18 May 2005

Ignorance Nation

Physics or be damned! the crisis in science education awareness
In the UK, the engineering and physical science sectors account for 30 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product, 40 per cent of all investment and 75 per cent of all industrial research and development, according to a 2003 report by the UK Science and Technology Policy Research Unit. The analysis confirms the overwhelming importance of the engineering base for many manufacturing activities within the UK. These sectors account for more than 70 per cent of all Value Added Work, Employment, and Investment in plant and machinery in manufacturing. They are of even greater importance in terms of exports, accounting for more than 85 per cent of the total. We could expect similar figures for Australia.

New multidisciplinary issues are challenging science to provide answers to pressing problems. Areas such as energy production, climate change, transportation, crime prevention and detection, biotechnology and healthcare, and communications all have complex aspects that lie outside the traditional boundaries of the established academic disciplines.

Newer disciplines such as nanotechnology, biotechnology and artificial intelligence offer the potential to mitigate some pressing problems. They also offer the prospect of a bonanza to those nations willing to invest in the future of science and technology and as yet unknown applications.

Australia has neglected some areas of international science. For example, nuclear engineering no longer exists as a faculty stream within any Australian tertiary institution. If Australia ever has the need to develop better expertise in such a discipline, it will obviously have to draw on overseas resources, at uncertain cost and security risk.

The luck of the Irish or just good economic management?
But perhaps most depressing is the story of research and development, and science. In one of the nations in question, government, business and academia have forged a spirit of co-operation to engender a culture valuing research and the links between universities and industry. Ireland is now producing more science graduates than any other European nation. And Eire is blessed with more than one respected national institution charged with promoting valuable research and innovation. Enterprise Ireland, Science Foundation Ireland and the National Microelectronics Research Centre have all developed international reputations for the quality of their work and the benefits they bring the Irish economy. Enterprise Ireland, formed just five years ago, is playing an active role in promoting biotech companies in innovative projects.

The Australian Government's most notable contribution to research and development has been to abolish the 150 per cent tax concession, a move that perhaps provides a new definition for 'backward step'.

It is not too late for the Australian Government to take the high technology road that has been so often talked about. If we don't, our Irish friends may be laughing at us for many years to come.

The planet Golgafrincham creatively solved the problem of middle managemers: it blasted them in to space.
Golgafrinchan Telephone Sanitisers, Management Consultants and Marketing executives were persuaded that the planet was under threat from an enormous mutant star goat. The useless third of their population was then packed in Ark spaceships and sent to an insignificant planet.

That planet turned out to be Earth, where the arrival of the Golgafrincham B Ark rather disrupted an experiment designed to find the question to the ultimate Answer.

Golgafrincham is also famous for its circling poets.

Australia faces massive problems in adjusting to the peak oil transition, global warming, and salinity. We also have a government that neglects basic research and which thinks voluntary student unionism is a crucial education issue. We have a government of telephone sanitzers.

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