Wednesday, 01 October 2014

Professor Ian Chubb has spoken with Ros Childs as part of a special ABC24 series on the future of Australia’s economy.

View the video here.


ROS CHILDS: Hello, I’m Ros Childs. Welcome to a special series looking at the immediate future of Australia’s economy. Over the next 6 weeks, we’ll be joined by some of the country’s top thinkers in science, business, finance and education, as we look at what will be driving growth over the next few years.

Science and technology have been called the engine rooms of growth since the industrial revolution. So what innovation is happening here that will boost our economic development? To find out, we’re joined by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb.

ROS CHILDS: So Ian, how much is Australia’s economic future tied up with its scientific, technological engineering and mathematical abilities and aspirations?

IAN CHUBB: Well, I think very closely tied, Ros. We can learn from the rest of the world, and most of the rest of the world is seeing those areas, those disciplines, as integral to the future. Not on their own, we need to understand our communities, we need research into the humanities and social sciences. But at the core of nearly every problem you could identify right now as being a big challenge for the future of Australia, the future of humanity indeed, science would be in there.

ROS CHILDS: And how would you categorise the state of science in Australia now to cope with those and to fight those problems?

IAN CHUBB: I’d rate it middle of the road on average. I think some of our very best scientists are up there with the best in the world – there’s no question about that. But our average performance is middle of the road and I think partly that’s because we’ve never taken a holistic, strategic approach to its development and its maintenance.

ROS CHILDS: What do you mean by that?

IAN CHUBB: Well I think for too long we see a program adjusted here, a program adjusted there, a budget trimmed over here and over there, and what we’re left with is what happens when all of those work their way through the system. So we don’t actually sit back and say what are the things that are really important to Australia, where we have some national need, where we have some real capability, where we have some competitive advantage? Are we investing enough in those areas and by investment I mean are we doing enough research? But if we think about research, we’ve got to think about the education pipeline feeding into research, we ought to be thinking at the same time about the innovation pipeline that grows out of research, and we ought to be thinking about where we sit in the world in those particular areas, because we’re not so big we can do everything on our own – it needs partnerships it needs a critical engagement with work done elsewhere in the world. So I think you’ve got to look at them all to come up with a strategy, not just one bit here and there.

ROS CHILDS: It seems to start in the classroom. We constantly hear stories about maths and science not being popular subjects at primary levels and there are problems perhaps with the teaching involved there too. What’s the answer to that, how do you engage students in these subjects that we need to ensure the future?

IAN CHUBB: So I think that if I had a magic wand, I’d put a specialist science and maths teacher in every primary school in Australia. I think at a time when their minds are probably most open we tend not to do that across the country. There are some good examples where states are trying to do something about that, but we need to see that and build on it. And I’d do it there because what you don’t need is you don’t need people to be taught at that early and formative stage by people who are not confident in giving them the science and maths that will enthuse them. So the second thing I’d do is to support the teachers better. I don’t think we’ve done that historically very well in the country, so we expect teachers to be up to date with contemporary science but professional development is pretty thin and I think we should do that much better and much more systematically. And the third thing I’d do is make sure that our curricula encourage the teaching of science as science is practiced. Out of a textbook it’s dead boring, but when you see it happening, it’s mind-bogglingly, eye twitchingly awesome and I don’t think we do enough of that. I think there’s too much teaching…

ROS CHILDS: It’s too dry?

IAN CHUBB: Yeah, it’s too dry. And teachers tell me how hard it is to do real practicals these days, but science is very practical. I mean if you’re not actually doing science and just learning about it, you’d be wondering why you’re learning about it. So I think you need to be doing it and then learning why you’re seeing what you’re seeing and the principles behind what you’re doing as you’re doing it and I think it becomes much more attractive to students.

ROS CHILDS: Jut to bring it down to a personal level, what made you excited about science to the point that you wanted to become a scientist?

IAN CHUBB: So my very first teacher was a man named Mr Honey – I never knew his first name of course. My father worked on a farm. He was the only teacher, single teacher, country school. And I was four years and four months when I went to school. And I remember being in the first grade and he’d set us a task and then he’d go on to grade two and three and four, and if we finished early he’d send us outside and we’d go out and we’d be told to look at the ants nest, look at the butterflies and just wonder about the world. And I think that curiosity has never left me. I think I still wonder about the world and wonder about how it can be so horrible but so beautiful simultaneously. And I just would trace it all back to him, really. And then going home at night and I hasten to tell young people today that we did have electricity at the time so it wasn’t two centuries ago, but the stars were just there – I can remember sitting out in the yard looking at the stars, wondering if there was anybody else up there sitting there looking back at me. So I guess it was that curiosity, that wonder and it’s pretty well stayed with me, with a few blips in secondary school, for the rest of my life.

