The most important thing about having a good idea is not the idea itself, it’s doing something with it. In the case of sharing knowledge, you have to get good at communication or the best ideas in the world are going to be ignored. (Before anyone says anything, please go and review the advertising industry which was worth an estimated 14 billion pounds in 2013 in the UK alone. The way that you communicate ideas matters and has value.)
Knowledge doesn’t leap unaided into most people’s heads. That’s why we have teachers and educational institutions. There are auto-didacts in the world and most people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps to some extent but you still have to learn how to read and the more expertise you can develop under guidance, the faster you’ll be able to develop your expertise later on (because of how your brain works in terms of handling cognitive load in the presence of developed knowledge.)
When I talk about the value of making a commitment to education, I often take it down to two things: ongoing investment and excellent infrastructure. You can’t make bricks without clay and clay doesn’t turn into bricks by itself. But I’m in the education machine – I’m a member of the faculty of a pretty traditional University. I would say that, wouldn’t I?
That’s why it’s so good to see reports coming out of industry sources to confirm that, yes, education is important because it’s one of the many ways to drive an economy and maintain a country’s international standing. Many people don’t really care if University staff are having to play the banjo on darkened street corners to make ends meet (unless the banjo is too loud or out of tune) but they do care about things like collapsing investments and being kicked out of the G20 to be replaced by nations that, until recently, we’ve been able to list as developing.
PricewaterhouseCoopers (pWc) have recently published a report where they warn that over-dependence on mining and lack of investment in science and technology are going to put Australia in a position where they will no longer be one of the world’s 20 largest economies but will be relegated, replaced by Vietnam and Nigeria. If fact, the outlook is bleaker than that, moving Australia back beyond Bangladesh and Iran, countries that are currently receiving international support. This is no slur on the countries that are developing rapidly, improving conditions for their citizens and heading up. But it is an interesting reflection on what happens to a developed country when it stops trying to do anything new and gets left behind. Of course, science and technology (STEM) does not leap fully formed from the ground so this, in terms, means that we’re going to have make sure that our educational system is sufficiently strong, well-developed and funded to be able to produce the graduates who can then develop the science and technology.
We in the educational community and surrounds have been saying this for years. You can’t have an innovative science and technology culture without strong educational support and you can’t have a culture of innovation without investment and infrastructure. But, as I said in a recent tweet, you don’t have to listen to me bang on about “social contracts”, “general benefit”, “universal equity” and “human rights” to think that investing in education is a good idea. PwC is a multi-national company that’s the second largest professional services company in the world, with annual revenues around $34 billion. And that’s in hard American dollars, which are valuable again compared to the OzD. PwC are serious money people and they think that Australia is running a high risk if we don’t start looking at serious alternatives to mining and get our science and technology engines well-lubricated and running. And running quickly.
The first thing we have to do is to stop cutting investment in education. It takes years to train a good educator and it takes even longer to train a good researcher at University on top of that. When we cut funding to Universities, we slow our hiring, which stops refreshment, and we tend to offer redundancies to expensive people, like professors. Academic staff are not interchangeable cogs. After 12 years of school, they undertake somewhere along the lines of 8-10 years of study to become academics and then they really get useful about 10 years after that through practice and the accumulation of experience. A Professor is probably 30 years of post-school investment, especially if they have industry experience. A good teacher is 15+. And yet these expensive staff are often targeted by redundancies because we’re torn between the need to have enough warm bodies to put in front of students. So, not only do we need to stop cutting, we need to start spending and then commit to that spending for long enough to make a difference – say 25 years.
The next thing, really at the same time, we need to do is to foster a strong innovation culture in Australia by providing incentives and sound bases for research and development. This is (despite what happened last night in Parliament) not the time to be cutting back, especially when we are subsidising exactly those industries that are not going to keep us economically strong in the future.
But we have to value education. We have to value teachers. We have to make it easier for people to make a living while having a life and teaching. We have to make education a priority and accept the fact that every dollar spent in education is returned to us in so many different ways, but it’s just not easy to write it down on a balance sheet. PwC have made it clear: science and technology are our future. This means that good, solid educational systems from the start of primary to tertiary and beyond are now one of the highest priorities we can have or our country is going to sink backwards. The sheep’s back we’ve been standing on for so long will crush us when it rolls over and dies in a mining pit.
