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Science careers poorly promoted -

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Robyn Williams: And so we return to our theme at the beginning, the challenges we face and how our next generation of young folk may help us confront them. This is Bob Hill, executive dean of sciences at the University of Adelaide.

Bob Hill: We are the first species with the capacity to drive change with global impact, and we are on the cusp of seeing just what that impact will be. One of our strengths is that we can manipulate the environment to our advantage. We can make and use fire, craft tools, domesticate key plant and animal species and exploit the Earth's mineral resources.

We're at the point where colonising other planets is no longer confined to the realms of science fiction. We have an extraordinary combination of consciousness and manipulative skills, and we are by nature environmental exploiters. For much of our history we celebrated those who excelled at this and they often became our political and social leaders. Our economically successful cultures set these people as the pinnacles of ambition, and others strive to join them to share in their wealth and power.

However, the past few decades have seen a growing awareness that our resources are limited. Additionally, we've seen an extraordinary rise in key greenhouse gases and a growing realisation that we are responsible for this growth, that it will be difficult to limit, let alone reverse, and there are potentially catastrophic consequences for our species, let alone for the many others that have suffered as a result of our actions.

We've lived by the mantra that success is led by economic growth, and that in turn requires population growth and a demand for higher standards of living. The tension between population growth, increasing living standards and long-term environmental degradation is increasingly apparent. But too often the short term needs of our current political leaders provide short-term solutions, while tomorrow's leaders are left to contemplate the quality of the environment that they will inherit.

It isn't all bad news. We are a wonderfully resourceful species, and we can do wonderful things with advances in technology. We may still escape the worst of the predictions of future environmental collapse. However, we can't afford to be complacent, and our priorities remain unbalanced. Our expectations of rising living standards are obvious in our attitude to health. We expect vast amounts of money to be pumped into the health system so we have a higher chance of living a long and healthy life, right to the end of our days. This is a reasonable expectation, but why is the focus so firmly on curing people once they are ill? The focus should be on supporting the healthiest society that we can, and so reducing the chances that individuals will become ill and in need of medical help.

Our fascination with sophisticated cures for all forms of illness is a high risk strategy. If we don't address the obvious signs of an ailing planet, then inevitably many more people will need treatment for all forms of sickness. We are treating the symptoms, not the disease. This is where science takes over from medicine. If we want reliable sources of healthy food and clean air and water in the future, we need to do more to secure these resources. If we want reliable alternative power sources so we can eliminate our reliance on fossil fuels, then we need more support for new technologies. As extreme weather events become more intense and common we need robust approaches to emergency services as mega-fires, floods, droughts and extreme gales become more common.

My future utopia would contain significantly fewer people, with a much smaller range in living standards, and an understanding that the world's resources are for the future as well as for the present. This demands a society that values the science behind sustainable energy production, increased agricultural intensity and innovation, water purification and delivery, and housing built for environmental extremes. The focus must move away from economic growth driven by a rising population, and obsession with extending human lifespan at any costs.

The options for available for careers in science that will be critical for our future well-being are diverse. And this is an area where breakthroughs are common and the future opportunities are hard to anticipate. This has resulted in young people avoiding the most exciting of all careers, assisting our species and our planet to exist in long-term harmony. Contributing to strong economic growth still attracts multitudes of young people as a potential career, as does the more noble prospect of helping to cure yet another malicious disease. We need to better promote the much more significant occupation of ensuring that our planet is best able to support us in the long term, and that future generations will have the capacity, the wisdom, and the motivation to look back at the mid-21st century as the time when humanity finally began to use its extraordinary scientific achievements to shape a genuinely sustainable environment.

Australia has an economic history that is steeped in science, but we've fallen well behind the world's leaders. We've had economic boom times based on agricultural produce and especially wool and wheat, and we've ridden the rollercoaster of the boom and bust cycles in mining. In both cases our scientific expertise has led to increasingly sophisticated approaches to maximise the benefit. It's difficult to predict what agriculture or mining will look like in the future, as increasing technical sophistication drives more productive and cost-effective industries.

One of the major ways that Australia earns overseas income is from the education of international students. But the main attractors are the exchange rate of our dollar and our proximity to the large Asian student markets. We have little cause to say we attract students because of our innovation in education. Our science could be a major attractor, but at present it isn't. Until Australian politicians understand and properly promote the exceptional quality of our best scientists and the obvious relevance of careers in science, we will continue to underachieve at a nation.

University science faculties should also take their share of the responsibility for failing to demonstrate the wide variety of career choices available to graduates. Too often potential science students and their parents can't see the career paths in science, and we hide behind vague statements like, 'Your careers have not been invented yet,' or, 'You will have at least a dozen different jobs in science during your career.'

We have the scientific talent to train the next generation of world-class professionals, but we lack the imagination to push the relevance of technological breakthroughs in other than mundane statements about innovation, entrepreneurship and industry relevance. The technological leaders of the next generation will celebrate the remarkable possibilities that true innovation can bring, and we must be ready to join them and train them. We must back the brightest young scientists to bring Australia to the forefront of international innovation. The rest of the world is passing us by. Australians can be world leading. We have enormous natural advantages. Our leaders must step up to the challenge of providing the resources and the messages to make that happen.

Robyn Williams: Professor Bob Hill, executive dean of sciences at the University of Adelaide.

Bob HillExecutive Dean
Faculty of Sciences
University of Adelaide
Adelaide SA

Further Information
Robert Hill at the University of Adelaide

PresenterRobyn Williams ProducerDavid Fisher