Attention Mr Abbott: STEM skills are critical for Australia

The recent change of Federal Government in Australia has been welcomed by many in the business community however one area of our economy is bracing itself for a very rough ride during the term of the first Abbott Coalition Government.

Much was made of the Coalition's first cabinet containing eighteen men and only one woman. However just as concerning was the absence of a Minister for Science. Of late, the conservative side of politics has not much been a fan of science or fact-based decision making; the science of climate change being the most obvious example of this trend.

It's the first time since 1931 that there has not been ‘science' in a Cabinet Minister's title. Any areas of science now report into the Industry Minister, Ian Macfarlane.

The obvious potential conflict of interest here would be laughable if it wasn't so serious (kind of like the bizarreness of BHP Billiton advising the Government on carbon policy). Although the story that climate science skeptic Dr Dennis Jensen wanted the science portfolio for himself might have the country relieved that there isn't a science minister after all.

Prime Minister Abbott's decision is a massive backward step considering what professional services firm, Deloitte recently reported on the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) skills.

The skills associated with these disciplines have been identified as being important for future economic growth by driving innovation, facilitating research and encouraging entrepreneurship.

Deloitte goes on to say:  

  • Each of the key sectors which may drive additional export market opportunities over the next two decades (gas, agribusiness, international education, tourism and wealth management) - require innovation and the right STEM skills to support them.
  • Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, notes that "Employers from across the economy believe STEM skills shortages are limiting their business and ability to innovate. This must change." 
  • As well as addressing current shortages, STEM skills are seen as critical to future workforce needs. Research indicates that 75% of the fastest growing occupations across the Australian economy will require STEM skills and knowledge.  
  • A recent international study by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) found that the proportion of Year 12 students in Australia enrolled in higher level STEM has been declining for decades. For example the number of Year 12 students studying physics has declined from 21% in 1992 to 14% in 2010.  
  • Australia has lower tertiary enrolments than the OECD average in engineering, manufacturing and construction (15.0% OECD average compared with 8.7% in Australia) and mathematics (4.4% compared with 0.4% in Australia). Australian tertiary enrolments in computing match the OECD average (4.3%) and are higher for science (4.4% OECD average compared with 6.6% in Australia).

As Deloitte concludes ‘Ensuring that Australia has an appropriate skills base to take advantage of new opportunities will depend not only on producing the right number of graduates, but also on Australia's education system supplying graduates with the knowledge, competencies and qualities that employers need.'

Let's hope PM Abbott wakes up to his economic responsibility to bring science to the forefront of the conversation about Australia's economic growth and, in doing so, he formally reinstates science to the Federal Cabinet.

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