Skills shortage hits industry

September 8, 2000

Australia's chief scientist, Robin Batterham, has presented the federal government with a gloomy report on the state of science, engineering and technology.

Following an "audit" of science capabilities, Professor Batterham reports that Australia is falling behind the West, notably the United States, Britain, Japan and Singapore. Professor Batterham says that the number of graduates with skills in science, engineering and technology is insufficient to support the growing knowledge-based industries.

Australia faces the risk of not being able to provide emerging industries, such as bioinformatics and nanotechnology, with the "right human capital", he said.

The report calls for more postgraduate research scholarships, more funding for research grants and research infrastructure, greater business investment in research and development, plus the expansion of a cooperative research programme linking research groups and industry.

The recommendations were welcomed by academic and science lobby groups. Stuart Hamilton, executive director of the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee, said that, if implemented, they would have a "positive impact".

The National Tertiary Education Union said the report was "spot on". Similarly, the Australian Academy of Science "wholeheartedly" endorsed the proposals for building "a culture of innovation with science and technology boosting the creation of new ideas".

The report calls for doubling the number of postdoctoral fellowships to almost 800 and proposes significant increases in funding for the Australian Research Council. It says there is a need to make science more attractive to young people. The government should introduce 300 undergraduate scholarships for chemistry, maths or physics, and 200 for combined science and education degrees, the report says.

The shortage of suitably qualified science teachers has to be corrected - perhaps by offering financial incentives, says the report. "We need more support for those who inspire our children to study science and maths."

Enrolments in maths, physics and chemistry are falling and science students face higher fees than those undertaking social sciences and humanities subjects.

Professor Batterham notes that despite an increase in the output of the world's research information, expenditure by university libraries on serials fell by 30 per cent and on monographs by 22 per cent in the three years to 1998.

With the average price per serial title increasing by 60 per cent, and with science titles facing even higher prices, the report calls for a pilot scheme to test a national site licence concept between higher education and publishers.

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