federal level, the collaboration between three departments - Communications, Information, Technology and the Arts; Education, Science and Training; and, the Industry Department - is unknown at the federal level in Canada. Collaboration at the political level between ministers also seems especially strong.
The entire BAA initiative was led from the political level, and was supported by at least three strong ministers as well as the prime minister, with little by way of competitiveness seeming to get in the way. With that kind of leadership, the bureaucracy had no trouble buying in.
Australia has developed a clear appreciation of the need for policy frameworks to support coordination among the elements of the national innovation system. Although the funding that Australia provides in support of research and research infrastructure is proportionately less than in Canada, they are much closer to having a fully coordinated policy framework to guide its allocation in support of national priorities.
Lessons for Canada
Here in Canada, Industry Canada is putting the final touches on a national strategy for S&T. In the past 10 years, Canada has built a strong foundation for research and technology development, with CANARIE's CAnet 4 providing the enabling infrastructure for many of the innovations happening within our universities, schools, research labs and companies.
Australia may be creeping ahead, but Canada is not far behind. CANARIE has been meeting with its partners in research, education, industry and government over the past two years to champion a similar approach in Canada, one that marries the disparate elements of our S&T system into an integrated research enterprise with a common vision and goals.
CANARIE has taken a clear stand that a successor network to CAnet 4 will be a foundational component of this new research enterprise. This successor network will build on CANARIE's role as Canada's leading organization in the development of next-generation Internet architecture. We see this new network as becoming more integrated into an overall infrastructure that includes computation, specialized instrumentation, sensor networks, data repositories, and highly qualified people.
Australia is proving that it can be done, with determination, collaboration, adequate funding and a national strategy. Much of the heavy lifting has already been done in this country. Canada is well positioned to take the next critical step for moving our country back into the top ranks of innovative nations.
Walter Stewart is president of Walter Stewart & Associates and past chair of the CANARIE board of directors.