Science Week flags policy challenge

James Riley
Editorial Director

In recognition of National Science Week, Industry and Science Minister Ian MacFarlane made a Ministerial Statement ‘Science and Innovation: Building Australia’s Industries of the Future’ in parliament on Monday.

He made the expected links of innovation to productivity, and the importance of science to innovation. He said “Australia’s science policy, and its connection to industry policy, has never been more important.”

There was a sense in the speech that the only value of science is what it can do for industry, saying “We must get a bigger bang for our science dollar. We must use science and innovation to drive a dynamic, entrepreneurial start-up system to secure future growth and jobs.”

Ian Chubb: Not just more scientists, but a better understanding of science

In responding to the statement Opposition Leader Bill Shorten noted that “Whether we recognise it or not, science already pervades every aspect of our lives—every industry and every activity.” But while he was on a unity ticket on innovation he used climate change as an example where science had uses beyond merely being harnessed for industry.

Another significant difference was in the approach to policy being proposed. Ian MacFarlane made an appeal to bipartisanship, saying

We need a plan for the long-term — not a plan for a year or two. And a sustained approach needs our collective energy and goodwill that crosses the political divide. In taking this long-term outlook, I emphasise the importance of a bipartisan approach to industry and science policy so that the decisions we make today—whether they are in STEM, investment in research infrastructure or ways to boost our ability to commercialise research—can benefit Australia for decades to come.

Bill Shorten in contrast sought to make science policy a defining issue for the next election, saying:

Labor believe in a better approach to science: new cooperation with states and territories; new collaboration with industry, fostering a knowledge-based culture in our workforces; new programs in our schools, TAFEs and universities; new engagement with the community, students, parents, teachers, employers, entrepreneurs, small and big business alike, city businesses and farmers; and new international partnerships. I want the next election to be a contest for the future of science in this country. I want it to be about competing visions for science in our schools and for research, innovation and commercialisation. I want Australians to choose Labor, because Labor has chosen science.

It is at least pleasing to see that our national parliament could find forty minutes for set piece speeches on science policy in National Science Week. The policy question is whether we are yet really framing the policy questions correctly.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb in his contribution for the week framed the issue of science more broadly, writing:

When I think about science, I think of knowledge. I think of an ever better understanding of our natural world, and our constructed world, and what knowing more might allow us to do in the future. I think of our need to anticipate that future and plan for a world of super global competition; where smart companies lead, with new industries and sources of wealth and a differently skilled workforce; science at the core of success.

When I think about science, I think of the role it will play as we strive to solve, adapt, mitigate or manage many of the great challenges that face us as humanity.

Of course a lot of the discussion about science policy has revolved around the question of the need to improve the so-called STEM skills (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This conversation typically proceeds on the premise of the need for more students to take on advanced studies in these areas.

But the Chief Scientist makes the case that the entire community needs an understanding of science:

So education is critical, and not just for those who expect to practise science but for everyone who lives in the modern world. It is critical to the sort of planet we will hand on to the coming generations: from their jobs, to their environment, health, food, transport; to their quality of life and their prosperity. All of us have to know enough about how science works to support as best we can the people who practise it.

In June the Government responded to the Chief Scientist’s September 2014 recommendations for a strategic approach to science. The discussion paper ‘Vision for a Science Nation’ set out “to test the Government’s response to the Chief Scientist’s recommendations.” The paper sets out activities already initiated and asks what else could be done, by the government or by the business, community and education sectors.

The AIIA has already gone on the record to say the discussion paper “raises serious concerns regarding the extent to which the government is genuine in its commitment to STEM capacity building.”

At least part of the issue is the inherent conflict between the goals of encouraging students to undertake advanced studies in STEM subjects and the need for everyone to have a core competency.

Researchers at UTS are “taking abstract mathematical ideas which students might think ‘who cares?’ about and making them relevant and real in their lives.” The thing is that the students who really excel at maths don’t need that, they need to be inspired about maths as maths.

In the words of Ian Chubb “The goal must be to make the subject so compellingly well taught that students want to study mathematics.”

The kids who go on to win medals at national and international level for running didn’t get inspired by the Personal Development and Health lessons on eating well and exercise. They like to run fast, and will put in incredible work to run faster.

What we want to achieve with STEM runs counter to the Government’s response to the review of the Australian Curriculum which seeks to ‘uncrowd’ the primary curriculum and return to teaching phonics and phonemic awareness. This is the same review that recommended that the Digital Technologies curriculum for K-10 not be introduced.

The Minister for Communications suggested that the computational thinking elements could be introduced to the Mathematics curriculum but there also seems to be no movement on that.

Is it too hard to think that early school curricula need to accommodate the fact that different children have different learning styles? Some kids will learn to read ‘whole of word’ because that is how their mind works, others need phonics. Some kids need maths to be explained as a practical toll, whereas others just enjoy the process of logic. Can we use both rather than thinking it is either/or?

I set out to write this column thinking I would address the concerns of those that think we are focussing too much on STEM skills. I will return to that theme. But National Science Week really highlights that we don’t have a sense of urgency on STEM skills in early schooling.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised where one of the authors of the Government’s curriculum review has just questioned the use of computers in schools. In a stunning conclusion he wants Australian children to turn their backs on computers and be surrounded by books.

In the 90s when my children were at school there was a high correlation between academic achievement and households that had a set of encyclopaedias. You can’t buy one of those now!

Yes we do need our children to not be addicted to social networking sites, just as we needed them to not be addicted to video games, comic books, or cards.

But do any of these policy makers understand that Facebook, Twitter and Google (including YouTube) are multi-billion dollar businesses created by people who studied STEM subjects, some from a young age.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment