Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Chubb Reviews the Health of Australian Science

By Ian Lowe

Australia’s Chief Scientist has found that the Australian science system is healthy and robust, but there are some serious challenges – particularly regarding student enrolments.

In May Australia’s Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Chubb, launched the eagerly anticipated Health of Australian Science report (see also Simon Says, p.3). His office’s web site described the report as “a comprehensive overview of Australia’s science system, outlining our strengths and vulnerabilities”.

Speaking at the National Press Club in Canberra, Chubb said that the Australian science system is healthy and robust. “We should be proud of what our scientists, our engineers and our mathematicians achieve”, he said. “We are well represented in the international arena; our researchers are some of the most productive in the world.”

The research picture is quite positive. Gross expenditure on science-related R&D in Australia is now about $25 billion per year. Funding of research has kept pace with inflation in recent decades, although there has been a significant shift of resources from basic science to medical research – a process that one colleague attributed to decisions being made by ageing politicians with unhealthy lifestyles!

That was the good news. He went on to identify some serious challenges, noting that future prosperity depends on “a strong supply of graduates in the right areas”. Specifically, he identified some areas of expertise “that are crucial to our national interest” where the system appears to be failing.

The report spells out in detail what is obvious to the casual observer. The changes of the past 25 years have seen a systematic running-down of “the enabling sciences” – mathematics, physics and chemistry. It has also been clear for some time that we aren’t producing enough professional engineers to meet the demands of the modern economy (see Directions, p.41). I had not realised until I read the Chubb report that the same is true of agricultural sciences.

In his speech to the National Press Club, Chubb also called for development of “a culture that appreciates a science education”, including a recognition of the critical role of teachers who inspire students to pursue science at the tertiary level. “The science degree prepares students for a lifetime of critical thinking, a drive to find evidence and an understanding of how our society fits into the broader picture of the world, all of which are invaluable for the development of a prosperous Australia,” he said.

So the detailed figures in the report are quite disturbing. “Between 1992 and 2010 the percentage of the Year 12 cohort enrolled in Biology fell from 35.3 per cent to 24 per cent. For Chemistry the decline was from 22.9 to 17.2 per cent and for Physics it was from 20.8 to 14.2 per cent.”

And the report warns that these figures are still declining. If students don’t take science subjects in Year 12, they certainly won’t study them at university.

The tertiary figures confirm a trend away from such areas as engineering and agriculture. Student numbers in engineering grew, but by less than the overall growth in undergraduate numbers, while enrolments in agriculture were more than 30% below the 2002 figure by 2010. And gender balance is still an issue in the enabling sciences, engineering and information technology. Women are 46% of chemistry students, 35% in maths, 24% in physics and only 14% in IT and engineering.

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The prospect of “intermediate level” radioactive waste being stored at Lucas Heights has sparked a debate about the broader issue of waste management. The immediate problem is that the spent fuel elements from the decommissioned HIFAR reactor at Lucas Heights were sent to France for reprocessing, and the resulting waste will be returned in 2015. Since there is no long-term storage facility in this country, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation is applying for permission to store the waste temporarily.

I said in a newspaper column that there is no alternative in the short term and the site is at least secure, but the issue highlights the need for a public debate about the long-term problem of waste management. I was subsequently attacked in print by the responsible Minister, Martin Ferguson. He accused me of “scaremongering” and even claimed I had a secret agenda of wanting the waste left in Sydney permanently.

Ironically, the Minister had himself called last year for a debate about waste management based on facts rather than emotion.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.