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Chief scientist calls for a plan to make Australia strong through science

Chief scientist Ian Chubb wants more action and less talk to get science on the front burner.

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For more than a year I have travelled the country calling for an Australian science strategy. There are plenty of business leaders, laureates and politicians saying it deserves support. The sticking point remains how to do it – and the priority for getting it done.

How do we get a sensible picture of all the separate efforts of all the government agencies at local, state and national level, let alone think of joining them up? How do we decide what things we need or want to do well? How do we get industry to talk to researchers, and both of them to co-ordinate with government, so we all pull together for a change?

There are some who think these knots will untie themselves. I find their faith to be sorely misplaced.

Yes, logic says business has an incentive to innovate. Three in five of them say they don't.

Yes, all the research demonstrates that industry and researchers benefit from working together. Our record on collaboration is now one of the poorest in the OECD.


Yes, there is strong demand for science and maths teachers, and concerns have existed for some time. The supply still isn't coming through.

Can we seriously claim this is a "market" working well? Or should we accept the conclusion of every other nation in the OECD that science ought be backed by strategy?

Let's not forget that the largest funder of venture capital in the world is the government of the United States – through measures established by Ronald Reagan. The economy singled out this year by the IMF for its strong growth prospects was the United Kingdom – which ring-fenced science investment amidst an austerity drive.

Today, science is critical infrastructure. Knowledge security is every bit the equal of energy or food security in the thinking of global leaders. We too need to be confident that the capabilities are there.

I accept that we have a unique climate, industry mix, demographic profile and suite of national interests. To my mind, that is all the more reason to think strategically about our place in a changing world. There are things we will need to do for ourselves. There are skills and partnerships we will need to develop to take advantage of the knowledge that others obtain.

There are certainly lessons we can learn from success.

Today, science is critical infrastructure. Knowledge security is every bit the equal of energy or food security in the thinking of global leaders.

I have now put my case to government, alongside a suite of recommendations to deliver on the promise of a stronger Australia through science.

My recommendations identify four fields where complementary action is required. From classroom to laboratory to the workplace and the global stage, our effort and goals must align.

If industry wants science-trained workers, it needs to be concerned about the teaching in schools. If researchers want career paths, they need to be thinking about the needs of the economy and of the nation. We all have separate interests, but one system and a mutual obligation.

I hope each specific proposal will be understood in the context of that whole.

They include a new agenda for an Asian Research Area, so we back our region's economic promise with the scientific firepower required. Better incentives for high-performing students to look to science teaching careers. A strategic approach to research funding that helps both researchers and investors understand where the nation's priorities lie. A National Innovation Board, modelled on the successes of the Technology Strategy Board in the United Kingdom, to link science and industry to global markets.

Of course the political priorities of the day will shift. Of course the path of progress is unpredictable.

But we need a framework in which those decisions can be made: consistently, intelligently and democratically.

Our future is too important to leave to chance.

Ian Chubb is Australia's Chief Scientist.