The Future of Science in Australia

Wednesday, 01 May 2013

Good evening.

It is an honour to have been invited to deliver this inaugural lecture, organised through the Rio Tinto/University of Western Australia education partnership.

It is pleasing that this important collaboration provides me with a forum where I can reflect on the importance of science to Australia’s future, and to its place in the world.

Whether we understand it or not, observe it or not, recognise it or not, science has an impact on our lives – every single day.

We use smartphones, social media, microwaves and credit cards. We take medicines when we are illand we take them to manage or prevent some illness.

We use plastic banknotes.

We can’t remember, or for many of us even imagine, how a disease like polio left victims and their families bereft, or how the dental treatment of 50 years ago compares with today.

We use the internet to have an argument about broadband.

And we should remember that not one of the advances we have made just fell out of the sky.

They all came about because of the work of scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians – working here in Australia and overseas. Research across the full spectrum leading to new ideas, new understanding, new and better applications

As science and technology has helped us to get to where we are now, so it will help us in the future.

We worry as we should about the climate, our health, our ageing population, our supply of nutritious food and useable, drinkable water. We worry about our economy and our security.

And on top of that, we also need to be concerned about our place in the world; our contribution to well-being through which we can help the world to a better, safer future.

We need to do something about all these challenges – to paraphrase Jane Lubchenco (NOAA): The focus really is on what should we be doing both to avoid the unmanageable as well as managing the unavoidable…

Australian science can play its part as we help to manage, or mitigate, or even to solve some of the challenges we face before they become intractable.

It will be scientific discovery and the use of scientific knowledge, in a proper social context (operating with a social licence), that will get us to the point where we can meet many of the future challenges head on.

This then is the issue that I spend the majority of my time thinking about, and talking to people about.

And I ask some questions. Are we well prepared? Do we have the capacity to do what we need to do? Will we be able to cope with what we can’t even predict? Are we keeping the community informed about what we do, why we do it, and how? Are we good enough?

Today, I will share some of my answers to my questions (it seems to be better that way sometimes). And I will also develop some new ones.

Next week, I mark two years as Chief Scientist.

I came into the role wanting to find out what we didn’t know about the Australian scientific enterprise.

I knew that it was only by mapping the landscape and/or identifying the gaps, that we could develop a strategy to address them. We had to know where we stood.

The first outcome of this work was our Health of Australian Science report published last year.

The report gave Australian science a generally positive bill of health. Our education systems produce graduates who are well-trained, well-educated and knowledgeable across a broad profile.

But we also identified vulnerabilities, for example in 2002, about 22% of the graduating class from Australian universities was in the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) related degrees.

The proportion in China in the same year (2002 the latest data I have seen) was 52%, Japan 64% and South Korea 41%.

By 2010 it had dropped to 18% in Australia.

The report provided detail on which of the disciplines might require immediate attention. Examples included declining continuing student enrolments in Agricultural (down 31% FTE between 2002 and 2010) and Forestry down 50% and fisheries down 80% over the same period.

We noted that some 40% of undergraduate students who start Engineering degrees do not complete their course; and after decades of trying to improve it, the proportion of females graduating in Engineering is 16% and as flat as the Nullarbor Plain. And we know that universities only coded some 40 full-time equivalent PhD students in Statistics in 2010.

It is also important to recognise the knock-on effect of declining enrolments in any undergraduate STEM discipline.

When fewer students enrol in an area, less Commonwealth funding is allocated to it. Less funding means fewer staff (eventually). Fewer staff means fewer PhD students and less research, and that means less potential for innovation.

And given that more than 60% of Australian researchers are in universities, with another 15% or so in research agencies, should we, can we, let undergraduate enrolment patterns so heavily influence our research profile – or our overall capacity?

But the story is not just about our capacity, it is about our capability.

So I want to turn to the obvious question: are we any good?

I ask it not because I think that we aren’t, but because I think we need to know.

We have to get beyond accepting our own rhetoric about our excellence, and bring forward evidence.

Oscar Wilde might have got away with it when he is reputed to have told a US customs officer that he had nothing to declare but my genius. He got away with it. We can’t.

