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Australia, lagging in science and technology, needs big leap forward

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When most foreigners think of Australia they conjure up images of kangaroos, vast desert, or actor Mel Gibson. That, say many business leaders, is exactly the problem. Better that the country's strides in software development be as familiar to the world. The economic future of this continent-sized nation is at stake, according to many experts, and greater commitment toward science and technology can go a long way in alleviating its woes. ``If we can restructure and get industry more efficient,'' says Homer Paxton, economist with the Chamber of Manufactures, ``our future will be bright. If not, we are in deep trouble.''

Yet, plans to upgrade Australian technology are at a standstill. A key to boosting several currently lagging sectors is to develop greater links between innovations and technological breakthroughs with commercial processes. Australian manufacturing plants and equipment are outdated, as many as three decades behind the United States and Japan. The structural changes that other nations have gone through are not progressing as smoothly as they are in other parts of the dynamic Pacific Rim. Exports are considered essential to any recovery -- and to long-term growth.

``There is little hope that the country can compete with rapidly industrializing neighbors,'' declares business forecaster Philip Ruthven in Melbourne. Productivity is low in most industries -- another problem that technology can alleviate as things now stand. Telecommunication is far behind other nations; word processing is only now catching on.

Exports today are low-value-added, high-bulk goods, an anethema to high-tech advocates. While a base for adapting high-tech to manufacturing exists, many research and development programs do not have continuity.

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