Experts Speak Out About The Government’s National Science Statement: What Does It Mean For Australia?

Experts Speak Out About The Government’s National Science Statement: What Does It Mean For Australia?

The Federal Government has released The National Science Statement, outlining a four stage plan to boost science and technology in Australia. Namely, by “engaging all Australians with science, building scientific skills, producing new research and technology, and improving Australians’ lives through research”.

Here’s what experts have to say about the plan.

Dr Peter Tangney, lecturer and course coordinator of Science Policy and Communication at Flinders Centre for Science Education in the 21st Century, Flinders University

It is with mixed feelings that I read this national science statement.

On the one hand, I applaud government whenever it renews its commitments to science, research and evidence-based policy as key contributions to liberal democracy. Their commitment to STEM education is particularly important.

On the other hand, it is difficult to suppress cynicism in relation to these commitments, particularly when considering the current government’s track record of endorsing scientific research and promoting investment only when it is politically expedient to do so, and ignoring or seeking to discredit science when it is not.

The government’s national innovation and science agenda, referred to in this statement, is a key example of how government has ignored those areas of cutting-edge scientific and engineering research (e.g. renewable energy technology) that conflict with their political ideologies, no matter how well-suited the Australian economy is to advancing them.

Professor Les Field, Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science

The Statement recognises the role of science in our society and economy. It highlights that new knowledge is the fuel that drives innovation and that support is required from basic to applied research.

Not only does the Statement provide much needed long-term direction and purpose for government activities in regards to science, it shows an understanding of the needs and realities of the sector.

Anna-Maria Arabia, CEO of the Australian Academy of Science

We stand ready to work with government to shape an investment strategy that supports this plan. It offers a comprehensive framework, and a guide to decision-making and investment.

The focus areas are all about providing a strong, solid basis for science including infrastructure, training, engagement, and collaboration mechanisms… all things that point us towards having the strongest science and research sector.

It’s an important document that builds on the National Innovation and Science Agenda and recognises science’s role in driving Australia’s economic and social wellbeing.

Professor Ken Baldwin, Director of the Energy Change Institute and the Deputy Director of the Research School of Physics and Engineering at the Australian National University

The National Science Statement, released today, contains no new significant new strategies or funding announcements, but does affirm the Government’s strong support for science as a driver of the economy and social advancement.

We eagerly await the 2030 Strategic Plan being prepared by Innovation and Science Australia (ISA) that will be released later this year. The expectations of the science community will be riding on this document, which needs to place Australia at the forefront of R&D performance – both in the government and private sector.

As the NSS points out, Australia is in the middle of the pack, lying 15th out of 33 in the OECD in 2013/14 with 2.12 per cent Gross Expenditure on R&D (as a percentage of GDP) – down from 2.25 per cent in 2008/9. While the higher education component of this is above the OECD average, both the contributions from government (marginally) and business (significantly) were below average.

However, the really worrying aspect is that the recent overall decline was mainly due to the business contribution falling from 1.3 to 1.2 per cent. An indicator of the underlying problem pointed out by the NSS is that only 4.8 per cent of research active companies collaborate with a university or publicly funded research institution.

What is needed from the Government are incentives for industry to collaborate more broadly in research, and for support to be provided more generally to enable Australian researchers (whether private or government supported) to link with and leverage research overseas.

Dr Darren Saunders, cancer biologist and senior lecturer in pathology at the University of New South Wales

There are a number of really encouraging principles outlined in the National Science Statement.

In the current political climate it is particularly encouraging to see a clear commitment to embracing evidence in policy development and working towards bipartisan support for science.

Scientists will be encouraged by talk of providing stable, long term investment in science and recognising the importance of engaging the Australian public in the outcomes and benefits of science is critical in achieving this aim. Support for addressing gender inequity in the research workforce is a key issue.

Importantly, while the National Science Statement is an encouraging initiative, scientists will be looking forward to seeing how the statement translates to tangible outcomes.