ROS CHILDS: Is that then perhaps the way to engage the public in the whole area of science and innovation, research and development, to appeal to the imagination? That somehow that gets lost amidst the talk of bottom lines and money.

IAN CHUBB: I think sometimes it’s pretty obvious that we’ve lost the value of things and related it back to the cost of things too often too early. So the big picture, the big vision, is often times stifled early because, you know, –is it cost effective? No,’ so you don’t think about that anymore. So I think that scientists have got to get what they do and why it’s important and those messages out there to the public much more consistently. To presume that one interview or one press release or something stays imbedded in the public mind forever is wrong it, clearly doesn’t. So it’s patience, but it is about passion and persistence. So my mantra at the moment is passion, persistence and patience and just constantly getting out there and encouraging scientists to talk about what they do and lifting that level of scientific understanding in the community. So my other bit of magic wand would be to provide that sort of science at school to everybody, knowing very well that 20% or something will end up studying science. But when you raise the level of literacy you can have a decent debate about things like climate change and vaccination and pandemics and all of those sorts of things which, if you’ve got some understanding of how science works, you’ll have a better informed debate than simply listening to the person with the loudest megaphone.

ROS CHILDS: Business and big corporations also need to get involved if wealth is to be created and innovations brought to the marketplace. What’s the relationship now between business and science and where does it need to be?

IAN CHUBB: Well, it’s average to poor at the moment. And we need programs to encourage it, that actually work. So I’ve been sitting in rooms now since probably around 1986 where we’ve lamented the relationship between business and higher education. Last year I sat in a room lamenting the relationship between business and higher education, and I can remember saying if we changed the date from 2013 to 1986, it’s all you’d have to do – the conversation was the same. “What are we going to do about it? Why is it us? Why are we doing this?’ and then we make incremental changes, so there’s no bold thinking, or inadequate bold thinking, about paradigm shifts rather than well we’ll just fiddle with the that program and that might make it better, and when it doesn’t, the response is well it could have been worse if we didn’t have the program. I mean I don’t think that’s adequate and my fear is the rest of the world knows this. They’re moving fast…

ROS CHILDS: What are they doing that we’re not doing?

IAN CHUBB: Well, for example the British have, what I think is a great piece of policy, a technology strategy board. It’s industry led, it’s got money, it defines areas where Britain can make a difference, where Britain has capability, where it has a need, where the global markets for whatever it is that they’re going to support are large enough to warrant the investment. And they invest public monies into that to encourage business and universities to link together.

ROS CHILDS: So Australia is well known for innovation, isn’t it? You only have to think the Cochlear ear implant, the plastic banknote, Wi-Fi – those last two CSIRO developments. It must be frustrating for you in your job to go out there and keep talking, keep talking for years as you said, and you can see the opportunities out there down the track, but people aren’t listening or they simply don’t get it.

IAN CHUBB: It’s a bit of both not listening and not getting it, I think. So it goes back to passion, persistence and patience, really. That’s why I invented that little three-word mantra for the moment – because you’ve got to have all three. But you’ve also got to have a view, an informed view, of what the gaps , deficiencies, capabilities, capacities are. As I said, we do some things really well. I’m again not sitting here sort of hitting myself with an olive branch all the time. We do some things well but we’ve got a lot more to do. And we ought to be better, we could be better, but in order to do that we’ve got to ask ourselves some really hard questions. What does being better mean? What sort of country are we trying to build? Do we build a country that’s left over after we’ve made economic adjustments every year to multiple areas and then wait to see what it all adds up to two years later, or do we actually have a view that says we need a stronger, better, robust, adaptable Australia that can survive in an unpredictable and potentially hostile world and we fit the economy to help us achieve the aspiration and if we do that, then you’ve got to have science, technology, engineering, mathematics deeply buried in all aspects.

ROS CHILDS: Professor Ian Chubb, thank you for talking to us.

IAN CHUBB: Thanks, Ros.

Last updated: Tuesday, 22 October 2019