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Wednesday, 9 October 1991
Page: 1563


Mr McGAURAN(4.42 p.m.) --In speaking to the Appropriation Bill (No. 1) 1991-92 for the Department of Employment, Education and Training, I wish to concentrate my remarks on the depletion of skills in Australia's scientific and technological effort. While overall participation rates in the sciences remain stable--that is, if the spurt in interest in life sciences and computer sciences in recent years is included in the calculations--involvement in the core disciplines is falling off. It is falling off in respect of the capacity of the educational system to attract suitable numbers of postgraduates and in the degree of interest being shown in the core sciences by the more talented end of the annual graduate intake. These issues will soon be the subject of even greater concern.

For a number of reasons, international demand for trained scientific researchers is set to grow. It is reported that the United States alone will have a shortfall of some 675 PhDs by the late 1990s. Similar situations face the United Kingdom and Japan. So the pressure on the local supply of high quality researchers will grow in time. Because of rising international demand, immigration will be choked off as a means of overcoming such shortages. Moreover, those small numbers of graduates we do turn out will come to have a wider range of research and career options open to them in time.

The issues are, therefore, significant and they require careful planning. Interruptions, for whatever reasons, to the supply of trained researchers can have an immediate and significant impact on the nation's scientific and technological research capacity. As a result, the human capital which underwrites Australia's scientific and technological effort must be managed with even greater care than other relevant concerns. The quality and number of graduates participating in core disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and so forth, determine the nation's capabilities in a wide range of areas. For example, those involved in atmospheric and climatic research well appreciate the relationship of physics to our capabilities in that regard. The shortage in the supply of suitable postgraduates has placed a cap on the extent to which it is possible to make use of those added funds which have been directed to this area of research in recent times. Similarly, the constrictions on the supply of mathematics will come to have a similar effect on research areas such as the marine sciences.

I am currently investigating avenues through which it is possible to extend the guidelines applying to the cooperative research centres program to embrace the development of scientific and technological skills. This is rightly an area in which governments should have a high level of responsibility. I can envisage opportunities for making use of CRC's program to build powerful national centres of training, teaching and research in the core sciences, including engineering. These national centres would not drag resources away from the universities and they would not be focused on a selective area of activity or specify a subfield of inquiry for investigation. Their focus, importantly, might conceivably be the preservation of the central disciplines as a whole. Importantly, initiatives in this regard should also have positive implications for the teaching of the sciences at the secondary school level.

In the past, the problem Australia has faced in attracting the best and the brightest of the coming generation into the sciences has been almost a cultural one. Governments must arouse in the education system, and in the community as a whole, a sense of the national significance and dynamism of the sciences in our country. The initiatives governments take must reach down into the education system and affect student perception of the sciences, curriculum development matters and teacher training.

In my view, single publicity campaigns on these counts amount to very little. What is needed is a sustained and integrated program which enables the secondary school system to focus on nationally significant centres of learning in the sciences and to work with them in practical ways. It is vital that the private sector develop a more strategic view as to how and to what extent it invests in scientific and technological activities across the tertiary and other public research agencies. I point out that the greatest single obstacle to expanding Australia's scientific and technological research base and, as a consequence, its future skills training capabilities is the relative under-investment in research and development on the part of local industries. There are many concerns bearing on the reasons behind this phenomenon, but it is sufficient to say that, unless the industry, trade and economic policies of future governments unambiguously push the private sector to seek out competitive advantages, industry investment and R& are unlikely to progress beyond current levels.

There is little chance in this country of building a technology ethic across the community, or an Australian identity for the sciences, until there is a higher degree of cooperation between the higher education and private sectors. When this relationship crystallises, the great revival of the sciences will begin. We might struggle as we do cultivate a sense of the sciences in the community, but the game will not really begin until there is a larger gathering of forces across the community working to rebuild and replenish the supply of scientific and technological skills. I think this is particularly important in breaking the growing disinterest of talented students in taking up the sciences. Genuine fears have been expressed about the supply of numbers of various qualified graduates, but my concerns are equally with the quality of the secondary school students entering the sciences at present.

I am afraid I am unashamedly elitist when it comes to the sciences. I am not in the least interested in sacrificing the core disciplines to an egalitarian ethos. But I do not think this problem will dissipate in any fundamental way until the young are able to grasp in concrete ways the diversity of career paths afforded by their participation in the sciences. As well, there is a pressing need for the universities to present a much stronger scientific and technological profile in the core disciplines.

As you will appreciate, Mr Deputy Chairman, the current generation of students are not intellectual puritans. They are the products of enormous economic changes and they have a healthy dose of realism about their future and where their interests best lie. They do not have to be bought but they do have to be won. They have to be convinced of the value of a commitment to the sciences.

Increasingly, secondary students are coming to see university education as an asset in which they invest personal, intellectual and financial resources. They expect the best in a way in which I do not think previous generations have. We might well lament this trend as a new style of educational consumerism but it does have its merits. Regardless of this, in order to regain a pull on students' imagination, universities and research agencies and governments are going to have to work together to promote the sciences.

Proposed expenditure agreed to.

Department of Defence

Proposed expenditure $8,923,506,000.