Australia has a rich and storied history of innovation and scientific discovery. From John McGarvie Smith, who built on Louis Pasteur’s work to develop an effective vaccine against anthrax that would keep for an indefinite period, to Melbourne professor Graeme Clark, whose team developed the first bionic ear in the 1970s, Australia has traditionally stood at the forefront of scientific endeavour.
However, the last few decades have seen a steady decline in the number of Australian students taking Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects at school and into university. The mining and natural resources boom has played into this gradual slide as Australia has been able to ride on the back of demand from the enormous economies of India and China, and maintain strong growth. Price Waterhouse Cooper’s Head of Innovation and Digital Ventures, partner Trent Lund, has been quoted as saying, “Over the past 50 years, Australia has invested more heavily in physical asset industries. If we want to grow our productivity, that investment needs to be more evenly balanced and at an appropriate pace in areas of growth, not decline.”
Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, has been a vocal proponent in urging the Government to become more active in pushing the study of science and technology classes to students. In September this year, Professor Chubb issued a paper, entitled Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics: Australia’s Future. In the document, he points out that Australia currently ranks 81st worldwide as a country able to convert raw innovation into business requirements. The document outlines a set of recommendations to focus on improving STEM-related education for young students and, in doing so, secure a stronger economic future for Australia.
According to the paper, “[Australians] have long presumed that good things will just happen if we wait. At the federal level, policy and programme responsibility is diffuse. The science, research and innovation investment reported in 2012-13 – amounting to approximately $8.6 billion – was spread across a suite of programmes in 13 separate portfolios.”
This diffusion, he argues, is slowing innovation and causing Australia to slip behind other nations: “Just 1.5 per cent of Australian firms developed new-to-the-world innovations in 2011, compared with 10 to 40 per cent in other OECD countries”.
“We are the only OECD country without a science or technology strategy. Other countries have realised that such an approach is essential to remaining competitive in a world reliant on science and science-trained people,” Professor Chubb said.
Australia is also slipping across the region. Mr Lund says, “A lack of skilled people is cited as the number one barrier to innovation. Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics are the core educational competencies needed for an economically productive future… Over the past 10 years, the number of STEM related course completions has dropped from 22 to 16 per cent in Australia. By comparison, in 2012, 52 per cent of Singapore’s higher education graduates were from STEM-related courses.”
Mr Lund said, “The decline in the number of skilled, ready-to-work STEM graduates is creating an innovation bottleneck for Australian businesses. This is only going to get worse with 75 per cent of the fastest growing occupations requiring STEM skills and knowledge.”
For Australia to succeed over the next few decades, there needs to be a fundamental shift in priorities – both across Australian society in general and via government policy – and it must start at the earliest levels of education.
In mid-October, the Australian Federal Government announced that it would commit $12 million to improving STEM subjects in primary and secondary schools across the country, with the bulk allotted to developing Mathematics subjects. The remainder will be divided up between computer programming, a program to “develop the next generation of innovators and job-ready graduates”, and to cover travel for students attending STEM-related summer programs.
The Government has also formed the Commonwealth Science Council, to be chaired by Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The role of the Council will be to advise on science and technology issues in Australia, and it includes Professor Chubb, Professor Ian Frazer, Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone, and Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt. The Council is also set to include the Ministers of Health, Industry and Education – though notably not Finance. The group is scheduled to meet before the end of the year and twice annually through 2015.
These are positive developments and should be applauded, but this announcement should be seen as a first step in developing broader policy that addresses the decline in STEM-skilled students progressing into university and the workforce.
Additionally, the announcement seems to contradict the Federal Government’s commissioned Review of Australian Curriculum, announced immediately prior, that recommended its digital technologies programme should be dropped as a stand-alone course and that digital courses should be offered as electives from year 9 onwards. This news caused strong reactions from spokespeople from prominent technology organisations across the country, including the Australian Computer Society and the Australian Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology.
One of the clearest examples of an area where other countries around the world are ahead of Australia in fostering innovation is in teaching programming. In the UK, Code Club – a voluntary initiative designed to encourage children between 9 and 11 years of age how to program – has gained significant traction. From humble beginnings, the project now has more than 2,000 primary schools in the UK participating, with a goal of reaching 25 per cent of schools by the end of 2015. It is an ambitious goal, but one that currently seems a long way off in Australia.
A concerted focus on STEM-related subjects will reinvigorate an interest in science-related subjects and provide a platform for future innovation. Australia is currently exposed to a risk of a slowdown in demand for raw materials and will need to move to a knowledge-based economy in coming years. According to Mr Lund, “by harnessing innovation we have a once in lifetime opportunity to improve the fiscal wellbeing of Australia and make it a more attractive destination for investment and business”.
Australia will be well-served by focussing on digital literacy for primary-age students and equipping schools with the resources – both physical and teaching – that will help build skills that will serve as a foundation to ensure the country regains its position as a hotbed of innovation and scientific discovery. After all, there is no time to lose.