Australian science is being left behind because of a lack of investment from government and industry, a group representing the nation’s scientists says.
Government investment in new research is the lowest it has been in almost 20 years as a proportion of GDP, while private investment continues to fall, according to lobby group Science and Technology Australia.
At the same time, our science education system is deeply flawed at almost every level, the group says.
Leaders from almost 50 organisations representing the nation’s scientists met in Canberra on Tuesday to call for a national strategy for science.
“We are in danger of being left behind,” says Professor Emma Johnston, the organisation’s president.
“The lack of a dedicated science minister in cabinet is a bad sign, and dropping investment in science from government is not a good sign either,” she said.
In addition to the national strategy, Science and Technology Australia are calling for a rebuild of the science-education pathway, and strong investment in research – from both government and the private sector.
Research investment should be 3 per cent of GDP, the group says, up from 1.8 per cent – a figure that is well below the average for developed nations.
And the program for training our next generation of scientists is deeply troubled, Professor Johnston says.
In NSW, for example, fewer than 50 per cent of year 12 students study a science subject. About 20 per cent don’t study maths at all, according to the group’s figures.
“We have science education pipeline problems from the word go. We don’t have enough teachers with the right training – there is a critical shortage – and we have people teaching outside of their area of expertise,” Professor Johnston says.
However, data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests Australia isn’t doing so badly.
The government research budget has grown almost 10 per cent in the last decade, while tax incentives to support research are among the highest across surveyed countries, the OECD says.
Government figures show total research and development investment was $9.8 billion in 2017-18 – a number which has been plateauing since peaking in 2011 at $10.1 billion, when adjusted for inflation.
Minister for Jobs and Innovation Michaelia Cash said the government had a “ongoing commitment to science and technology”.
“Just this week, the government announced $70 million for vital new supercomputers at the Pawsey Centre in Perth, building on $70 million announced in December for the National Computational Infrastructure at the ANU,” Minister Cash said.
“We have laid out strong plans for science, including launching the National Innovation and Science Agenda, the release of the Government Science Statement – developed in collaboration with the science community – and the release of the Chief Scientist’s National Research Infrastructure Roadmap.”