Australia’s Chief Scientist is rightfully cranky

While his global compatriots look to the future Ian Chubb is stuck with the thankless task of trying to convince the government that studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics is a good idea.

The Chief Scientists of most advanced economies today have better things to do than spend their time trying to convince kids - and their government - that studying science, technology, engineering or mathematics is a good idea.

Not in Australia, where our Chief Scientist Ian Chubb spends a great deal of time doing exactly that: Giving big picture speeches on big stages about the importance of science and its related disciplines to the well-being of the national economy and to the broader society.

What a demoralising existence for a person of science, to spend your days convincing a sceptical nation of its value!

Professor Chubb this week delivered the 2014 Jack Beale lecture at the University of New South Wales. It was a very good speech, and full of the very familiar and sobering themes that he has spoken of so frequently in the past year. (You can read it in full here.)

That not enough Australian kids are studying STEM subjects; that our STEM skills are poor; that collaboration between our business and research sectors is poor; and that improvements in all of these areas is critical to the future well being of our society.

In other advanced economies, the Chief Scientists probably spend their time honing their already finely-tuned science and innovation policy. Not here.

“Australia is now the only OECD country that does not have a contemporary national science and technology, or innovation strategy.” Prof Chubb says.

It is more than a year since the Office of the Chief Scientist released its position paper “STEM in the national interest: A strategic approach”. I remember it well, because the Business Council of Australia jumped on board right away, and has been vocal on STEM skills issues.

BCA chief executive Jennifer Westacott has written and spoken on STEM issues; the paper formed part of a major BCA policy paper around the election last year; former BCA president Maurice Newman was on board. And more recently, the new BCA president Catherine Livingstone has spoken directly on the issue.

The problem with "she'll be right" ethos

For more than a year, Prof Chubb has been banging the table. And he must be getting sick of it. Certainly he believes apathy and inertia in creating science and innovation policy a problem for the nation. He laments the Australian “she’ll be right” ethos.

And still there is little urgency on this issue. The core of his address is this:

“Countries at all levels of development are now focusing on the capabilities required for building new jobs and creating wealth,” Prof Chubb said.

“And they are acting now to secure the skills, investment and international alliances for their future,” he said.

“At the core of almost every agenda is science, technology, engineering and mathematics (which I will refer to from here as science). It is the almost universal preoccupation now shaping the world’s plans.”

The election of a new government last September perhaps put things on hold. Elections will do that, as a new government gets its feet under the desk. But it is hard to feel comfortable about the direction the Abbott Government is going.

Not having a dedicated Minister for Science is troubling for many. But it is the cuts to core institutions, most notably the CSIRO and its lesser known cousin NICTA - to say nothing of ongoing tertiary research funding - that those in the sector find brutal.

Further, there has been little progress in finding a national way forward to bridge STEM gaps at primary or secondary level, and little discussion in the federal executive branch for improving enrolment rates for tertiary STEM courses.

It has been a long wait, but something heartening is likely to be revealed as a part of the Abbott National Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda, to be announced next month.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Prof Chubb scoured the internet and found a positive quote from the Prime Minister from a doorstop interview during his recent visit to New York.

“Science is at the heart of a country’s competitiveness and it is important that we do not neglect science as we look at the general educational and training schemes.,” the Prime Minister said in June, effective making Prof Chubb’s point for him.

The Prime Minister’s comments are especially interesting for where they took place. He was visiting the Pathways to Technology Early College High School (P-Tech) in Brooklyn, a program that connects high schools and college and the wider workforce through collaborations and private sector mentorships (at the Brooklyn P-Tech, IBM is deeply engaged with the school.)

Asked directly about the contents of his Competitiveness Agenda at the door stop, Mr Abbott  said: “There will be a significant emphasis in boosting our focus on science, technology, engineering and maths.”

Prof Chubb may yet be given reasons to be cheerful in relation to the reform of how STEM subjects are studies in this country. In the meantime, I expect he will continue his campaign and probably still be pretty cranky.

James Riley has covered technology and innovation issues in Australia and Asia as a writer and commentator for 25 years. Read more from James Riley at www.InnovationAus.com or follow him @888riley on Twitter.

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