The growing need for elevation of science in the Australian community and curriculum was highlighted by Professor Suzanne Cory’s address to the National Press Club on July 1st. Professor Cory is President of the Australian Academy of Science, and spoke on the pressing need for investment in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics), areas in which Australia has fallen woefully behind in recent years.
Australia has enjoyed a history rich in science innovation: WIFI, the Gardasil vaccine and the Bionic ear are just a few recent Australian scientific developments. From the moment you are woken by your smart phone, through your drive to work and the e-tag, to the farming processes involved in the production of your lunch, science is everywhere. So ingrained is science in our daily living that ‘it is in grave danger of being taken for granted,’ warns Professor Cory.
Australia, as a nation, tends to ‘punch above its weight’ in the scientific fields. Professor Cory stated our scientists produce more than 3% of published scientific articles, conference papers and reviews, despite representing around one-third of a percent of the world’s population. In 2012 we ranked 11th, with 59,000 articles published.
Mathematics is a fundamental science: underpinning success in all other branches of science. In her 2011 National Press Club address, Professor Cory referred to mathematics as an ‘enabling science.Without maths it is not possible to make use of other sciences – either in the lab or in the workforce.” The National Curriculum Board considers mathematics as central to the development of our global competitiveness. Mathematics provides powerful tools for analysis, understanding, investigation and solving of problems. It facilitates access to further study, particularly in STEM fields.
We know that educational attainment has multiple benefits for the individual and for the economy: increased participation and easier re-entry into the workforce, lower dependency on welfare and increased employment. Low achievement in numeracy tends to result in lower levels educational attainment across the board. Disadvantaged students appear to be most affected by issues related to disengagement, such as truancy, isolation, alienation, and higher incidence of disruptive behaviour.
Over the past twenty years in Australia there has been a decline in students studying mathematics and science at upper secondary and tertiary levels. Over the same time-period most OECD nations have seen an increase in students studying in these fields. Just 0.4% of Australian graduates major in mathematics or statistics, compared to the OECD average of 1%.
The Gillard Government pledged $14.5 billion to be invested in education through the Gonski reform to school funding, due to fears of ‘falling behind’ other nations in our region.
We’ve already fallen behind.
Australia’s performance on both TIMSS and PISA International tests is deeply concerning. Between 2003 and 2009 Australia’s performance in the top band and relative ranking in PISA declined: the portion of Australian students scoring in the top bands Level 5 and above dropped from 19.9% to 16.5%. In TIMSS testing Australia’s scores have remained static since 2003, at a time in when other countries improved results in mathematics. In Australia, less than 10% of students achieve at the highest benchmark. By comparison, over 30% of students in Singapore achieve in the top band. Between 7 and 11% of students achievement less than the lowest benchmark (compared to less than 5% in Chinese Taipei, Japan and Korea). Essentially, Australia is very adequately educating students to an average standard.
Students in the bottom quartile are eight times more likely to have failed to meet the most basic levels of proficiency in TIMSS and PISA testing. The high impact of SES on numeracy level is contradictory of the Australian ethos of equality in education.
Australia is in a crisis in education. Without sensible investment and leadership we will soon be in a crisis of research and development.
Australian students STEM proficiency is imperative to future innovation, prosperity and growth of the nation. The benefits of a scientifically literate and progressive nation are undeniable. Professor Corrs referred to 63% of productivity growth in the UK over the past ten years coming directly from innovation. Similar figures are available for the US.
We simply do not invest enough in STEM to safeguard our future. Today, Australia spends a total of about 2.2 per cent of its GDP on Research and Development – about $900 per person, per year. By comparison, both the US and Sweden spend about $1,300 per person, per year
Just this week Treasurer Chris Bowen MP spoke in gushing terms of Australia’s AAA credit rating, considering it a testament of ‘the strength of the Australian economy.’ In this time of prosperity and high economic resilience it is even more pertinent that investment in research and development supports innovation.
Development of the next generation of scientists is imperative to ensure Australia remains competitive on a global playing field. Without sufficient funding for research and investment in science we are at risk of losing our best and brightest to other nations. The struggle to engage the next generation of scientists is made all the more difficult when there is little future for them in Australia. Investment is critical to maintain economic competitiveness, ensure future productivity, and to protect our quality of life. Investment is critical to the development of internationally competitive scientists, mathematicians and statisticians, and on a broader level, a skilled workforce and scientifically literate community. Investment is critical to ensuring our scientists can reach their full potential.