Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Budget Analysis

By Peter Pockley

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb scores for science education.

The despair that many scientists feel about their relations with society might, at last, need to be modified in a crucial testing ground. Becoming Australia’s Chief Scientist last year, Professor Ian Chubb’s influence on science policy has become evident in the 2012/13 Budget delivered on 8 May. You wouldn’t have known this, though, from listening to Treasurer Wayne Swan’s speech which didn’t pay even passing mention to key areas like science, technology, research, innovation, engineering and mathematics.

Chubb’s substantial moral and physical presence in the corridors of power was evident in his persuading the guardians of Budget papers to release, simultaneously, a separate report over his name and gain a joint media statement from two ministers; viz Senator Chris Evans (Tertiary Education, Skills, Science & Research) and Peter Garrett (School Education).

The broad scientific community had been on tenterhooks about the Budget, fearing the dreaded razor gang which was playing hard for cuts across the board. Only the week before, Professor Suzanne Cory, President of the Australian Academy of Science, was pressing the minority Labor government to restore the funding (which had been cut in last year’s Budget) for the Academy’s ground-breaking programs of support for teaching science at primary and secondary levels.

The Budget recognised Chubb’s declared priorities by delivering $54 million over four years “to support science, mathematics and engineering education”. His 48-page report significantly, in terms of political clout, was presented to PM Gillard. Titled Mathematics, Engineering and Science in the National Interest, it is sure to be widely cited.

After a comprehensive series of quantitative analyses comparing Australia with nations like South Korea, China and India Chubb concludes that Australia’s graduation rates in mathematics, engineering and science are “low by international comparison” and that “no action by Australia would see the gap between our capacity and those of others widen further”. Chubb makes five recommendations of “highest immediate priority” and 13 more.

If, at a national level, Australians fail to act, he concludes, “A decline in our productivity growth relative to our region’s leading economies would put us at a growing disadvantage in maintaining our national wealth and security.”

Chubb’s priorities are determined by criteria for supporting “inspired teaching [which] is undoubtedly the key to the quality of our system, and to raising student interest to more acceptable levels.” He aims to establish “a National Centre for Mathematics and Science Teachers to facilitate equitable access to support systems for schools and teachers wherever they may be in Australia”. He wants a national commitment to standards “that only teachers who are qualified or accredited to teach mathematics and science do so”.

Chubb’s presence at the heart of government was undoubtedly a factor determining several grants announced by Senator Evans which have pleased the organised scientific and higher education communities. Cory “welcomed”, in particular, Chubb’s campaign to improve participation in school and university science and mathematics and the rescue of the Academy’s science teaching programs. “However”, she says: “It is disappointing that the government has ignored the Academy’s call to establish a strategic program to support Australian science internationally”.

Overall, there are no big-ticket items in the Budget for science, etc, rather maintenance of funding at current levels. The annual cross-portfolio summary of support for science, etc has not been supplied at the time of posting this commentary despite advance requests by this writer. Until these detailed comparisons with previous Budgets, especially in relation to Gross Domestic Product and forecast outcomes, are provided, we have to take some of the claims about “boosts” and “record funding” with the proverbial grains of salt.

It is clear, however, that CSIRO has taken a haircut in the form of an increased “efficiency dividend” of $23 million which CSIRO Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark, acknowledged in a staff circular will result in redundancies of 116 of their number.