Text size: A A A

Chief scientist: future depends on science, IT, engineering, maths

It’s time Australia took science more seriously to secure the country’s future, remain internationally competitive and play a part in global affairs, according to the nation’s chief scientist.

Professor Ian Chubb (pictured) told the “Australia 2025: Smart Science Symposium” at Parliament House today that Australia could and should be doing better in science, technology and innovation, but without a cohesive national strategy risks falling behind the world’s leaders.

Chubb used the address to launch his recommendations for a national strategy. The former Australian National University vice-chancellor recommends a whole-of-government approach to investment in the key disciplines of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM).

Chubb was unequivocal in his remarks to the symposium:

“Do we accept that we can plan a better future than we might otherwise have? Do we want to position Australia securely in a competitive, even hostile world? Or do we lapse into some sort of torpor based on the delusion that if the past was OK, and the present isn’t too bad, then the future will look after itself?

“In case I have left you in any doubt, I am firmly in the camp that thinks we have to act. I think that we have to take as much control of our destiny as we can. Because I think that if we don’t, we will be left behind …

“The need to move is illustrated by some simple facts of life: there is no entitlement to a particular future; there will be no free ride on the back of the accomplishments of the rest of world; or on the back of our own resources. We could rest on the oars, of course, but only if the rest of the world was doing the same. But much of our world is not.

“Indeed, the countries that we might compare ourselves with show a sense of urgency — an anxiety if you like — about not being left behind — so they are not sitting back resting and drifting with the tide, they are making things happen. Some are even trying to make the tide turn — their way.

“And they are aiming to do that by attending to their STEM enterprise — all of it, education, research and innovation. There is no presumption that past practice will be good enough; there is no presumption that the future can be taken for granted.”

Building on a position paper he released on July 31, Chubb’s final set of recommendations points to the huge economic value of science and related fields:

“It is estimated, for example, that scientific and technological advances have produced roughly half of all US economic growth in the last 50 years.

“In Australia, 65% of economic growth per capita from 1964 to 2005 can be ascribed to improvements in our use of capital, labour and technological innovation — made possible in large part by STEM.”

Chubb’s plan aims to “build a stronger Australia with a competitive economy” and sets out the means of achieving that end in four areas:

  • Australian competitiveness: STEM underpins a differentiated and readily adaptable economy that is globally competitive and will enable all Australians to benefit from the opportunities that follow;
  • Education and training: Australian education — formal and informal — will prepare a skilled and dynamic STEM workforce and lay the foundations for lifelong STEM literacy in the community;
  • Research: Australian STEM research will contribute knowledge to a world that relies on a continuous flow of new ideas and their application, and;
  • International engagement: Australian STEM will position Australia as a respected, important and able partner in a changing world, for both domestic and global benefit.

Chubb’s report notes that Australia is the only nation in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development without a national strategy on the overlapping areas of science, technology and innovation. In today’s report, he argues that:

“Australia’s STEM investments and policies have suffered from a lack of co-ordination, misdirected effort, instability and duplication. We have long presumed that good things will just happen if we wait.

“At the federal level, policy and programme responsibility is diffuse. The science, research and innovation investment reported in 2012-13 — amounting to approximately $8.6 billion — was spread across a suite of programmes in 13 separate portfolios.

“State and territory governments all design and fund a patchwork of programs relevant to STEM — from schools through to vocational and tertiary institutions, and in business and industry. They may, or may not, align with the effort of federal investment in education, innovation or research and development.

“Some of these measures are united under shared strategic goals, but many are not. Nor are the goals of specific programs necessarily clear to the participants or prospective private sector partners.

“A result? Australia now ranks 81st as a converter of
 raw innovation capability into the outputs business needs: new knowledge, better products, creative industries and growing wealth.”

The chief scientist’s detailed recommendations follow an op-ed published in the US-based Science magazine last Thursday, in which he criticised recent cuts to science funding and inconsistent support for science from successive governments:

“Like the rest of Australia’s scientific community, I was disappointed by cuts in our recent federal budget. My real concern, however, is the lack of a strategy that would help us maximise the value of the science resources we do have.

“This is not a new problem. It is one that has been allowed to persist for decades. Our support for science is the victim of short-term, on-again, off-again, thinking, terminating programs rather than giving them sustained support. We seem reluctant to identify national priorities and make sure we fund them appropriately — areas where we have the advantage, or need, or capacity to grow to scale or to take new products to the global market. This puts us at odds with an emerging global consensus.”

Chubb concluded the Science editorial with a warning, echoed in today’s report, of the risk from complacency:

“We often claim to ‘punch above our weight’, but in reality our research effort could and ought to be better. School participation in science and mathematics, particularly at senior levels, has fallen, when the trend should be heading the other way. The level of collaboration between our researchers and our businesses is one of the poorest in the OECD.

“If we are serious in our wish for a fair and prosperous Australia, in a better and happier world, then we will look to science to sustain us. And we will need to be strategic. We will get the future we earn.”

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.