At 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.