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Aspiring to something magnificent with science in Australia

Chief scientist of Australia Professor Ian Chubb during his address to the National Press Club in Canberra. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Aspiring to something magnificent with science in Australia

Chief scientist of Australia Professor Ian Chubb during his address to the National Press Club in Canberra. AAP Image/Lukas Coch

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, spoke at the National Press Club today about his vision for science in the future of Australia. Here he outlines what he imagines Australia could be.

Over the past four years, I have had a consistent message -– that science matters. And it is too important to leave to chance.

Whether it is our environment, our health, our ageing population, our food supply, our economy or our security, it will be scientific discovery and the use of scientific knowledge that will form the core of our ability to respond.

Without science we would have too little food to provide for the world, too little water for agriculture, too little potable water; without science our health would suffer; without science our lifestyle would be damaged beyond repair; our future would be bleak –- to say the very least.

As a nation, we have long presumed that good things will happen if we wait. That living in “the lucky country” will be enough to continue our good fortune.

Meanwhile, I have noticed an almost universal preoccupation among other nations of the world with science, technology, skills and innovation. The understanding that science will play its part at the core of future development is spreading.

We need this in Australia. But the evidence is mounting that we are paying the price for our unfocused approach and falling behind.

We need science for the future

It seems to me that the future is everyone’s business, and so the science that allows us to shape it –- for better or worse –- should be too. Science at a global level, science for our nation, science for all living systems. Science that will preserve and nurture the planet -– the only home we know.

That would give us something to pass on to the coming generations that they might appreciate just as much, or maybe more than, a balanced budget.

Imagine our Australia if we had the courage to build that kind of legacy.

Imagine if all secondary students received a thorough grounding in the history and philosophy of science, and in the scientific method, from teachers we supported and celebrated.

Imagine if we had an education system that so fired our curiosity that nearly all year 12 students would take a science subject, understanding it to be critical to their future.

Imagine if many of those students went on to study a science at university -– where lecturers engaged them in an interesting way, teaching science as it practised, with the intention not of creating more science lecturers, but of forming curious minds fit for all sorts of careers.

Imagine if employers could see the benefits of the skills –- critical thinking, creativity, analytical, logical and problem-solving skills – that are developed as part of an education in science, whether or not they needed the particular discipline knowledge of the student.

Imagine if there were few, if any, barriers in front of the people uncovering new knowledge and the people applying it in new ways to meet the needs of the market and the community.

Imagine if we no longer ranked at the bottom of the OECD table for industry and research collaboration, but aspired to be at the top.

And imagine that because of all these inspired students, and inspiring teachers, and inspirational achievements, we were proud of the intellectual capital of this country, and nurtured curiosity and cherished talent wherever we found it.

To be the best

Then imagine that we thought of all these things not as ends in themselves, but as some of the means to the most important end of all -– building the best Australia that we can, and making the best possible contribution to the world.

A grand ambition, perhaps but if the Pope can have a science qualification, and the wealthiest people in the world can be IT tycoons, it seems to me that this country can be bold enough to say that every primary school ought to have science teacher with continually updated knowledge.

Get it right, and I believe we can build something magnificent.

I look forward to that future with cautious optimism. And I believe that one of my projects this year – developing national science and research priorities – will be an important step in the right direction.

This is not a revolutionary idea. If we look at the nations that are set apart by the strength of their science and the innovative capacity of their industries, priorities are a common part of their plans.

I continue to emphasise that this is not an applied research agenda. Priorities do not displace the sort of fundamental, curiosity-driven research that underpins all human progress.

The priorities simply recognise that some of our research funding should be spent identifying and conducting the science that is of particular and immediate important to our nation. The research that we need to do, or can do in a way that gives us a competitive edge. They help us ensure that our rationed resources and our own processes don’t leave gaps that we will come to regret.

If the science and research priorities remind us that we have something worth striving for, a common set of goals for our nation, they have served an important purpose. And if they help other nations to join us in the challenges we hold in common, then that is a good thing too.

Four years ago I was asked why I’d accepted the job as Chief Scientist. I said that science would matter when individuals were forgotten. It matters just as much today.