National Science Week Launch

Do Australians take science for granted?

Good afternoon and thank you for the opportunity to address you today.  In case it gets lost in the mist, I should tell you that my task today is to touch on the issue of whether Australians take science for granted.

If they do – and if ‘taking for granted’ means that Australians just accept that science is there, and that it will be there when we need it if we need it, then I think we do.  So programs such as the one sponsoring today’s lunch, Inspiring Australia, are particularly important. 

The Inspiring Australia Strategy summarises well the hopes for science in Australia today: “Australia aspires to an innovative society with a technologically skilled workforce, a scientifically literate community and well informed decision makers.”

That we do.  But how do we shift from being happy with eloquently stated objectives and turn them into the outcomes that will help Australia through the great many challenges we are facing both today and in the near future?

How will we become an innovative society – not just a society with a few innovators in it? How will we actually invest wisely enough and strategically enough to develop a technologically skilled workforce? How will we educate a scientifically literate community and a community of well informed decision makers.

We won’t if we think that it will happen without effort, without suitable and strategic investment, without (political) pain, without looking at the way we educate our children and without information flowing to an alert community that will have the confidence to make informed rather than visceral or reactive decisions.  Or be one not lead simply by the loudest voices or the largest headlines.

And none of it will happen if the community is not aware of the need for it to happen, and wanting it to happen.

So communication is important – and the communication of science by scientists is the enticing icing on the otherwise mysterious cake we bake.

This brings me back to Inspiring Australia.  It is a $21 million initiative over three years aimed at helping build a society that actively engages with, and supports science and scientists.   Through that engagement it will contribute to making us an innovative nation.

National Science Week is the perfect platform to remind Australians what science brings to their lives and to showcase the quality and value of our science to our community.

Australian science has a good history.  And we need to understand our past and learn from it.  But we must not be transfixed by old glories seen through the rear vision mirror; doing too much of what we used to do because it is too hard to change – or because we are good at something that others were once interested in.  We have to prepare for the unpredictabilities of the future by developing our talents and our wit to face the challenges arising from the unpredictability’s.

Some of the basic foundations are in place.  For example, Australia’s universities enrolled 160,342 (~20%) UG students in science and engineering courses in 2009, 15,812 (~36%) PhD students and employed 6849 (FTE; ~ 25%) academic staff (faculty).

Is it enough?  How many are in the courses we need them to be in – ones leading to scientific careers – and how many are enrolled in science units because they have to be?  How many are enrolled in academic units with high ERA scores and how many are enrolled where they are because they are, because they are there…..?

The questions are obvious; the answers not quite so.  By early next year we (OCS) expect to release a substantial report on the state of Australian science – primarily viewed from the supply side – our universities.

We haven’t done the work yet – so I don’t know what we will find.  But I do know that much of the academic profile of our supply side (not all of it) is driven by undergraduate study choices – since substantial money follows where the students go, and what they choose to study.  That is fine – this is a country where freedom of choice is allowed.

But is it in the national interest to leave so much of our intellectual profile to the study choices made by incoming undergraduate students – with a bit of a cross-subsidy on the side where modest funds are sometimes moved from the popular (and important) to the unpopular that are at least as important?

Don’t we need a more strategic approach that comprehends that some disciplines are important to Australia (and the world) but not presently popular with students in large numbers? I think we do – and I hope we can make suitable recommendations when we see how the story unfolds.

But once we have the right skill base – the right talent pool and intellectual resource – what will they do?  What part will they play by using their science to help develop a sustainable and healthy future for Australia?

We need to think for a moment about (some of) our major challenges – chosen to illustrate rather than be definitive:  a population of 36 million or so by 2050, a world population of 9 billion by 2050 with ~1billion of 7 billion already underfed in 2011.  Then there is climate change, food security and declining natural resources such as arable land and useable water to name just a few.

Just doing more of what we do now will not solve our problems.  That will not accommodate a global population roughly 2 billion people more than now.  More of the same will not grow Australia’s contribution to this global problem – while we may now produce food for 60 million, by 2050 our salt-degraded land will have increased from a present 5.7m hectares to 17m hectares.  Our already urbanised country (with 90% living in urban settings) will grow to ~37m further encroaching on arable land, and we all know about water and access to it.

We will have to do things differently – and science will show the way.

Australia is a rich country; we are a sophisticated country.  We are a vast landscape with every climate and micro-climate imaginable.  We have many special conditions and many advantages. And we must learn how to harness them and so develop the know-how to use sustainably our country.

When we do we will have in our hands an important way to secure our future.  And as we provide our know-how to those less fortunate than us we help make the world not just a better place but a more secure place as well.  It is a great challenge – but then, when did a good challenge ever frighten us?

The Australian community needs science.  We scientists need to make sure that they want science.  They should be encouraged to look around them and marvel at the effect that science and the applications and uses of science has on their everyday lives.  And they should be taken with us as we walk the path to future health, prosperity and security by using science to confront some of the problems that face humanity that would otherwise be insurmountable.