A long-term commitment to invest in STEM education and research from all sides of politics is essential if Australia wants to be taken seriously as an innovation hub, the director of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) Tim Brown has warned.
“The reality is that Australia overall doesn’t value mathematics in the way it needs to,” Mr Brown tells InnovationAus.com.
“If Australia is going to have a great future as an innovation hub and as a thriving economy – and so much of the future is going be bound to mathematical and science applications – then the knowledge and skills of the workforce need to reflect that,” he said.
While funds have been allocated to tackle gender equity, careers awareness, and deliver training and resources to boost teacher quality through programs such as the APR.Intern program, which offers PHD students six-month industry placements that have led to “great employment outcomes for participating students”, Mr Brown said current measures are still nowhere near enough.
Mr Brown believes part of the solution is consistent bipartisanship across the political system in dealing with industry and other public institutions.
“If we’re going to have a sufficiently diverse and skilled workforce there needs to be big societal change recognising that this kind of value in mathematics is crucial.”
He compares the action the government needs to take to bring about a cultural change and increase public awareness about the importance of STEM to government-ran campaigns that were used to warn people about the dangers of smoking, drinking and driving, and not wearing seatbelts in a car.
“Cultural change doesn’t happen overnight, so there needs to be a long-term vision to produce the data scientist of the future for us to participate in areas like machine intelligence, machine learning, AI and driverless cars, areas that are going require very high levels of skills in maths and statistics,” Mr Brown said.
“There’s a big agenda for both sides of politics and a big challenge for them about having support that the cultural change needs. We know attitudes can be changed through public awareness.”
Mr Brown believes if the government could contribute significant investments into STEM education, it would not only lift the country’s overall skills level but improve the country’s research standards.
“One of the key roles that research plays in an economy like Australia is that it keeps in touch with what’s happening as big development happens across the world,” he said.
“It’s viable that research happens not only because it makes a great contribution by itself to the Australian economy but it’s vital to keep us in touch. There’s a big gender gap in research and education, which requires significant monetary investment.”