“The team is average”: Australia’s chief scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. Photo: Rohan ThomsonCOMMENT: Make Australia strong through science
Australia likes to consider itself the “clever country”, a phrase made popular by former prime minister Bob Hawke.
We also like to think of ourselves as a nation of inventors – the Hills Hoist, solar hot water systems, the bionic ear and the cervical cancer vaccine were all Australian ideas.
But we’re not as good as we think. Far from “punching above our weight” in science, innovation and technology, Australia is slipping behind many other developed nations, partly because we lack a long-term plan or vision, says the country’s chief scientist.
Earlier this year, Professor Ian Chubb remarked that if Australian science was a cricket team, “you might say we’ve got a few great players but the team is average”.
On Tuesday, Professor Chubb released his recommendations for a national science strategy, titled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future.
In it, he explains why Australia is fast becoming the complacent country:
1. INVENTIVENESS: In 2011, just 1.5 per cent of Australian firms developed innovations that were new to the world, compared with 10 to 40 per cent in other OECD countries.
2. RISK AVERSE: Fewer than half of Australian businesses identify themselves as innovators.
3. COLLABORATION: Only 3.3 per cent of large Australian businesses collaborate with research organisations, which ranks us 27th among the 34 countries in the OECD for links between research and business.
4. IVORY TOWERS: Fewer than one in three Australian researchers work in industry. In the US, two in three researchers work in business.
5. PLAN: Australia is now the only country in the OECD not to have a national strategy for science and/or technology and/or innovation.
6. EDUCATION: About 40 per cent of our year 7 to year 10 mathematics classes are taught without a qualified mathematics teacher.
To guarantee a stronger economy and ensure Australian science and research ranks as world-class, the chief scientist’s report makes several recommendations:
1. INNOVATION: Establish an Australian Innovation Board to draw together existing Australian programs and set targets for research and innovation effort.
2. EDUCATION: Offer incentives for students to study unpopular science, maths and IT courses; lift the quality of maths and science teachers in schools; build pathways for science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduates to work in industry, not just academia. Every primary school should have at least one specialist science teacher.
3. RESEARCH: Adopt a long-term plan for science and research; develop priorities for the nation and support them appropriately.
4. SCIENCE IS GLOBAL: Establish a fund for strong government-to-government linkages for international science collaborations.
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