Health of Australian Science: time to call in the doctors (of physics)

There are concerns about the take-up of science subjects by students. Ahd Photography

The Office of the Chief Scientist today releases the Health of Australian Science report and it’s an intriguing read.

The report was compiled to help the office and the public understand the current state of Australian science. A large team of authors, led by Dr Michael Hughes, has done an admirable job of bringing together information from a variety of sources to form a coherent picture of much that is happening in science nationwide.

Understandably, there’s a considerable emphasis on the situation in our schools and universities.

There is much to digest – the report is over 200 pages long – and I recommend a thorough read as soon as you get the chance. I’ve gone through and picked out some of the salient points here, focusing, in particular, on the report’s findings about science education.

Research

The report bears good news about the success of Australian scientists in publishing, in both quantity and quality. Australian scientists produce more than 3% of the world’s scientific publications, despite Australia only making up 0.3% of the world’s population. Australian research also accounted for 4% of overall citations.

Strong international collaborations are maintained with Europe and the US, but Asia is increasingly a focus. In fields such as mathematics, engineering and chemistry, China is now the nation’s dominant partner.

Funding and R&D

In 2008-09 gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) was 2.2% of GDP at A$24.6bn. This puts Australia 14th among OECD countries (see graph below).

Office of the Chief Scientist

Of the A$24.6bn of GERD, business contributed 66% of the total, with other contributions from higher education, Commonwealth and state and territory governments. It’s interesting to note that countries recognised for their innovation, such as Sweden and Finland, have three times the R&D personnel in industry and commerce than does Australia.

While research funding through the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council (ARC) doubled between 2002 and 2010, success rates for funding applicants decreased from 32% to 23% for the ARC and remained constant for the NHMRC.

As is noted in the report, this has an effect on postdoctoral and early-career researchers – researchers that are subject to increasingly strong competition for grants.

‘Basic’ vs ‘applied’ research

To quote from the report:

“Basic research adds to the bank of intellectual capital on which society draws in order to progress and transform. Applied research develops this intellectual capital into new technologies and innovative processes that directly improve the health, productivity and prosperity of Australia.”

The proportion of higher education funding allocated to basic research has decreased steadily from 1992-2009. At the same time, funding for applied and experimental research has increased, keeping higher education’s contribution to research funding relatively constant.

While it’s unclear what the optimal ratio of basic to applied and experimental research is, the report’s authors have expressed concern about the future of basic research in Australia if this trend continues.

Office of the Chief Scientist

Universities

It’s a matter of concern that some areas of study that may be vital to Australian interests are experiencing diminishing university enrolments. These include agriculture, mathematics, physics and chemistry.

While enrolments in health-related courses increased by 73% from 2002 to 2010, enrolments in agriculture declined by 31%. Only 13% of university teaching of students continuing past first-year courses is in mathematics, with 10% in chemistry and 2.5% in physics.

Office of the Chief Scientist

Also concerning is the constant attrition rate of undergraduates after their commencement year, with 30-50% of students failing to complete or return to study in science.

The report suggests that the current model of funding areas as a function of student popularity (the most popular course get funded the most; the least popular get the least) may not be the best model to address the nation’s long-term needs.

Sure, international students may help fill shortfalls in enrolments, but there are problems if the sector becomes overly reliant on this solution.

It is noteworthy that there seems to be a peak in the relative numbers of level-E researchers (the highest ranking i.e. professors) associated with the older demographics. This would seem to indicate that a large percentage of these researchers may retire in the near future, without sufficient replacement numbers at lower levels to take leadership roles.

There is also a continuing and significant gender imbalance in senior academic levels. Apart from the clear loss of talent this produces, it also exacerbates the effect of decreasing enrolments in the enabling sciences. Increasing the number of women in these and other positions would go some way to addressing a shortfall in undergraduate intake.

Secondary Schools

Secondary science students maintain a high performance on tests of scientific literacy, but literacy rates are in decline. Also in decline are enrolments in the traditional science subjects: biology, chemistry, physics and mathematics.

Office of the Chief Scientist

The report has identified a number of potential causes and areas of concern in terms of science enrolments in secondary schools, including:

  • Expanded curriculum choices (more choice, fewer choosing science)
  • Skewed science-teacher demographics (17% of science teachers are between 51-55 and 36% are over 50)
  • A pedagogical approach which emphasises content rather than scientific thinking
  • Less than half of teachers in years 7-10 having relevant science qualifications

This last point is particularly disturbing as nearly half of students taking senior science said they first became interested in the subject in junior secondary school. The most common reason given for not taking science was that students either did not like it or found it boring (68%).

There is a significant focus in the report on the need to seriously consider the structure and pedagogical approach to science curricula. The report’s authors identify a “tension” between the attractors of teaching science to produce scientifically literate citizens and satisfying the needs of preparing students for university.

It is more than a little surprising that these aims are not better aligned. It also notes that a content-driven curriculum serves to promote and entrench traditional “chalk and talk” modes of teaching and an overly constrained assessment model.

In summary: we do well in research productivity and in international collaboration, achieving and maintaining an enviable reputation worldwide. There are, however, concerns with regard to student enrolment in science at all levels, even with an expanding education sector.

The need for qualified science teachers, particularly in physics, is severe.

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