Aug 042014

csiro cutsAt a time when the developed world is increasingly focused on getting kids involved in STEM activities it beggars belief that our own leading science organisation is being forced to cut back its educational activities.

The CSIRO has announced cuts to its education and outreach budget totaling nearly a third, and involving shedding more than 50 science education jobs and disbanding the excellent Double Helix children’s science club. The popular holiday activities will also be cancelled.

This comes on top of deep cuts to the CSIRO’s research activities following a $114m funding cut in the federal budget. Even assuming the veracity of the whole budget emergency, this is not the place to be cutting. Cutting education and research will have the next generation paying the price for today’s quick fix when we end up with a country that is forced to buy expertise and technology from overseas.

It’s a minor thing, but indicative of the problem we’re facing, that when you do a search on ‘Tony Abbott’ and ‘STEM’ you get a lot on his views on stem cell research, quite a bit on him stemming the flow of boats but nothing about STEM education. Do the same thing for Barack Obama or David Cameron and you get quite different results.

Other countries have recognised that there’s a problem and are adjusting their spending and efforts to address the issue. We pay lip service to falling standards in education and the parlous lack of students deciding to take up STEM subjects and then do absolutely nothing to either encourage STEM education or provide for jobs after that education. Even within its own context these are incredibly short-sighted decisions – we’re not going to be debt free in the medium-to-long term if we’re forced to buy our technology and if our best and brightest students and researchers head overseas for opportunities.

It’s not as if this hasn’t been pointed out to the Government. Chief scientist Ian Chubb has expressed the view that Australia is a nation without a plan. He has stated that we don’t have any policy or a strategy that sets out this country’s vision for the future, and how science and innovation should help achieve that. And no less than Catherine Livingstone the head of the Business Council of Australia, Telstra Chair and member of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council recently pointed to the urgent need to address the problem positively: 

The linking of training and education to an individual flows right through to business and companies, allowing them to generate wealth and reinvest in Australia. Without this drive our competitiveness in a global environment is under threat. We have been bemoaning the poor state of stem skills (science, technology, engineering and maths) in schools and universities for over 15 years. There has been tireless agreement that this is an issue. So if we are all agreed that this is an issue why isn’t enough happening? There should be an intervention now.

The CSIRO cuts are only one part of the problem, but they’re emblematic of a much wider issue that the Government is exacerbating rather than addressing. It’s hard to see any scenario where this government’s cumulative attacks on science and education are not going to be looked back upon as a shameful turning point in Australia’s history.

Apr 062012

So Ars Technica, that generally well-respected online publication, publishes an article entitled How the Aussie government “invented WiFi” and sued its way to $430 million which in effect labels the CSIRO a patent troll.

As an Australian it’s hard to read the article without your hackles rising at the author’s patronising tone. Lovely lines like:

Haven’t heard of CSIRO? It’s no mistake. While the organization has been eager to brag to the Australian press about its big-money exploits in US courts, CSIRO has been circumspect about its lawsuits in the US.

And then quoting some over-blown statements made by a politician as if they are indicative of the whole county’s view. The sub-text of the entire article just makes me want to leap to CSIROs defence; I mean, really, this isn’t some tin-pot company, it’s our country’s premier research organisation.

There may well be a legitimate controversy about whether the CSIRO ought to have been awarded the patent in the first place (but they were and took legitimate action to enforce their rights), but the tone of the piece is evidencing affront that an Australian organisation could possibly claim a significant contribution to technological advance and then have the temerity to pursue its rights in “far-off US courts”. It all just smacks of an ugly arrogance from our big friend across the water.

It’s not that often that we Australians find ourselves so blatantly on the receiving end of such patronising views. The article itself is mildly interesting. The eight pages, and counting, of comments with Australian and Americans each leaping to their county’s defence is far more entertaining.

Feb 292012

Image: CSIRO.

This week’s Maths and Stats by Email from the CSIRO tackles the extremely pertinent question: What’s the deal with 29 February? I will not steal their thunder by paraphrasing the article’s answer, the purpose of this article is to point out what a great and interesting resource the maths email is.

Once a week the newsletter pops into my mailbox with an interesting article, an appropriate activity (this week it’s how to create your own perpetual calendar), a brainteaser and a few other titbits. I make no claims to being a mathematician or statistician but I find this short weekly dose is a great way to thinks about issues in those areas.

I love the fact that an organisation like the CSIRO is making the effort to produce a cool newsletter like this. I’m interested in how successful this venture has been for them, but so far I haven’t had a response to my questions. We’ll see.

It’s also a good way to impress the kids over the dinner-table!