I have many great ethical and social arguments for why we need to have the best education system we can have and how investment is to the benefit of every Australia. PwC have just provided a good financial argument for those among us who don’t always see past a 12 month profit and loss sheet.
Always remember, the buggy whip manufacturers are the last person to tell you not to invest in buggy whips.
I am proud to be a Precious Petal. Let me explain why I think we should reclaim this term for ourselves.
Australia, apparently, does not have a need for dedicated Science Minister, for the first time since the 1930s. Instead, it is a subordinate portfolio for our Minister for Industry, the Hon Ian Macfarlane, MP. Today, he was quoted in the Guardian, hitting out at “precious petals in the science industry” who are criticising the lack of a dedicated Science Minister. Macfarlane, whose Industry portfolio includes Energy, Skills and Science went on to say:
“I’m just not going to accept that crap,” he said. “It really does annoy me. There’s no one more passionate about science than me, I’m the son and the grandson of a scientist. I hear this whinge constantly from the precious petals in the science industry.”
So I’m not putting words in his mouth – that’s a pretty directed attack on the sector that happens to underpin Energy and Industry because, while Macfarlane’s genetic advantage in his commitment to science may or not be scientifically valid, the fact of the matter is that science, and innovation in science, have created pretty much all of what is referred to as industry in Australia. I’m not so one-eyed as to say that science is everything, because I recognise and respect the role of the arts and humanities in a well-constructed and balanced society, but if we’re going to talk about everything after the Industrial (there’s that word again) Revolution in terms of production industries – take away the science and we’re not far away poking things with sticks to work out which of the four elements (fire, air, earth, water) it belongs to. Scientists of today stand on a tradition of thousands of years of accumulated knowledge that has survived many, many regimes and political systems. We tell people what the world is like, rather than what people want it to be, and that often puts us at odds with politicians, for some reason. (I feel for the ethicists and philosophers who have to do the same thing but can’t get industry implementation partnerships as easily and are thus, unfairly, regularly accused of not being ‘useful’ enough.)
I had the opportunity to be addressed by the Minister at Science Meets Parliament where, like something out of a David Williamson play, the genial ageing bloke stood up and, in real Strine, declaimed “No Minister for Science? I’m your Minister for Science!” as if this was enough for a room full of people who were dedicated to real evidence. But he obviously thought it was enough as he threw a few bones to the crowd. On the back of the cuts to CSIRO and many other useful scientific endeavours, these words ring even more hollow than they did at the time.
But rather than take offence at the Minister’s more recent deliberately inflammatory and pejorative words, let me take them and illustrate his own lack of grasp of his portfolio.
My discipline falls into STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics – and I am scientist in that field. Personally, I like to add an A for Arts, as I am rather cross-disciplinary, and make it STEAM, because that conveys the amazing potential and energy in the area when we integrate across the disciplines. So, if Science is a flower, then we have a strong STEM in Australia, although it is currently under threat from a number of initiatives put in place by this very government.
But what of petals? If the Minister knew much botany, he’d know that petals are modified leaves that protect parts of the flower, attract or deliberately drive away certain pollinators, building relationships with their pollinating community to build a strong ecosystem. When flowers have no petals, they are subject to the whim on the winds for pollination and this means that you have to be very wasteful in your resources to try and get to any other plants. When the petals are strong and well-defined, you can draw in the assistance of other creatures to help you use your resources more wisely and achieve the goals of the flower – to produce more flowers over time.
At a time when bee colony collapse is threatening agriculture across the globe, you would think that a Minister of Industry (and Science) would have actually bothered to pick up some of the facts on this, very basic, role of a mechanism that he is using to deride and, attempt to, humiliate a community for having the audacity to complain about a bad decision. Scientists have been speaking truth to power since the beginning, Minister, and we’re not going to stop now.
If the Minister understood his portfolio, then he would realise that calling Australia’s scientific community “precious petals” is actually a reflection of their vital role in making science work for all Australians and the world. It is through these petals, protecting and guiding the resources in their area, that we can take the promise of STEM and share it with the world.
But let’s not pretend that’s what he meant. Much like the staggering Uncle at a Williamson Wedding, these words were meant to sting and diminish – to make us appear hysterical and, somehow, less valid. In this anachronistic, and ignorant, attack, we have never seen a better argument as to why Australia should have a dedicated Science Minister, who actually understands science.
I’m proud to be a Precious Petal, Minister.