Chief scientist Ian Chubb unveils ambitious strategy to secure Australia's future prosperity

Australia's chief scientist has unveiled an ambitious agenda for change to increase the focus on science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills to help secure the country's future prosperity.

Professor Ian Chubb AC has outlined a number of recommendations to the Federal Government in a national science strategy to build a more competitive economy.

His call for action involves a long-term strategic view from the classroom to laboratories and the boardroom to create and foster STEM skills, which he says are relevant to an increasingly wide range of occupations.

The strategy outlines a broad approach across four main areas, including building competitiveness, supporting high-quality education and training, maximising research potential and strengthening international engagement.

Professor Chubb said the strategy begins in the classroom, starting in primary school.

"If we've got young people coming through the system who are interested in science, fascinated by science and understand how awesome science can be, then we'll be better off for it," he said.

He has recommended that every primary school have at least one specialist maths and science teacher – a policy already used in Victoria and South Australia.

"It means we've got to support our teachers – we've got to prepare them better," he said.

"I think we haven't done that well over the last decades, and that's really where the whole thing begins."

Professor Chubb said he hopes the strategy will address the declining numbers of students taking intermediate and advanced maths in years 11 and 12, as well as the shortage of qualified maths and science teachers.

He did not, however, recommend that maths should be made compulsory for students in years 11 and 12.

"There's not much point making something compulsory if it's not actually attractive," he said.

"I would much rather make these subjects so compellingly interesting that students want to do them."

Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane has officially launched the strategy, saying the Federal Government is "very conscious of that fact that science is essential to building the future of Australia".

"We are focused on building the connections between business and science... right at the heart of our industry policy is science and research," he said.

Mr Macfarlane says businesses do not think to collaborate with scientists.

"They just don't think of scientists as being part of their solutions and scientists need to improve your front-foot ability and push your relevance in the community because if you don't, no one else is going to," he said.

He says the Government has been working hard to build those connections but science has allowed itself to get pushed out of the community's awareness.

"If you're feeling a little irrelevant in the community, the answer is make yourself relevant," he said.

"Make people understand that science is more than just fixing sick children. That actually you're solving day to day problems for them every day."

Australia remains only OECD country without science strategy

The chief scientist also recommended incentives, including promotion and remuneration, to boost numbers of qualified teachers, and said students and businesses should be made aware of the value of study in the areas of science, maths, technology and engineering.

Professor Chubb said Australia remains the only OECD country without a science strategy.

He said such an approach needs to be adopted to ensure Australia does not fall further behind other countries.

"I don't think we've left it too late, but I do think that you could leave it too late," he said.

"Nearly every other country we would compare and contrast ourselves with has some sort of strategy, some sort of plan – either for the technology, for innovation, for science, sometimes for all three.

"If we don't get one soon, then we will be left behind to the point where we would be barely worth cooperating with except in very selected areas."

Professor Chubb said Australia must build stronger networks with other countries when it comes to science, research and education, and further develop relationships with the European Union and the United States.

"The opportunity is there to link much more strategically with other countries... I think we've got to be contributors in order to get a profit from work that's been done elsewhere," he said.

Professor Chubb called for the establishment of an Australian Innovation Board, based on a UK model, that would be run by industry collaborating with researchers and distributing finances.

"We don't have a lot of cooperation between our researchers and our businesses. We actually have to make a paradigm shift. This is not fiddling at the margins again and hoping that things will get better," he said

He said Australia has not had a whole-of-government approach in this area and it is something he has been focused on for some time.

"I've talked to a lot of people and nobody has said I'm silly to do this. So we'll just wait and see," he said.

"We need to think bigger. We need to think coordinated, we need to think strategically and we need to learn from what's been done.

"Other countries do it a lot better than we do.

"I'm not into legacies but it would be a good one if I were."

Maths institute says national strategy 'necessary'

The strategy has been welcomed by the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute.

Institute director Professor Geoff Prince said a coherent national strategy is neccessary.

"We absolutely have to have one. We've got ourselves in the situation we're in through the absence of strategy and absence of strategy is not going to get us out that position," he said.

Professor Prince agreed that mandating maths subjects for year 11 and 12 students would not be productive, but said studying mathematics is beneficial in a number of ways.

"I'd like [students] to [study maths] because they were engaged and because it was something that was going to be good for their life skills and their career skills," he said.

He said the system is under-resourced, with 40 per cent of classes in years 7 to 10 not being taught by qualified maths teachers.

"I think we're actually in that vicious spiral where the numbers of maths graduates are being choked by the declining numbers of kids taking intermediate and advanced maths in year 12," he said.

"That's being choked because of a failure to staff schools with inspiring maths teachers, and inspiring maths teachers can't be had because there aren't enough maths graduates.

"It's at a critical level now and unless we act, it's only going to get worse.

"The consequences, I think, would be absolutely disastrous."