The newly-reconstituted National Science and Technology Council has met for the first time, chaired by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and outlined a program of work that includes a heavy focus on artificial intelligence opportunities.
The council would also investigate as a top priority more effective strategies for maintaining the interest of young students in STEM subjects – specifically those in the Year 5 to Year 8 range, where kids are most likely to disengage with maths and science.
Industry, Science and Technology Minister Karen Andrews, who is also the council’s deputy chair, said these areas of priority would be managed in addition to the ongoing work of the council to setting the nation’s science priorities and identifying where Australia can do well, both contributing and competing in research.
Ms Andrews said although there would inevitably be some overlap in purpose between the new-look National Science and Technology Council and the board of Innovation and Science Australia, the two bodies had separate areas of focus.
But right out of the gate, the minister said STEM capability-building was key, together with the ‘normalising’ of STEM disciplines as an area of study and as a legitimate and important career option.
“The over-riding issue for us is STEM, and making sure that we are developing the talent that we need in Australia with science, technology, engineering and math skills,” Ms Andrews told InnovationAus.com.
“We already know that if students discontinue their interest in science and math in about Grade 5 to Grade 8, the chances of getting them re-engaged are very bleak.”
NTSC board member and Griffith University Pro Vice-Chancellor Professor Debra Henly will lead an investigation to report back by the next quarterly meeting of the council in June.
“We will also be looking at broader issues related to artificial intelligence, and will be looking art what opportunities there are for Australia to take a leading role in AI research,” Ms Andrews said.
“How can we target areas where Australia has done well in the past, and where there are opportunities to develop further in the future [using AI as a tool],” she said. This includes in areas like agriculture and healthcare, and potentially in using AI in the energy sector.
The council indicated an interest in pursuing AI and next generation agriculture technologies as research challenges. It appointed council member Prof Genevieve Bell from the Australian National University to work with Data61 to see where Australia had an opportunity to play a leading role in shaping the ethics and regulation of AI internationally.
Ms Andrews said there was an important role for the NSTC to drive cultural change in Australia that accepts science – and even high-achieving science – as entirely normal study pursuits, and a solid generic platform for strong and interesting careers.
“We need to communicate that many of the jobs of the future are going to have a significant skills [requirement],” she said. “So even if you are not going to go on and work in science, you’re still going to have to understand math to a certain level and include some science skills.”
“Really this is not something where students should be allowed to disengage. We have to find a way to keep them engaged and to keep their career options open.”
The meeting also discussed potential topics for new reports in the Horizon Scanning series, covering data as a national asset, use of technology in aged care and the conservation and environmental management of oceans.
Horizon Scanning reports on AI, next generation agriculture technologies and the internet of things are already underway and are to be delivered in the next twelve months.
You can read more in the National Science and Technology Council’s first Communique here. The NSTC is chaired by the Prime Minister, with the Industry Minister its deputy.
The Chief Scientist Alan Finkel is the NSTC Executive Officer, while CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall is an ex officio member.
The rest of the council is made up of six eminent Australian academics: Prof Genevieve Bell, Prof Barbara Howlett, Prof Geordie Williamson, Prof Debra Henly, Prof Brian Schmidt and Prof Ian Frazer.