After 12 months of sustained criticism that his government was neglecting science, Prime Minister Tony Abbott has responded in today’s National Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda by announcing a Commonwealth Science Council as the pre-eminent body for advice on science and technology in Australia.
The 10-member council includes Nobel Laureate Professor Brian Schmidt and cancer vaccine investor Prof Ian Frazer, as well as five members drawn from business. It will be chaired by the PM and include the industry, education and health ministers, as well as the Chief Scientist.
The PM says the Science Council will advise the government on areas of national strength, current and future capability and on ways to improve connections between government, research organisations, universities and business.
Abbott said the business leaders, including Santos CEO David Knox and Telstra chair Catherine Livingstone, were there “to ensure discussions address the need for industry and science to work together closely to boost Australia’s competitiveness”.
The Government also announced $12 million to improve the focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects in Australian primary and secondary schools.
That includes $7.4 million for mathematics resources, $3.5 million to provide greater exposure to computer coding and $500,000 for a pilot program “to help develop the next generation of innovators and job-ready graduates”.
Given the importance of science to the innovation implied in the government’s plan, $12 million seems like a paltry investment in the education of future scientists. In contrast, the May budget cut $111 million from CSIRO funding over 4 years and deregulating education fees is estimated to save the government $1.1 billion over three years.
“We must encourage interest and curiosity in STEM subjects and demonstrate there are great careers built on science, engineering, maths and technology,” the government says.
The Science Council will meet twice yearly and for the first time before the end of the year.
Meanwhile, The Australian Academy of Science welcomed the government’s focus on science in the competitiveness agenda.
Secretary of Science Policy Professor Les Field said anything which aligns science more closely with industry has got to be a big plus.
“Especially when this is an area where Australia traditionally struggles,” he said. “One of the things that impacts most on the translation of research into industry is that period that called the valley of death, where you’ve got a great idea but it’s not yet at the stage of being able to attract investment. Hopefully these centres could be one way to bridge this gap.”
But he added that pure research programs still mattered.
“With the benefit of hindsight, some of the most significant advances and commercial returns have resulted from fundamental research,” he said.
Professor Field also welcomed the increased focus on improving science and maths skills.
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