“When the end of the mining boom comes, where will Australia be?” asked Suzanne Cory, the president of the Australian Academy of Science, in a National Press Club address today slamming Australia’s lack of investment in science education.
Cory, an internationally renowned biologist, said Australia had been “slipping in its duty to inspire our children,” due to poor science education that leaves children disenchanted. Australian children are performing worse in science than ever before and the number of students studying science continues to decline.
Ten years ago 23% of year 12 students studied chemistry. Now it’s just 18%. Physics has fallen from 21% to 14% in the last decade.
Maths, a critical component in studying science, looks even more troubled, with early secondary mathematical literacy scores significantly declining over the last ten years.
Cory spoke of a strong history of Australian scientific endeavours — particularly in relation to the economic values of such discoveries — including the development of WiFi by CSIRO scientist John O’Sullivan, the bionic ear invention by Graeme Clark and Ian Frazer’s cervical vaccine.
Cory said while research projects of these scale took years, they were critical to the betterment of Australian society. “Science is often a long-term investment. But it is an investment that can pay off in spades,” argued Cory.
“To be quite frank, we need much greater investment in science in this country, by government — both State and Federal — and by business.”
The recent resources boom is a critical example of science investment paying off economically, with Cory noting that “We would not have had any of our mining booms if our geology had not mapped by government Geological Surveys, at great public expense, starting in 1850.”
While the current government has invested heavily in research and development (R&D), Australia still spends far less of its Gross Domestic Product on R&D and science education than most other advanced economies.
Cory spoke of a recent survey conducted by Science and Technology Australia and the Academy of Science, which showed the 80% of respondents agreed that “science education is absolutely essential or very important to the national economy.”
However the research also “revealed some alarming holes in the basic science understanding of the average Australian,” said Cory. The results found that three in ten Australians surveyed believe humans were around at the same time as dinosaurs. More than one-third of Australians do not think evolution is still occurring.
“So — it appears we understand that science education is important to society and to the national economy. But, as a nation, many of us do not understand even the most basic science,” Cory told the Press Club.
The Australian Academy of Science, modelled after the UK’s Royal Society, is a fellowship made up of over 400 of the nation’s top scientists. Its aim is to promote excellence in Australian science. It has recently run two different — and successful — science education programs for primary and secondary schools. Cory says the Academy was ” devastated” to learn earlier this year that the federal government decided to withdraw its support for the programs.
Cory called for further investment in teachers and science curriculum. “This is a responsibility for both the Commonwealth and the States, who must work together rather than reverting to the blame game,” she said.
Cory’s personal research has focused on the fields of immunology and cancer. She’s been named a Knight of the Legion of Honour and the Suzanne Cory High School, a selective government school for ages 9-12 in Melbourne’s West, opened this year.