Our national equivalent to Wilde’s comment is that we –punch above our weight’ in research. We are told that we are above world standard in nearly every field. That our 0.3% of the world’s population produces 3% of the research outputs. So we nod wisely – and feel good and don’t ask about the weight class we are in.

We don’t challenge the value of a standard where most of the world’s population is in countries where there is little to no research. In other words, we may be too willing to find the right denominator – and –right’ means one that doesn’t affect the numerator too much.

I argue that is not good enough.

We can’t just float like butterflies. We need also to sting like bees.

We need to get a fix on how good we really are, and how well we are preparing the coming generations to cope with the unpredictable and complicated world they will grow into.

Now, let me be clear: I am not one who thinks that simply measuring something is action enough – or that it is without risk.

And to be equally clear, I do know that no instrument is perfect.

But I also believe that a sensible metric used to prompt robust discussion is better than snuggling under the comfort blanket waiting on the off-chance that perfection might arrive.

A few months ago I released a paper which asked the question – do we perform as well as we should?

We used a simple metric: citations per research paper.

And simple it was: a colorimeter rather than a spectrophotometer, a signpost rather than a milestone. But at least it does indicate how the peer community rates a piece of work.

The sobering message was that, on average, we do not do as well as the notion of –punching above our weight’ might imply. Our best research is up there with the best – but we drop away with a long tail. And this tail has implications for the weight and balance of our research effort.

We do not out-perform most of the countries with an embedded scientific culture and systems of governance that we might be like – or like to be like – Western European and Scandinavian countries, the United States, and Canada. We are above the European average in 5 of 18 fields of research. The UK, for example, is above the average in all 18 fields, Switzerland in 17 of 18.

Likewise with innovation: one survey has Australia ranked 13th of 25 countries on the strength of our innovation environment[1], behind many of our Asian neighbours including Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India; and the OECD rankings put us at 23rd out of 30 countries for international business innovation.[2]

We must be a nation where the skills and inventiveness of Australian citizens, and the quality of Australian science, will enable business and government to deliver better products and services, and where our open, flexible and innovative people can compete in an increasingly difficult world economy. Are we?

The importance of a suitable skill-base was a feature of an open letter to the then US President signed by 20 Chief Executives and Presidents of major US corporations. They reminded him that: (the universities) have produced the very scientists and engineers that allow American industry to compete with nations and cultures throughout the world. The standard of living we enjoy today has, in large part, been made possible by our ingenuity and creativeness and our ability to continually advance and apply technology.[3]

It would be a fine thing to see something similar from Australia’s business leaders. I once tried.

But it is too important to ignore – or to presume that it is somebody else’s problem to fix. Reports from the US suggest that 60% of the new jobs that will be open in the 21st century will require skills possessed by only 20% of the current workforce[4]. It is estimated that the U.S. may be short by as many as three million high-skills workers by 2018. We conclude, in 2009, that our education system is not producing enough STEM-capable students to keep up with demand both in the traditional STEM occupations and other sectors across the economy that demand similar competencies.[5]

Here at home we are seeing worrying signs. The Australian Industry Group surveyed more than 500 businesses from across the economy. A quarter of those employers said the biggest barrier to recruitment was a lack of applicants with Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills.

Our nation can’t afford to be complacent – and think or hope or even expect that it will correct itself. We must find a way to put the right people in the right places at the right time.

And that will require us to be strategic. Not to presume that the people and the skills will be there when we happen to need them, or that we can import them if we don’t have them – much of the world will be trying that one. By 2008, 17% of workers in STEM occupations in the US were foreign-born, whereas it was 12% in the rest of the workforce. Countries in our region are actively seeking to repatriate their citizens, and offer funding and infrastructure of a size and quality that we dream about to get them back.

We also need to be strategic about the sort of science our nation needs. There are sure to be areas that are critical to our nation’s interest, and we can’t just assume that they will all be ok and there when we need them.

We need to ensure that a proportion of government support for research (and education) should be directed to areas of most pressing concern.

This is crucial in an environment where we are forced to ration support. Rationing means prioritising and we need to be assured that public support for research meets our priorities.

We simply cannot afford as a nation to let the most important areas slip.

