Standing up for Canberra

National Science Week

Last week we celebrated National Science Week, Australia's annual celebration of science and technology. During Science Week, in fact on Saturday, I was lucky enough to open the VEX Robotics Competition at Dickson College. This was a fierce and exciting competition where robots built by high school students from Australia and New Zealand battled it out for supremacy.

It was Oz bots versus Kiwi bots. It was a wonderful example of the types of activities that can encourage high school students to continue to maintain an interest in and passion for science throughout their education. Unfortunately, in Australia at the moment not enough high school students are studying science and related subjects. Between 1992 and 2010 the percentage of year 12 students enrolled in biology fell from 35 to 24 per cent, in physics from 21 to 14 per cent, and in maths from 77 to 72 per cent.

Also during Science Week some 10,000 people attend Geoscience Australia's open day at Symonston, which is in my electorate. They learnt about Geoscience Australia's wide range of work in the fields of petroleum, mineral, marine mapping, groundwater and natural hazard research. They learnt about working as a surveyor in Antarctica, they learnt about using a super computer and satellite imagery to understand flood risk information, and they learnt everything they had ever wanted to know about dinosaurs. There was also a targeted campaign that focused on women and trying to get female scientist into the great work that is done at Geoscience Australia. National Science Week is a chance to reflect on the wonderful work that is done in Australia in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, such as the work, as I said, that is done at Geoscience Australia.

Science Week is also an opportunity to reflect on where we as a nation stand in the world in terms of science and innovation, a chance for us to work out what we need to do to be a world leader in these fields. Unfortunately, under the Abbott government, Australia has a very, very long way to go. Science has never really had a fair go under this government. In fact the Abbott government's record in science, innovation and research to date has been disappointing. In fact, it has been unacceptable: from the member for Mayo's press release prior to the election, in which he called the Australian Research Council's grants 'increasingly ridiculous', 'completely over the top' and a waste of taxpayer dollars to the revelation on the very eve of the election that $103 million in ARC funding would be 'reprioritised' over four years under a coalition government. Then there was the decision to not appoint a minister for science, the abolition of the Climate Commission and the significant cuts and job losses at some of our leading scientific institutions. Under this government, nearly 900 scientists will lose their jobs. At least 500 jobs will be going at CSIRO, 96 at Geoscience Australia, 64 at the ANSTO and 58 at the Bureau of Meteorology.

I hope that some government members heard the wonderful speech given by our Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, ahead of National Science Week. Professor Chubb spelt out a vision for an Australia in which our economy is 'organised to support our aspiration and not to limit it'. He pointed out that 'Australia is now the only OECD country that does not have a contemporary national science and technology or innovation strategy'. Today, as we all know, the Minister for Education introduced legislation into this parliament that will make the dream of higher education unaffordable for thousands of Australians, and science will be one of the areas worst hit. Currently, a science degree in Australia costs an average of $44,000. But modelling shows that under the Abbott government's new higher education policy, the cost of a science degree could go up to as much as $170,000. How will we ever reach our aspirations to be a world leader in science if young people cannot afford to study science at university? What is the point in encouraging students to study STEM subjects—that is, science and technology, engineering and mathematics —at high school if they won't ever be able to afford to follow their passion and study it at university?

As Professor Chubb said: … science is a long haul. It is not something that can be turned on or off when we feel like it.

And it isn't like a tooth brush: something you can buy when you get there because you forgot to pack one.

If Australia wants to be a world leader in science, and we should want this, we need to support our young people, because they will be the world-leading scientists of the future. The Abbott government just does not seem to get it. This government's inaction, ambivalence and carelessness when it comes to science are irresponsible and reckless and will jeopardise Australia's future prosperity. This Science Week, members opposite should be ashamed.

Download a copy of this speech.