Flinders University Investigator Lecture 2014: “We can’t wait for others to step in and solve our challenges”


by Raelke Grimmer

On Monday night, Flinders University gave its annual public lecture, called the Investigator Lecture after the name of Matthew Flinders’ ship, at the Adelaide Festival Centre. The title for this year’s lecture was “Divided we Fall: Finding a Shared Vision for Our Economic Transformation” and the lecture was given by  Rear Admiral the Honourable Kevin Scarce, AC CSC RAN Rtd. The chosen topic was certainly a timely matter, made clear by Distinguished Alumni Award Recipient Matt Johnson, who plugged the graphic design skills of his wife during his acceptance speech, as she has just moved back to Adelaide from London and is struggling to find work in the current climate.

Woven in between the threads of carefully selected words and phrases, Scarce made some interesting points, all of which he failed to elaborate on. To be fair, there is only so much time in a one hour lecture. Scarce reported that South Australia currently has an unemployment rate of 6.75%, which is 25% higher than the 10-year average. When car manufacturing eventually closes in the state, 13,200 jobs will be lost. While these closures are not planned until 2017, it doesn’t paint a bright picture for the already dreary outlook for the state’s economy.

Scarce suggested the defence industry could be part of the solution to growing the economy and creating more jobs, and cited Pittsburgh in the USA as a city which had successfully undergone an “economic transformation”. 120,000 jobs were lost over two years in the city, and universities played a key role in Pittsburgh’s transformation.

Community debate needs to be fostered in order to find solutions to SA’s economic woes, but Scarce believes the 24/7 news cycle leads to “superficial discussions of the challenges ahead” and that “volume and immediacy of information is overwhelming” and does not help to foster community debate. Scarce makes a very valid point here, a point which can be illustrated through the recent incident involving one of the scientists who helped to land a spacecraft on a comet. The scientist chose to wear a shirt with naked women on it during a press conference, and the media and social media erupted. This article attempts to strip the hysteria away from the shirt situation and provides both sides of a rational, logical argument about the incident. It is all too easy to become caught up in the emotion of a provocative headline, and believe that an instant, impulsive response is required rather than a thoughtfully considered one.

Scarce mentioned the Shaping the Future of South Australia Report, which identified 87 actions to increase the economy in SA and ten areas to increase job creation. SA needs “boldness, caring, positivity, honesty and passion”. And innovation. Don’t forget innovation, the new buzzword of politicians and institutions everywhere. It also appears that someone has finally realised that “unis needs to take the lead and find ways to connect with industry”.

So what does all this mean for youth unemployment? Youth unemployment was not specifically addressed, but someone in the audience seemed as unimpressed with the innovation buzzwords as me. At the end of the lecture, an audience member stood up and asked, “Where is the stimulus going to come from for future science and innovation?” And while Scarce tried to word his way to suggesting that if the innovation is good enough to be profitable businesses would be more than willing to cough up, he couldn’t really give an answer. Given recent cuts to Commercialisation Australia, it would seem that the government is not willing to offer support in this area either, despite the fact that “innovation has to be the future of industry in Australia”.

Basically, the youth of SA have two options. Leave while we still can, and seek employment interstate or overseas. For those who want to stay, “we can’t wait for others to step in and solve our challenges”. We need to be innovators, and become job makers instead of job takers. And we need to do this on our own, because there is only so much support for innovation from the government or private sector.
So who is up to the challenge?

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