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Physics is floundering.

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Tuesday 25 January 2005

Dr Gerry Haddad, Chief of Industrial Physics, CSIRO


Physics Is Floundering  


Physics in Australia has been in bad shape for as long as I can remember - and that’s just about 40 years now, but what’s scary is that it’s getting worse, much worse.  


So what’s so important about physics? Well physics is the key to understanding how our world works. Using the ‘laws’ of physics we can understand concepts such as gravity, motion, electromagnetism, light and so on. By using these physics principles, industry has developed things like lasers, silicon chips, computers, fluorescent tubes and plasma screens. None of these every day items would exist if it weren’t for teams of physicists working on basic research leading to clever applications - even the internet began life as a physics project. 


If we want to get more innovations into our lives - such as quantum computers, materials that repair themselves automatically and new ways of making and distributing energy - then we need physicists to do it. 


Problem is, the proportion of Australian university graduates with basic degrees in the physical sciences is a quarter of what it was in 1989, according to the Australian Council of the Deans of Science and the OECD. 


A recent report from the University of New England called “Beyond Brain Drain”, points out that the number of students taking science in Year 11 and 12 has been falling steadily since 1976, and the proportion doing physics has almost halved. 


As I travel around in CSIRO, and to universities, other publicly funded research agencies and the private sector, I keep hearing the same old complaint: “We just can’t get enough good Australian physicists”.  

For example, in my division of CSIRO, the number of applicants for a research position has dropped over the past six years from typically 80 to around 10 - and I don’t think it’s because Industrial Physics is a lousy place to work! 

Of the few physical scientists Australia does turn out - 765 with a bachelors degree at last count -- most of the best are lured overseas by their hip pockets, leaving Australian institutions and businesses to scour foreign universities for talent. 


In China, encouraging young people to take up physics, maths and chemistry - the so-called “enabling” or “basic” sciences - is part of their “strategic plan”, and it reaches deep into their school system.  


In Australia, the opposite situation seems to exist. School students aren’t encouraged to study “hard” subjects like physics because, in many instances, the teachers themselves aren’t qualified in that area and aren’t, therefore, enthusiastic about the topic. 


The Science Teachers’ Association of Western Australia (STAWA) did a census of schools in 1999 and discovered that the level of unqualified teaching of physics in WA runs at 17%. Now, I know the rules about who can teach what do vary from state to state, but, in NSW for example, I’m told that qualified teachers are being dragged out of retirement to plug classroom gaps.  


As if that wasn’t scary enough, STAWA also found that 20% of science teachers are due to retire in the next decade, and, you guessed it, physics teachers are the greyest of the grey. It probably comes as no surprise to hear that this phenomenon is not confined to WA. The Federal Department of Education, Science and Training put out a report in 2003 called “Australia’s Teachers: Australia’s Future” which identified major problems in recruiting suitably qualified physics teachers across the nation. 


Even if this situation is a cyclical phenomenon, which I doubt, the cycles are clearly so long that it’s going to hurt our economy in Australia badly. The good old sheep’s back won’t give us enough cash to import the physicists we need, let alone give us the best people for the job. If we want to maintain our standard of living we have to move higher up the “technology tree” by ourselves.  


I’m not suggesting that we need to develop every innovation here in Australia (although I reckon we’ve been fairly successful in doing our share) but, at the very least, we need to keep up our ability to select, adapt and modify new technologies as they come along.  


We must maintain our ‘clever country’ skills, and we simply can’t do it without physics. 


In the physics community we know that physics is exciting, interesting, essential and fun, and we need to make sure the world -- and kids in particular -- know it. 


2005 is the International Year of Physics; we should be out there spreading the message in schools and community groups and arresting the decline in the most fundamental of all the sciences - physics.  


Guests on this program:

Dr Gerry Haddad  

Chief of CSIRO Industrial Physics