Australia's Chief Scientist

Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute National Forum

You can download the transcript here or read it below.


Colleagues, we’ve been talking about this matter for a long time, and you wonder why we still have to talk about it. Why we still talk about it and still explore options and ways to do things better.

We heard from Ron [Sandland, Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute] about some of the Australian issues, some successes and some of the ways in which mathematics in particular underpins activities and underpins functions in ways that most school students probably don’t know, and probably a lot of school teachers don’t know either–I’ll come back to that in a minute.

We heard from Celia [Hoyles, former mathematics advisor to the UK government] here about the English experience and you can’t help but be struck by the similarity in terms of the issues that they faced there, and how many of them we face here. One of the striking things about the English education system and the Australian one is how we leap frog each other all the time – we do things ahead of them, and they catch up; and they do things ahead of us and we catch up. But there’s a lot of learning that can go on when people share their experiences across those two countries, with some fundamental differences which I’ll talk about in a minute.

Of course when you do what I have to do at the moment, you really realise how widespread the concern is about the numbers of people being educated in science, mathematics, engineering and the technologies (commonly called STEM). And I guess that the Australian Government is now, and has been for some time;  but I’m hoping we are now beyond the stage of rhetorical commitment to some action on this front and willing to take concerted, consolidated and concentrated action that will enable things to be done in a way where we can see the difference, and I’ll talk a little bit about that too in a minute.

Some of you will know that the Prime Minister asked me early in December last year to advise her on how to make maths and science more attractive, particularly to students.  And we’ve been running pretty hard in the last few weeks to talk to a lot of people to discuss the issues that a lot of people–probably a matter of hundreds by now.  And we have more advice than we can possibly ever accommodate.

So if any of you have sent me a letter or email, and you expect to see your pearls of wisdom included in the report don’t be disappointed if it isn’t, because we are trying to capture for the Prime Minister something which is not so much fine detail, but aspiration with some recommendations that could lead to the delivery of those aspirations. Nevertheless, I hope that most of you will be happy with what you see when it comes out–assuming that the Prime Minister releases it.

I’ll share my fixation on a number of issues with you.  One of them is the issue of the natural world and the constructed world. One of the things that I think is implicit in some of the discussion we have when we talk particularly about science, is we talk about science, discovery and understanding of the natural world, which is all important.  And nothing I will say from here on in is to diminish the importance of understanding the nature of things through research, through application of scientific knowledge, through the development of more and better understanding, through literally understanding why we are what we are and how we got to be what we are.

But it’s also important that when we think about science, we think about how science has constructed the world. We talk about mobile phones, and how much science is there underpinning the mobile phone from the plastic cover, to the chip, to the mathematics behind the wifi sensitivities. I don’t know all the details but I am getting an expert to write it for me so that I can show it to everyone else in Australia. I think these are important things for us to understand and it goes to one of the issues about how you make science and mathematics interesting and apparently relevant to the students whom we’re talking about–and I’ll talk a little about that in a minute too.

So I’m going to share with you some of the observations that my recent and current exposure has made available to me and of the interpretations that are put on that information.

Also, while I’m happy to talk about it in general terms, I’m going to try to avoid telling you explicitly what we’ll recommend to the Prime Minister.

Now, as I said, the PM has asked us how to make maths and science more attractive and I think I’ll emphasise something that Celia said earlier–making it more attractive doesn’t make it easier.  And we have a problem here.  I saw a newspaper editorial which I forgot to bring which referred to ‘just make it harder,’ because any sense of making it relevant, making it directed towards what the student might be interested in learning while still providing the basic principles, the basic facts, the fundamental understanding that you need to take your discipline further was derided.

Everybody in this room and elsewhere who practises the mathematical sciences and sciences and engineering, has to say ‘yes we can make it relevant but we won’t make it easier,’ and we have to push that line because there will be critics out there. As soon as you try to make it relevant and explain something to someone about how something happens whist explaining the fundamental mathematics underpinning it, you’ll be accused of making it easier.

Stand up to be counted on this one, because one of the reasons why there aren’t more students doing mathematical sciences or science is because they think it’s boring.  As was written in a US journal that I saw Monday night, we do to our students what was done to us. And you know how bad that was? We weren’t all like Ron; we didn’t all have that gifted person out there. I don’t remember anybody who taught me mathematics and they probably don’t remember me either.

But we do have to have to come to terms with the fact that we live now in a different world.  We need to think about how we deliver science, mathematics and engineering to a generation of students who have many, many, many more options available to them than we ever had, and who make choices.

