WA will fail to reach its potential as a leader in science and technology unless maths and science education in schools improves, the State's leading scientists say.
A government-funded report by Edith Cowan University researchers found "widespread and deep concern" about the unsatisfactory status of STEM - science, technology, engineering and maths - in WA primary and high schools.
The report, for the Technology and Industry Advisory Council, whose members include former chief scientist Lyn Beazley and WA Nobel laureate Barry Marshall, found declining achievement and negative attitudes towards STEM subjects from students and "significant concerns" about the low proportion of WA students reaching advanced benchmarks.
The council said the report reflected its strong belief that "without a strategic strengthening of STEM education", WA could not optimise the skills mix and innovation required for a productive and competitive economy.
Speaking ahead of national science week, which starts today, WA Chief Scientist Peter Klinken said the State was well-placed to capitalise on a "golden age" of science, particularly in biology, genetics, mining, oil and gas, biodiversity and marine science.
The $2 billion Square Kilometre Array telescope was an example of a project that would put WA on the map and open career opportunities.
Professor Klinken said there was no question that science and maths education was a serious issue. "We have to make sure that having established these important disciplines, we don't let them slip and that seems to be what's happening," he said. "Science, technology and innovation are the way of the future and if you don't have people who are literate in those areas you're likely to struggle."
Professor Jo Ward, Curtin University's science faculty dean, said too many teachers taught "out of field" because of a shortage of qualified maths and science teachers.
Scitech chief executive Alan Brien said though WA was on the cusp of a "really strong future", Australia was slipping in maths and science rankings while countries such as China, Hong Kong and Singapore continued to excel.
Professor Beazley, who recently joined Murdoch University as a science ambassador, said the ECU report highlighted the importance of fostering science in the young.
"It is important to make young people aware of the opportunities and jobs," she said.
Professor Marshall said he was optimistic, provided governments acted to make it easier for scientists to start up their own enterprises.
He said tax incentives for start-ups would also encourage more people to take risks.
National Chief Scientist Ian Chubb said this week Australia would be left behind if it did not develop long-term strategies for science and maths.
Education Minister Peter Collier said the Government was doing a lot to boost maths and science education and attract teachers.
Charlotte Stalviews, 35
Research Projects Officer, CSIRO
There is no need to be intimidated by science, Charlotte Stalvies says.
“People live with science every day, for example, your mobile phone and the amount of research and development that goes into being able to upload pictures to Facebook from the palm of your hand,” she says.
“It’s the temperature your coffee is extracted at and the material that the coffee cup is made of so that it stays hot when you’re walking to the office. It’s the fibres in your clothes or the composition of makeup — it’s all around you every day.
“It’s not intimidating.”
Ms Stalvies moved to WA from Britain in 2008 to join the CSIRO.
Her role includes designing and planning marine survey sampling and can mean 30 days on the ocean.
“The sampling is for oil-spill response and natural hydrocarbon seeps (from the sea bed),” she says.
Ms Stalvies “always loved science” and studied geology because she wanted to work outdoors at times.
She expected to be on hills more than the crest of waves, but that had been “one of the good things”.
“I like the fact I work with a lot of creative people and that new technology can arise from a figment of someone’s imagination,” she said.
Garth Maker, 33, Biochemist
Young scientists no longer feel the need to travel abroad to advance their career, biochemist Garth Maker says.
“The traditional approach was you would do a PhD and go overseas to learn new techniques and approaches,” Dr Maker says.
“But now we have the internet and the world is a much smaller place, so it’s easy for us to access that stuff without needing to spend years working overseas.
“It’s still a valuable experience but I don’t think it’s essential. There is some fantastic science that punches above its weight in WA.”
Dr Maker’s role looks at “the chemistry that goes on inside cells to try and understand how those cells function under different conditions”.
One of his areas of area of his research is the impact of complementary medicines.
His passion for science stems from his upbringing.
“My parents are retired medical scientists who raised me with a great love of understanding the world and finding out more about how the human body functions,” Dr Maker says.
“They also raised me on a healthy diet of David Attenborough and Doctor Who, so I learnt to question things and try to make a difference.”
Raymond Sheh, 32, Senior Lecturer
Like many of WA’s most accomplished scientists, Raymond Sheh wanted to keep his options open at university because he had no firm plans about a career path.
“I’ve always been interested in finding out why and how things work,” he says. “I ended up doing a double degree because I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew it would be in the boundary between science and engineering.”
Dr Sheh says the general community has trouble getting excited about science but he wants to change it.
He has initiated the Open Academic Robot Kit, which will “make it easier for people to build interesting robots that they can use for their discoveries”.
The kit will allow people around the world to build a robot that suits their requirements.
“Robots are a way for computer science and artificial intelligence to touch the world and, in that context, robots are already all around us,” Dr Sheh said.
“For example, any recent car is a robot. The computer is deciding when to shift the gears or what happens when you hit the brake pedal and the computer can override your decisions.”
John van Bockxmeer, 29, Doctor
Young West Australian of the Year, WA Junior Doctor of the Year ... the accolades keep coming for John van Bockxmeer.
In layman’s terms, he looks after people in emergency departments at remote hospitals. He is full of praise for WA’s scientific community and has his eye on health on a broader scale.
“There’s all sorts of incredible research being done in the medical field in WA,” Dr van Bockxmeer says.
“I’d like to eventually become a leader in health either for WA or the bigger picture — so looking at how we can improve our health system — that’s why I’m doing all this work.”
He sees science as a labour of love but “passion, determination and interest” can launch further research.
Now in his fifth year out of the University of WA, Dr van Bockxmeer is following his enthusiasm and “using great scientific technology” and research to help patients.
“At school I realised I wanted to do a job that combined science with human interaction and that’s why I chose medicine,” he says.
“I love being a doctor. I love the combination of using the scientific background to interact with people — working out the disease process and how it affects people and giving a diagnosis that people understand.”