If Australia is to succeed in the future, it will take more than dumb luck. It's time to invest in our tertiary education sector and stop selling the smart country short, writes Tom Burns.
By
Tom Burns

19 Aug 2013 - 11:10 AM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 2:01 PM

Earlier this year, the Australian Academy of Science found that more than 40% of Australians did not know that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun.

A further 27% believe that humans and dinosaurs co-existed and 1 in 10 rejects evolution.

At the same time, 79% of Australians believe that science education is important. How can this be and how can our politicians ensure our country's educational and economic future?

Professor Lawrence Krauss is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist and has recently taken up a part-time appointment at the Australian National University in Canberra. A firm advocate of the public understanding of science, he says that we're making progress but more work needs to be done.

"We're not doing a good enough job teaching how to tell sense from nonsense, which is really what the scientific method is all about," he says.

In his New York Times bestseller, 'A Universe From Nothing', Professor Krauss sets out an argument for a rigorously scientific and secular explanation for the origins of everything. This method should be applied to everyday life, he says.

"Bad public policy results from the lack of scientific thinking," he says.

"The public, if they had a better understanding of science, would elect officials who have a better understanding of basing their public policy on empiricle evidence and reason.

"People would be more skeptical of these emotional or ideological arguments that are the basis of most politics."

But for many people science is a threat, says Professor Lawrence, and education needs to step up and address the issue.

"We have to explain to people that it's not a threat; it's a way to understand reality," he says.

"You're being hypocritical if you're driving in a car and you think the world is 4,000 years old."

But Professor Krauss adds that part of the problem of spreading science is the inadequacy of language to define scientific terms. The long history of multiple definitions surrounding the word 'nothing' as a prime example of this issue, he says.

"Words are a problem," Krauss admits. But he emphasises, "[We need to] recognise that - at some level - the words themselves are not appropriate. The proper language of the universe is mathematics, and so you're always approximating when you speak in words."

Well, if there's one thing our pollies know how to do it's how to talk in numbers, surely! Whether it's Labor's claim to 900,000 jobs since 2007 or the Coalition's commitment to cut $1 billion of red tape, there are always plenty of numbers to go around - and big ones at that.

But where are the big numbers for science education? Does Kevin Rudd believe a post-China-mining-boom economy can be diversified without innovation? How does Tony Abbott intend to incentivise green technology research and production after he takes a chainsaw to the carbon tax?

Certainly the Gonski school reforms agreed to so far by the state governments of Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT will help boost the quality of primary and secondary science education nationwide - but at what cost? Both Labor and the Coalition want to make cuts of more than $2 billion to universities. Defunding education to fund education - there's an educated strategy for you.

Compared to other OECD nations, Australia performs only on-par in science education. If we're looking for a 'A New Way' or a 'New Hope' for this nation's future economy, why aren't we hearing talk about investing in the skills of the next generation?

Yesterday marked the end of National Science Week. Let's ensure this election marks the end of missed opportunities.

Tom Burns is a blogger, vlogger and self-confessed political junkie.