A paper was released yesterday which talked about the fact that universities are in error, because they enrol more science students than they do engineering students, and Australia needs more engineers. But colleagues it is a democracy.

If students apply to enter science you can’t say no we must do engineering because we think Australia needs more. What would happen if we did that? I doubt we would survive. So the issue for us is how we make it so fundamentally interesting, so grippingly interesting that people will come because they’ll want to do it.

And they’ll want to do it because it’s fascinating, because it’s explained to them and because of the simply awesome adrenaline kick you get when you discover something for the first time; whether it’s understanding something complex for the first time, or doing an experiment that reveals something for the first time.

So as we’ve talked about to people, the thing that’s impressed upon me I suppose– is that we’ve got to get off the escalator and get into an elevator, we need a step function change.

We can’t just keep fiddling with little incremental changes as the thing chugs up the incline. The rest of the world is moving ahead, we heard this morning how England has moved ahead and we’ve got to join in, as President Obama recently called it, the Race to the Top.  And assuming we can do that by making little incremental changes to the things we do–the way we conceptualize, even the way we educate–but thinking we can race to the top when we’re just making little incremental changes would be for this country, I believe, a fatal flaw.

We’ve got to find a way to make a shift, that will enable us in the medium to long term (because there’s not much you can do overnight in this area) but in the medium to long term we are preparing ourselves to be up there to the top, for the reasons that Ron highlighted earlier.

There’s been a general convergence, teachers and their qualifications and better support for our teachers. I think better support for our teachers in our schools is fundamental to this issue. I’ve spoken to many science and mathematics teachers and whilst not every single one would share the view, the general view would be that they’ve been a bit neglected. Science is moving ahead at a pace and professional development programs don’t move ahead with the same pace. Yet teachers are going into a room full of smart young people who go home and watch National Geographic and they know more about the Y chromosome than the teacher does–unless they saw the same program.

We’ve actually got to pay attention to our teachers. We’ve got to show esteem and respect, which I don’t think we do particularly well; sometimes we do but not particularly well. We’ve got to find a way to support them and I think the universities have got a very serious role to play in that support for the teachers too, and their professional development.

Teacher’s qualifications are always going to be an issue. Ron touched on it, but I was looking at this paper put out by the people from South Australia. Now, I’m not picking on South Australia, I’m complimenting South Australia because it’s the most comprehensive analysis of what’s happening within a State that I’ve seen.

There’s a chance that if your physics teacher in your senior school is aged between 30 and 34, then the probability is that 20% will have a major in physics. That’s 20% in senior secondary schools. But if you get out to a teacher now the age of the teacher Ron probably had, there’s a 60% chance. So in physics this paper declares to be unqualified, where unqualified means not having a major in physics, that 61% of the people under 40 are unqualified, and 37% of the people over 40 teaching physics in South Australia are unqualified. In chemistry its 36% under 40, 24% over 40 and in biology it’s 24% under 40 and 25% over 40. So we’ve got to help these people, we’ve got to help these teachers. They’ve got your kids, they once had mine and they’ve got the nation’s children. We in our universities, we scientists, we mathematicians, need to work out a way to help these teachers, and we will be proposing something to the Prime Minister. This is a national issue; this is a role where the federal government, I believe, has to take some direct responsibility.

I’ll remind Cecilia [Hoyles] later about some of the issues you have in a federation by contrast with one country with one national government. But these issues are not insurmountable, they just take extra effort and hard work.

I think our commitment to the teaching workforce should be unreserved and unremitting.

We’ve been talking about pre-service, the question of whether science teachers in Australia should have at least a major in a discipline and probably a minor, but one of the things that’s quite clear about this, and I know from my own experiences as vice-chancellor, that the science school and the education school talk to each other just sometimes.  But what we actually have to do is build up a consolidated integrated program, so that the scientists don’t say ‘we know what’s good for you and we’ll teach it how we want to’ and the education people say ‘you don’t teach well, we want somebody who will try and teach it the way we want.’ This is what has happened – maybe noy everywhere – but in enough places.  We’ve got to change that, so we’ve got to try a different way to bring together the science schools and the education schools inside the same university, or between universities, to provide an integrated and quite different approach to some of the issues that confront us. The big realization is that simply doing more of what we have been doing is not going to work. We have to change. And it’s got to be big enough to make a big difference.

