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The knowledge drought intensifies

By Julian Cribb - posted Thursday, 17 August 2006


For the second time this year Australians have been warned our scientific skills are in decline. First it was the Macquarie SET (science, engineering and technology) Study. Now it’s the Australian Government’s own audit, cautioning we are training far fewer researchers, engineers and technologists than we need to keep advancing.

This has been an issue in Australian science for decades. The explanations and proposed solutions have been thrashed out a thousand times in a hundred committees and reports. Yet it remains unsolved.

In a world where knowledge has become the premium commodity, the primary fount of economic growth, sustainability and social progress, and nations are falling over themselves to train millions of new knowledge-producers, Australia - apparently - isn’t having it.

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Unlike older - one is tempted to add, wiser - societies, today’s Australians do not particularly venerate knowledge. Indeed, we have a richly contemptuous vernacular for those who work with their minds rather than with their hands or with money. Yet, paradoxically, we value highly what knowledge delivers to us.

We are known to be fast-adopters of new technologies. We are robustly inventive in many fields. Yet we invest less and less in the humans who create the knowledge necessary for these things to happen. According to Macquarie, we send a negative image to our young that these are “dead industries”.

The work of a great builder, jurist or writer may endure for centuries. The knowledge created by a quite ordinary scientist continues, lambent down the years, as part of the heritage and survival-kit of humanity. A valid scientific idea lasts as long as civilisation itself.

The power of knowledge to outstand even monuments of rock and stone is illustrated in our indigenous culture whose songlines, it is thought, encase knowledge of landscape as much as 15,000 years old - majestically over-towering the five millennia of the Great Pyramid or Stonehenge. If you have ever lit a fire or used a knife to cut something, you are employing knowledge that has been kept alive, without books or computers, for well over one million years. Real knowledge lasts.

For two generations Australia has subsisted on the laissez-faire view that if we can’t produce a home-grown expert, then we can easily buy one from overseas - generally from a less prosperous culture. However there are fields in which this simply isn’t true - and some of them are those most critical to our present and long-term existence.

There is for example, a real crisis in the availability of taxonomists. Those trained in the 1960s are now retiring, and almost none have been trained in the last 20 years because governments decided we didn’t need any more information about what lived in Australia. In a continent which is, biologically speaking, still 90 per cent unexplored this was a notably myopic lapse.

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A taxonomist may seem unimportant as an individual, but the knowledge they give us will still be in use a thousand years hence, which is more than can be said of much contemporary “knowledge”.

We also need it in the short run to understand what is here, what it does and how we can use it more wisely. In other words to avoid similar errors of ignorance to those which led to erosion, salinity, acidification, polluted soil and water, weed and pest invasions, diseases and loss of species. Especially we need experts who understand how these things function amid the complexity of Australian landscapes, ecosystems and society.

You can’t buy such specialists on the world market. And apparently we are reluctant to train or employ them here. So we will continue in ignorance of what makes Australia tick as a continent, making errors and doing damage - besides missing the biodiscovery boat and many other opportunities.

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First published in The Australian on August 9, 2006.



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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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