Australian inventions – we're not as good as we used to be

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For a small country, Australia has always punched above its weight in terms on innovation. But are we now losing future wealth and prosperity because of the difficulties of innovating in the 21st century?

In the 20th century it was said that Australia was a nation that rode on the sheep’s back, referring to our long dependence on wool as our main export, while in the last 50 years particularly we’ve made a lot of money ripping minerals out of the ground and shipping the raw materials overseas.

But we do have a long and proud history of making things for a better modern world. A roll call of some of our past inventiveness is an impressive line-up:

  • refrigerator (1856)
  • stump jump plough (1876)
  • electric drill (1889)
  • paper notepads (1902)
  • military tank (1912)
  • heart pacemaker (1928)
  • solar hot water (1953)
  • black box flight recorder (1958)
  • ultrasound (1961)
  • bionic ear (1979)
  • wi-fi (1992)

Of course we haven’t stopped, but often now much of our inventiveness is being ‘lost’ to overseas interest and investment. An article today highlighted the story based on the number of patent applications Australians make. In the year 2013 Australians made 3,061 patent applications in this country, while overseas Aussies filed for 9,012 patents. China, the new world powerhouse, is making 396 patent applications for every million Chinese people, while Australia’s number is 116 per million of our population.

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So how do we boost local innovation, and having it stay in, and benefit, Australia. Some degree of our innovation of late has come from people immigrating, so do we look at increasing the numbers of bright minds from overseas? We already do well in this area, with the second-highest inventor immigration rate in the world, behind the US.

Or is the answer in adjusting our taxation system? A recent US study looking at patent applications and taxation has found that a link between state tax rates and the movement of scientists , finding them likely to stay put in an encouraging tax environment. A controversial point in Australia recently is a higher tax for the extremely wealthy. Could this be a way of financing home-grown, home-benefitting innovation?

Do you think Australia is relying too much on mining to fund our future as a country? Would you like to see our ideas be funded and developed here, or are you happy that they are funded overseas? Should the exceedingly wealthy play more of a role in paying for budding inventors?