Australia today faces multiple challenges. They include the fact that we are unlike any other continent with species and ecosystems that are found nowhere else. If we don’t look after ourselves, who will? There is global warming and climate change, and its impact on so much that we take for granted; an economy heavily reliant on what we dig up and sell, in a world less eager to buy. There is the spread of artificial intelligence and automation, and the impact on work and people; there is the increasing requirement to understand ever more sophisticated data, and its wise use; a growing need to grapple with almost unfathomable technologies rushing fast from the world of research into our lives. There is health care: pandemics, epidemics, complications from the spread of antibiotic resistance to bacteria, and how to keep a growing population in good health.
All these things will generate confusion and concern, but properly led we could also see creativity, optimism, and appetite for change – as we will in the nations where people decide that their dreams and not their destiny will define them. If we don’t prepare our people with that capacity, that confidence, those skills, who will? If we don’t plan how to look after ourselves, who will?
Education (and training) is a key, of course. It is the means by which we prepare our people with the skills, and instil the confidence, to enable them to face down challenges; to deal with uncertainty and create opportunity.
Education, and particularly (but not only) education in science, is a critical capability. Henry Parkes, all those years ago, called science a steed to be harnessed in the interests of the nation.
I would argue that in our Commonwealth there is still harnessing to do; science is integral to everything we do. It has an influence on us way beyond the laboratory or the clinic, the space station or the farm. Many times a day, the things we do, things we use, things we swallow, are the product of science. Without them, life would be starkly different and most probably worse.
Science is integral to the very core of our nation. Our defence depends on it. So does our agriculture. Our mining. Our manufacturing. Our cities and regions and infrastructure. Our literature and culture and media.
How then do we get what we need: scientists and technologists in sufficient numbers embedded in a community with enough knowledge of science and how it works to be able to make wise decisions about what to embrace, what to use or what to avoid through participation in constructive debate.
Would I rely on the market to pull through all the skills we need, across all the scientific disciplines? No – because I would look at the data and see that it doesn’t.
Performance and participation in science and advanced mathematics in schools is in decline – notwithstanding sporadic calls for more from what we might call ‘the market’.
In recent times, participation in science subjects in Year 12 was at a twenty year low. In one sense that is not a surprise: the only description students get too often is that the science subjects are ’difficult.’?
We don’t have time to waste, and our teachers need to be better prepared, better developed and better supported than at any time in our history. Teaching must become what it presently is not: one of the esteemed professions.
How have we let it come to this? Because we don’t demand better.
We don’t invest strategically enough in science and in education, and we have let that happen.
We don’t have a comprehensive strategy to build then nurture our expertise, at scale. We let that happen, too.
We have to prepare Australians for new challenges, including dealing with uncertainty: and we don’t do enough. We spend money, but how well?
We must do more, and we must aim high.
To set the bar high, to be ambitious, we need leadership
We need our leaders to rise to the challenge and develop a vision for our country, along with smart evidence-based policies to deliver that vision. The policies must be a coherent whole, based on evidence, clear in their purpose and well explained.
Generally, they are not. Evidence is too often cherry-picked and coherence across portfolio areas is not common, or not obvious.
We need leaders willing to say what they believe, stand for principles with courage and conviction, marshal evidence, build support and enact.
But do we have the (political) leadership to do that?
My answer is ‘no’.
Do we have people more concerned with keeping their job than what they do with their job? My answer is ‘yes’.
The question is why do we put up with it?
In Part 2 tomorrow I describe how we must demand that our leaders work in our interest
Ian Chubb is an Australian neuroscientist who was Chief Scientist of Australia from 2011 to 2016