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Which degree? Fashion design or science?

By Kurt Lambeck - posted Thursday, 22 February 2007

Solid research and previous experience tell us that science education in Australia is in need of a serious overhaul. Not because it’s a poor system or on the verge of breakdown but because future demands and pressures on the youth of the nation are likely to be very different from those of the past.

And we’re not alone. Australia is in the same boat as most developed and developing countries, who are struggling with how to prepare their populations for a future in which the only safe bet is that it will be different - very different.

Fortunately, thanks to the recent political focus on all levels and areas of education, in the media and across the professional and general communities, there is now an opportunity - a watershed moment - in which to make significant gains in securing a more balanced, secure and fulfilling educational future for our children.


It’s also an opportunity to secure a better deal for the hard-working people whose job is central to achieving that future - our often hard-pressed and under-resourced teachers. For the nation, the flow-on will be a workforce that is happier, more skilled and more flexible and productive.

However, Carpe Diem springs to mind immediately, for if governments, bureaucracies and educational authorities are not pressured to act on the cold, hard facts very soon, another such opportunity may not present itself for a long time to come.

Warning bells have been rung in all quarters, including the federal Department of Education, Science and Training, whose first audit of science, engineering and technology skills makes compelling but depressing reading. The Department’s statistical radar shows that of the 55,000 extra science professionals the nation needs by 2011, we’ll fall short by 35 per cent. Put in human terms, that’s a staggering 19,250. Put in practical terms on the educational front, it means that in the near future, science teachers may be very hard to find.

As for research, even contemporary Nobel prize winners like the Academy’s Peter Doherty, Robin Warren and Barry Marshall had to begin somewhere - which poses a number of questions:

How many potential Australian breakthroughs in medical and other research will slip through the cracks because of our nation’s short-sightedness on education?

How will we maintain and consolidate our still-high levels of scientific knowledge if we are no longer a clever nation?


And ultimately, how long will our economy survive if not underpinned by excellence in science in the face of emerging economic superpowers such as China and India, which are working hard to ensure that science is the keystone of their economic edifices?

Trends show that students are not choosing to study science once it is no longer compulsory. This trend continues into the tertiary education sector with fewer students choosing to study the physical and natural sciences and to a lesser extent engineering.

This trend is expected to worsen over the next five years unless action is taken. A strong skills base in science, engineering and technology is crucial to the foundations of national competitiveness - and qualified scientists and engineers are essential to research and development, innovation and productivity growth.

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About the Author

Professor Kurt Lambeck is the President of the Australian Academy of Science and Distinguished Professor of Geophysics at the Australian National University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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