Professional development has come up, of course, amongst the teachers, and what they think. At 12:04 this afternoon we had 120532.4 F.T.Es in our secondary schools–it’s a big workforce.  People turn over at a given rate, so in order to get change that’s outside the geological time frame, that’s well inside the geological time frame, we actually have to do something serious about the existing workforce and professional development using the skills of experienced teachers and academics in the disciplines working together, and not hierarchically as was referred to this morning, not hierarchically but equally, to give us a chance to get the change we need.

We have been told by everybody that is has to be inspiring, that relevance is important–this also comes from the school students themselves. They lament the fact that OH&S rules stopped decent practical classes being offered these days in science; they’ve become demonstrations, recipes. If they do get to do them, they take a thing in this hand and a thing in that hand and mix them and if it goes blue you pass, if it goes red you fail. But you don’t discuss why it went red, you don’t do what scientists do, which is unpick what you did to find out how you can explain what you’ve observed, you’ve just got it or not – they say. The students don’t like it. I asked a group from among 145 year 11 students how they liked it–and these are really smart kids handpicked form around Australia for National Youth Science Forum–and the response was that it’s good, but it would be better if it was interesting and relevant. So I said ‘Oh well in my day we had to sit down and learn the periodic table and they said, “Well, so do we.” I thought, good grief, fifty years they’re still leaning and remembering–and it’s a lot harder now because there’s a lot more elements in it than in those days.

Careers advice, we’ve been told is pretty ordinary. The stereotypical view is that if you study science, that’s what you work in, or maths.  We were told often of the mathematics graduate working in a bank; that’s good.  But we need a step function change here, not just a few; and we need employers to recognise the skills that come from an education in science and maths.

When you look at our science and technology workforce we’re number 12 or thereabouts in the OECD table. Interestingly, touching briefly on the gender issue, 37% of our science and technology workforce is female. We are the three bottom countries in the OCED.

The issue of university pre-requisites has come up frequently. What was the signal when most of the universities stopped listing putting pre-requisites for certain studies?

I’m as guilty as anybody; I was a vice-chancellor for sixteen years and I guess we did that too. I probably didn’t quite understand it at the time the impact that that would have, the signal that would go back into the school system. What is important?

I suspect some of the shift we see in mathematics, from the “hard level” advanced to general “third level” mathematics is probably because there isn’t the requirement to do it, and because the school students are told ‘don’t do that unless you’re going to get a perfect score, it’ll help you,’ but of course it helps the school as many newspapers in the country, put out the league table every year, according to the number of people who get high scores in year 12 exams.

There is a question about whether to make science and maths compulsory.  There are presently 110,000 or so year 12 students taking a science subject, which is about 52% of the total. If you take psychology out of that, as psychology’s the one real growth area (so take it out only for that one reason, I’m not suggesting any other reason) then it drops down to about 47%. So what’s the right number? I think I’m going to take the line that build it and they will come, because I can’t justify 50 or 60 or 70%, I could justify a 100% by making it compulsory, but justifying anything between where it is and 100% is much harder, so I think we’ve actually got to address the core issues and see where it takes us for a while.

We need to do something about science literacy in this country. I’m sure all of you here sit with your mouths hanging open when you read what passes for public scientific debate in this country.

I won’t name any but I’m sure you can think of them too, and so we need to lift that level of scientific literacy. When I opened the AMSI Summer School in the Mathematical Sciences at UNSW a couple of weeks ago, Geoff [Prince, AMSI Director] asked the students how many of them were doing maths against the wishes of their parents, and a surprisingly large number put up their hands.

That brings me to that last point, and that is our federation. We can recommend that the national government look at some of these activities from a particular national interest perspective, and I think there is a national interest embedded through all of this. Sometimes, the national interest is so important that you have to negotiate a way to elevate them to the point where everybody sees they’re important.

That’s what we need to do with science, maths, engineering, technology and STEM, all of them importantly. Their importance needs to be articulated clearly and frequently so that people who live in this country can understand that these are critical areas for our future; the better we accomplish that now, the better the future will be. Simply thinking in the old Australian way of she’ll be right, we’ll get over it and if we need the skills we’ll import them, isn’t sufficient. There’s no guarantee that it will happen like that, or that we’ll be able to import those skills when we need them with the appropriate mix of skills that we need.

We’ve got to do a bit for ourselves here; we’ve got to do it seriously, and we’ve got to be willing to accept the change and the consequences of doing it seriously. Thank you.