Skeptic Zone’s tweet this morning lead me to this article in the Fairfax press written by federal Finance Minister and member for Melbourne, Lindsay Tanner. He is lamenting the lack of public figureheads of science in Australia and how his government is approaching the issue.
Governments are making an effort to tackle the problem. The Rudd Government has drastically cut HECS fees for science and maths courses.
I didn’t actually know this (or I heard about it and promptly forgot – also likely!), and I am very pleased that the current government have recognised the importance of the sciences in this way. HECS fees (now known as HELP) for my 4 year degree under the Howard government amassed to about $20,000. Under the Rudd government Mathematics and the Sciences have been given ‘national priority’ status and fees are much less now than when I did my degree.
Whilst this certainly is a step in the right direction, I don’t feel that this is all that much of an incentive for school leavers to study Maths and Science and tertiary level. Most school leavers are fairly footloose and fancy-free, and taking on a HELP loan does not seem like a burdensome thing. I still feel now as though it is somewhat of a ‘hidden’ debt and to an eighteen year old, there doesn’t seem to be much difference between a $10,000 debt and a $40,000 one… either way it’s a truckload of money that you don’t have to think about paying off until you get a ‘real job’.
Tanner suggests what is needed is more inspirational individuals akin to the late Dr Julius Sumner Miller or Dr Karl. And whilst Dr Karl does have a bachelors degree in maths and physics, along with many other modern, well known ‘scientists’ he is actually a medical doctor and while doctors are certainly important, they ain’t scientists. He writes;
We can create more science places, pay scientists more, and recognise their work more enthusiastically. But that doesn’t inspire, it merely enables…. Popularising science is actually a different role from practising science. A great inspirer doesn’t have to be a Nobel prizewinner.
Tanner has really hit the nail on the the head here. You can’t create these inspirational people, they are born that way. You can not learn to ignite people’s imaginations or create wonder about the universe. You can however encourage more kids and more teenagers to take up science, you can fuel interest in the sciences through programs at schools and well-trained teachers. And the more people that go into science, the more likely it is that one of them will be one of those exciting, inspiring people that do such great work getting science out to the public.
If this article is a real representation of the Rudd government’s attitude to science, I am very impressed and I want to see more of this commitment to Australian science leading up to the election. The Ruddster isn’t perfect by a long shot, but imagine the Australian science landscape under a Tony Abbott-run government. I shudder to think…
Thanks to the Australian Science Communicators mailing list, I learned that Richard Dawkins, whilst in Melbourne for AtheistCon is also speaking as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Tickets were due to go on sale Monday, but for some reason became available around lunchtime today.
Being a part of the writers festival, I expect the talk will be focussed mainly on The Greatest Show on Earth. But he is bound to raise tons of other material and I hope he takes a good number of questions. I snaffled up my tickets quick smart and there are some still available… you’ll have to be quick though, they will be all gone very soon!
I’m really looking forward to blogging about this talk, and also AtheistCon. Bring on March! Boo ya!