Australian science: healthy but starting to splutter

The focus on mathematics and other enabling sciences is diminishing in Australia. Flickr/eriwst

Australian science is “generally in good health”, but faces major challenges in the form of falling science participation and literacy in high schools, mostly stagnant enrolments at universities, and diminishing focus on the “enabling sciences” - mathematics, physics and chemistry, a comprehensive review has found.

The Health of Australian Science report, by Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, is broadly positive about the state of science, technology, engineering and mathematics across the country. It notes that Australian school students compare well on the international stage; university enrolments have experienced slight growth in recent years; researchers produce more per capita than their counterparts in most other nations and “have impacts at or above world standard in most discipline areas”.

But Professor Chubb said there were immediate concerns as well as challenges in the short to medium term. Although the rate of decline of high school science had slowed, participation rates had not stabilised, he said. In the past decade, Australia had fallen behind several other nations in high school science literacy. And despite a recent increase in science enrolments at university, the trend had been flat for most of the past decade and had not recovered to the levels achieved in the early 1990s. Funding for research had also come under increasing pressure as a result of rising demand by researchers.

“As a developed nation, Australia must be a contributor to the solutions or advances as they are made,” Professor Chubb wrote in the report. “We cannot leave it to others, and sit outside the tent waiting for the investments of other nations to seep in our direction.”

For students enrolled in a bachelor of science degree, study of the enabling sciences - “which form the basis of education and research in all science” - was concentrated largely in their first year, the report found. Just 13% of teaching beyond the first year was in mathematics, 10% in chemistry, and 2.5% physics.

Enrolments in these subjects were generally flat from 2002 to 2007, but grew by 29% between 2008 and 2010. Undergraduate enrolments for students beginning in agriculture and environment decreased by 4% between 2002 and 2010, and for information technology they fell by 50%.

“Both political parties have made it clear that managing flora is a crucial part of our move to capture carbon - and yet we’ve got 53 students in the whole of Australia studying forestry,” Professor Chubb said. “We’ve got 60-odd students doing PhDs in statistics. Are we going to be able to replace the staff we’ve got in those disciplines, who are producing some very high-quality research, when they go if there are so few PhD students?

"We’ve tended to accept the argument that the government puts in the money in and you let student choices go wherever they may,” he said. “Of course, we all think that’s not a bad idea. But there does come a time when you think is the market going to work in the national interest, or in the personal interest. I think agriculture, for example, is in the national interest.

"We need to identify which scientific disciplines are critically important and which ones we need to do something about. You could quarantine some PhD scholarships, and maybe even at a higher value, in particular areas where we’re not producing enough PhD graduates to replace the staff who are likely to leave universities in the next five to 10 years. That’s one option.”

Although research funding through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) more than doubled in real terms between 2002 and 2010, and funding through the Australian Research Council (ARC) nearly doubled, there was increased pressure on those funds: success rates for applications dropped from 32% to 23% for the ARC and remained relatively steady for the NHMRC.

At school level, it was not clear whether the main goal of science teaching in the later years was to boost science literacy or prepare students for entry to university courses. Either way, a long-term decline in participation “showed that neither goal is being achieved”.

Between 1992 and 2010 the percentage of Year 12 students enrolled in biology fell from 35.3% to 24%. For chemistry the decline was from 22.9% to 17.2%; and for physics, 20.8% to 14.2%. Mathematics participation declined from 76.6% to 72.0% between 2002 and 2010, and there was a continuing shift from take-up of intermediate and advanced levels of mathematics to the elementary level.

Although Australian students still performed well in comparison with other nations, in recent rankings they had fallen behind other countries in the Asian region, Professor Chubb said.

In the Programme for International Student Assessment in 2000, only Korea and Japan outperformed Australia. In 2009, Australia fell behind a further four participants: Singapore, Finland and China (represented separately by Hong Kong and Shanghai).

Vaille Dawson, a Professor at the Science and Mathematics Education Centre at Curtin University, said that “five of the countries that beat us are our Asian neighbours, which is interesting. They all have a Confucian heritage. Education is valued highly. Working hard is valued highly. Written tests and exams are very common all the way through high school, so they are very well prepared.

"If you take China and Korea - both of those countries made decisions about 15 years ago to put huge sums of money into science and maths education, starting from primary school and especially into secondary school.”

By contrast, in Australia and other developed countries there had been a slowly declining attitude to science, she said.

“When you unpick the results for Australian schools, you find that we have a long tail. The tail is comprised of kids who live in remote areas. If you look at kids in metropolitan NSW, they do a lot better than kids in remote parts of the Northern Territory.

"We need to have good teachers in all of our schools, not just in the cities. We have the tyranny of distance in Australia, which is not such an issue in Singapore or Japan, for example.”

Professor Chubb said science “probably should be taught a bit more like it’s practised, not through some didactic approach. Teaching through tests is not what we should be doing. We should be encouraging our best and brightest to interested in science in ways we haven’t done before.”

At research level, Australia had a relatively high scholarly output in science, producing more than 3% of world scientific publications yet accounting for only about 0.3% of the world’s population, Professor Chubb said. Australian published scholarly outputs, including fields other than science, grew at a rate of about 5% per year between 1999 and 2008. This was considerably higher than the global growth rate of 2.6%.

But there were vulnerabilities in the “educational foundations, staffing levels and funding structures that are needed to sustain and build on the historical successes of Australian science”, he said.

“The question is a simple one, then: do we have the capacity presently and are we sustaining the capacity to contribute our science, our talents, our knowledge and skills to the betterment of Australia and the world we share?”

Australia had to become “an anticipator nation and not a follower — a nation which gives as it receives; a nation engaged in a two way flow of know-how through which we learn as we contribute to the solutions we will all desperately need”.

Help combat alt-facts and fake news and donate to independent journalism. Tax deductible.