To avoid the avoidable, I anticipate that the Government will soon announce a collection of Strategic Research Priorities.

These are designed to ensure that Government Departments and Agencies will ensure that a proportion of their research support, consistent with their broad mission, is focused on the priority areas.

Ladies and gentlemen, this work over the past two years has led us to the obvious conclusion: for Australia to strengthen our position as a competitive, innovative nation with vibrant R&D, we must keep pace with those nations that are already good at it.

And most of those that outperform us focus and organise their array of research programs in line with their priorities and goals.

Most of them have some form of national Science and Technology Strategy that set out the broad strategies and commitments – philosophically and otherwise – that provide a framework and general purpose for their various policies. We don’t. But I argue that we should.

The Australian Government will spend around $9b in 2012-13 across 79 science, research and innovation granting programs, administered across 14 portfolios[1].

While each of these programs will serve a defined purpose, and I make no criticism of any of them and do not propose a root and branch review of them, each has its own framework, and is, naturally enough, usually related to priorities of the department or agency that administers it.

We need to develop a whole-of-government vision for our national science system.

It is noteworthy that almost all of the countries that outperform us have a national strategy, that whole-of-government vision: I am talking here about the US, Switzerland, Denmark, Canada, Sweden, Finland… the list goes on.

I think that we need a similar, coherent framework, a vision if you like, to support sectors and disciplines and outcomes.

It should embrace a direction that is concrete, but not set in concrete.

It should give Australia’s broad range of government research programs a common purpose and direction – and a whole-of-government perspective. It should link with the recently endorsed National Research Investment Plan (or NRIP) that is designed primarily to ensure that we have the underpinning fabric to support research in Australia.

And it should include aspirations: where we want to be and how we could get there. In practical terms, it should consider targets. And map pathways.

Accordingly, I have begun a process from my office that should lead to such a national strategy. The process will get very serious on 21 May, when a group will meet with me to flesh out a first pass at a strategy. I will take that to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council – and after that, I expect to have it out there for wide discussion.

At this early stage, the starting point is still in sight – so it is proposed that there be four pillars.

  • The first one is about the place and important roles of basic research – the search to understand things better.

Since 1946, Australia has been a contributor to the world’s bank of knowledge; prior to 1946, Australia was essentially dependent on others providing the knowledge we needed. It worked sometimes.

When we became a contributor, Australia’s position changed. We both added knowledge to the bank and we developed the talents and skills to make use of the understanding that grew from research done both here and elsewhere.

We became active participants in international scientific endeavours and we learnt that science on its own is lonely. It needs to be contextualised, and research in the humanities and social sciences provide that context. So weneed to develop a comprehensive approach to research across a broad range of disciplines and approaches to scholarship.

Basic research provides us with understanding: knowing about the very nature of things. Through basic research we seek answers to fundamental questions about the origin and future of life itself, about our planet and about the universe.

And scientific knowledge impacts on all our lives, every day. It is the important means by which we replenish the knowledge bank as we use it to drive innovation.

We must embrace the notion of research priorities to ensure that government funding encourages work in areas of critical importance to Australia right now.

We must also be mindful that history shows us that research of this type, by its very nature, results in applications that could not be foreseen. Would the National Science Foundation in the U.S., for example, have been able to explain, in advance, the way in which a research grant to a couple of Stanford students investigating search algorithms would lead to a company with a current market capitalisation of around $271 billion and be called Google?[1]

  • The second pillar is about innovation the development of new and better products and services.

It is about Science and technology that will increase Australia’s competitiveness by linking the talents and skills of researchers to Australian business and its needs.

As I said, a strong, dynamic and sustainable basic research enterprise provides the foundation for new products, processes, and sometimes new industries.

That message has been out there since at least 1996 – in the open letter I referred to earlier, the US President was reminded that: History has shown thatit is federally sponsored research that provides the truly patient capital needed to carry out basic research and create an environment for the inspired risk-taking that is essential to technological discovery.

But we need the link – ensuring that the creative environment is there to encourage the inspired risk-taking that has typified discovery in the US.

We need our R&D capacity to be underpinning innovation. And we need it as much in major corporations like Rio Tinto, as we do in our small to medium enterprises.