Kylie Walker, CEO of Science and Technology Australia

A long-term, whole-of-government strategic direction for Australian science and technology has been desperately needed, but we hope this is realised through action.

We also hope for a plan to preserve and extend our world leading research infrastructure, which is critical to this.

The focus on Australian skills, Australian science, Australian research, and the impact it can have on Australian policy, is very welcome.

Professor Peter Andrews AO, Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, and the Australian Institute of Company Directors; Queensland’s first Chief Scientist

Excellent statement, great ideas! All we need now is for the government and the opposition to agree on this or any other policy for long enough to make a difference. Otherwise it’ll go the way of every other science policy for the past 30 years.

Dr. David Tuffley, Senior Lecturer in Applied Ethics and Socio-Technical studies at Griffith University in Australia

Science and technology are the nation-building tools that we need to create employment and prosperity in an increasingly automated world. Equipping ourselves with the tools of science will help us be at the leading edge, if not the bleeding edge, of technological change.

Scientific literacy will make the difference between winning and losing in the globalised economies of the future.

Stuart Cunningham, Distinguished Professor at the Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology and Chair, ACOLA Project, Skills and Capabilities for Australian Enterprise Innovation

Australia needs an innovative, agile and creative workforce with the skills and capabilities to enable the country to secure its future. The National Science Statement is a welcome step on the way to addressing the country’s most advanced skills and capabilities needs.

However, while it seeks to be inclusive of the humanities, arts and social sciences, it does little to operationalise that inclusion. There is a growing awareness that innovation, while relying critically on technical and scientific capabilities, equally requires people who understand business, systems, culture and the way society uses and adopts new ideas.

The Australian Council of Learned Academies’ Securing Australia’s Future report Skills and Capabilities for Australian Enterprise Innovation shows how leading innovative Australian enterprises identify, manage, build and mix the skills and capabilities to meet innovation challenges and succeed in increasingly competitive, digitally-disrupted, and globalising markets.

The future of high value, high paid work depends on Australia learning the lessons of STEM and HASS skills mixing from some of its leading innovative enterprises.

Ian Lowe, Emeritus professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University, former President of the Australian Conservation Foundation.

The National Science Statement sets out admirable objectives, but also shows how the Commonwealth government is failing to put those aims into practice. Most observers would agree that refining and applying science is vital for a civilised future. The Statement reveals some worrying trends.

It shows that public funding of science is now at a very low level compared with commercially driven R&D. Recent cuts to the budget of CSIRO and politically-driven changes to its scientific agenda have reinforced the tendency of young people to believe the career prospects in science are poor, leading to fewer of the brightest young people studying in the STEM area [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics]. This is a serious problem, for which the Statement offers no credible response.

The Statement notes that there is relatively little cooperation between researchers and those who could apply new scientific developments, but the government has scrapped the Cooperative Research Centres program which was specifically aimed at remedying this problem – and has a track record of considerable success.

Finally, the Statement documents the continuing trend to invest heavily in medical research to cope with the problems of unhealthy lifestyles, while making very little effort to address the causes of the problem.

Overall, a fine statement of worthy objectives, but disappointingly little coherent policy response to the identified problems.

Associate Professor David H Cropley

The National Science Statement, released today, is a positive and proactive declaration of the Government’s desire to foster a long-term connection between Australia’s intellectual capabilities across a range of scientific disciplines, and our future economic security.

Innovation – the process of responding to change by connecting new solutions to new problems – is the means by which countries grow and prosper. However, the ability to be innovative depends on a solid foundation of scientific knowledge. Equally, there is limited value in having highly developed scientific capabilities, unless those capabilities can be expressed in ways that help our nation grow and prosper. Therefore, one cannot flourish without the other.

The challenges we will face in future decades – brought about by climate change, demographic change, economic change, health change – will only be solved if we have a national innovation system that sits on top of a robust, strategic and well-supported “national science system”. Today’s National Science Statement sets out a compelling vision, but its success will be judged by how well it is implemented.