Reports count impact of advanced sciences on economy

Advances in the physical, mathematical and biological sciences in the past 20 to 30 years underpin A$330 billion (US$233 billion) a year of Australia’s economic output. These advances also support nearly 1.2 million Australian jobs, or 10% of total employment.

These findings are presented in a new report commissioned by the Office of the Chief Scientist and the Australian Academy of Science and produced by the Centre for International Economics, or CIE.

The report is a synthesis of two CIE studies: a new analysis of the contribution of advances in the biological sciences to the Australian economy, and a 2015 analysis of the contribution of the advanced natural and physical sciences.

Without the last 30 years of advances in the biological sciences alone, the Australian economy would be 5% smaller than it is today, an annual difference of about A$65 billion. The burden of disease carried by its people would be 18% to 34% higher, and Australians would miss out on health improvements worth up to A$156 billion every year.

Australia’s outgoing Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb AC, said the reports underscore the importance of science to all Australians.

“Of course the benefits of science are difficult to measure. Of course those benefits can only be partially counted in dollar terms. But of course we have to investigate them, in economic as well as human terms, because we cannot afford to ever take them for granted.

“We have, for the first time, a credible estimate of a phenomenon that defines our lives and underpins our prospects for growth. I trust it will inform our discussions about the actions we take to maximise the benefits of science for Australians.”

Professor Andrew Holmes AM, President of the Australian Academy of Science, noted that the finding that science contributes so substantially to Australia’s economy is consistent with similar analysis conducted in Australia and overseas.

Critical to prosperity

“Our national situation is unique, but the message for all advanced economies is clear. Scientists, and the industries which harness their discoveries, are critical to prosperity.

“We need Australian science to address our own challenges, just as we need it to have access to the new knowledge uncovered overseas.”

Universities Australia said that at a time when the country faces a growing burden of chronic, often preventable disease, the reports highlight the contribution of science to prevent illness – and not just treat it.

The reports reveal that without the advanced biological sciences, the burden of cardiovascular disease in Australia would be between 35% and 40% higher, while the burden of cancer would be between 27% and 54% higher.

Spray-on skin, the Cochlear hearing device, and cervical cancer vaccines are some of Australia's best known inventions. Yet the reports highlight that remarkable advances in biological sciences are being used in all sectors, not just health. For instance, developments in microbiology have helped create 'self-healing' concrete while other advances are being used to build a more resilient Great Barrier Reef.

In a statement, Universities Australia said the two reports underscore the importance of investing in science and research, and reaffirm the government's move to put science at the centre of the national agenda to drive future prosperity.

The report on advanced biological sciences says some 3.6% of Australian economic activity, worth A$46 billion a year, relies directly on advanced biological sciences. This accounts for 4% of total Australian employment or 464,000 jobs.

It also produced the equivalent of between A$83 billion and A$156 billion a year in health benefits. Exports associated with advanced biological sciences are worth A$1.2 billion – the equivalent of 4% of total exports of goods and services.

The report on the impact of advanced physical, mathematical and biological sciences combined, says they contribute 14% of economic activity, worth A$185 billion per year in direct impact.