We need a better strategy than anything in the past – because we have been trying for a very long time to achieve this admirable goal.

Which is why, last year, my office wrote to 63 organisations, peak bodies and individuals seeking their answer to the question: What are the top breakthrough actions that governments could take to make Australia a more innovative nation.

That process led us to propose five breakthrough actions – establishing an Australian Innovation Council; strengthening business access to publicly-funded research; encouraging mobility between academia and business, harmonising intellectual property frameworks, and emphasising STEM students and their potential for changing the culture – in businesses and in universities. It is largely about cultural change.

Some elements of these were picked up in the government’s innovation statement released recently. But there is still work to be done.

  • The third pillar is about embedding science (indeed STEM) in our society more fully.

Ladies and gentlemen, as I travel around Australia, talking to people from various walks of life, I’m struck by how important it is to bring science into the community.

Given that many of the big questions ahead will involve science- our community will be better, our democracy more robust, if our citizens are able to make better informed decisions.

This means at the very least a passing knowledge of how science works, of statistics and probabilities and how to look for the evidence behind the assertions that bombard us on a seemingly hour-by-hour basis.

We know the questions: do we focus enough on science in our schools? Is it the right sort? Is it leading to good learning outcomes? Are we developing a science-literate community – without expecting that everybody would be, or could be, or that we would want them to be a scientist, technologist, engineer or mathematician?

We should find a way to support our teachers better. After all, it is they who bring along the next generations of STEM graduates, and it is they who develop a STEM literacy in those who go on to do other things.

In my interactions with teachers, I am heartened by the dedication of so many; and disheartened by how we seem as a community to take them and their work for granted.

And I’m reminded of the example of South Korea.

When a modern education system began to be built in South Korea in 1948, the very vocabulary to talk about modern science and mathematics hardly existed in the Korean language and had to be invented before textbooks could even be written.

Serious and sustained special attention to scientific and technical education came in 1973 with the establishment of vocational schools associated with a movement to scientificize the whole people.[1]

Scientificize is not a word in common usage, but I think the intent is understood. South Korea is a nation that has worked hard to embed science into its society. And their students outperform us in both mathematical and scientific literacy,[2] and South Korea is ahead of us in a comparison of OECD countries’ global competitiveness and R&D intensity[3]

  • The fourth is about science (indeed STEM) for impact and influence

Australian contributions to science have earned us a seat at the international table where significant decisions are made. It will be also the means by which we will keep that seat.

The world’s challenges are our challenges. International collaboration is essential to address them.

We must be an active participant in research aimed at addressing these common problems. If we are not, we cannot hope to establish ourselves as a nation of influence.

Maintaining productive relationships with established, high performing nations is as important as nurturing relationships with emerging science nations, particularly in our region.

The Strategy will frame objectives to increase our engagement in science and technology with the rest of the world.

In closing, let me summarise the last few minutes with a key question: What do we need science (indeed STEM) to do?

Do we need it to generate a steady stream of new ideas?

Do we need it to harness the technology that will make our industries more innovative and competitive on a global scale?

Do we need science to embed itself in our society and our thinking?

Do we need it to provide the impact we need to become or remain a nation of influence?

Yes. We need science to do all of those things.

Which is why a National Science and Technology Strategy is important for Australia’s future.

If anyone has a particular idea about what should be included in The Strategy, please email it to:-

I will have more to say about it in the coming months.

But for now, thank you for listening and thank you for supporting our scientific enterprise.

[1] MES Pg 13 – Sorensen, C.W. Success and Education in South Korea. Comparative Education Review, Vol 38: 10-35, 1994

[2] MES Pg 13 – PISA 2009

[3] Pg 54 – Chart 4.6…


[1] Science, Research & Innovation budget tables 2012-13

[1] Pg 26 –

[2] Chart 5.3:…

[3] Congressional Record Volume 142, Number 139 (Tuesday, October 1, 1996)] [Extensions of Remarks] [Page E1888]

[4] National Commission on Mathematics and Science for the Twenty-first

Century, 2000

[5] STEM: Carnevale, Smith and Melton. Centre on Education and the Workforce. Georgetown University

Last updated: Thursday, 31 October 2019