Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Invest in Science for a Stronger Australia

By Suzanne Cory

An economic crisis is looming because Australia is not investing in science for its future.

An economic crisis is looming for Australia, and it has nothing to do with carbon trading, food shortages, a global economic crisis or devastating floods. But it has everything to do with our citizens’ ability to understand and tackle those issues. If we do not act strongly, and act soon, Australia’s economy is sure to become less productive, less resilient and less competitive.

While China, India, Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Brazil continue to pump more money into higher education and research, Australia continues its modest 2% GDP investment – less than the OECD average and without the scale benefits of a large population. Developed countries with small populations invest well above the OECD average: Sweden, Finland and Switzerland know that research leads to productivity. In contrast, Australia appears dangerously relaxed, perhaps due to the mining boom, the strongest Australian dollar in decades and near full employment.

Already indicators are warning us about the impact of our stagnated investment. The Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations reports that between 1991 and 2007, the proportion of secondary students studying biology fell from 35.9% to 24.7%. For chemistry, the number fell from 23.3% to just 18% while physics fell from 20.9% to 14.6%.

At the tertiary level, we are also failing to make the most of our talent. Only a little more than half of our PhD science graduates go on to a research career. And, for want of opportunity, many of those that do seek and secure research careers in Europe, America and Asia, where they are not handicapped by the unclear career structures and minimal job security on offer in Australia. While international experience is a very important part of a scientific career, we should do more to ensure that most of our best young scientists return to enhance and expand Australia’s research capability.

Scientific advancement will be a key driver of everyone’s life in the 21st century. Innovation, adaptability and creativity are becoming more and more valuable in a world of rapid change. Evidence that Australia is undervaluing science, technology and innovation should therefore be of deep concern.

The impact of this devaluation will resonate well beyond academia. Mining and resources, pharmaceuticals, information technology, construction, energy, physical infrastructure, even tourism and investment banking – these multi-billion dollar sectors rely heavily on a steady supply of graduates with robust science and maths credentials.

Just as importantly, so do trades. How do you plumb a modern building, establish an online business or install a national broadband network without maths and physics? How do apprentice chefs learn their craft without at least a basic understanding of chemistry? How would a farmer maximise crop production, plan for seasonal weather, care for and breed stock if she does not understand modern biology, chemistry or meteorology?

Children are natural scientists. I am yet to meet a child who does not have an intense and innate curiosity about how the world works. What keeps them interested is a well-informed, passionate teacher and an engaging, hands-on approach.

Of course, not all adults will retain a deep interest in science and maths – and nor should they. Nevertheless, every adult – and especially every politician – should be scientifically literate to enable them to make informed decisions about the complex issues being thrown up by science in modern society – issues such as climate change, stem cell therapy, nanotechnology and genetically modified crops. To keep the community informed and interested, we need talented science communicators and science-hungry media outlets.

Supporting our primary and secondary school teachers to keep children engaged in science; investing in strong university undergraduate and graduate science programs; ensuring internationally competitive research funding; and delivering effective science communication – these are essential elements of a national approach to ensuring that Australia remains competitive economically. They are also critical for conserving our land and ensuring the health and well-being of our people.

There is a crisis looming, but it can be halted with strong investment in science at all levels.

Professor Suzanne Cory is President of the Australian Academy of Science.