Does Australia’s STEM problem start at the top?

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Turnbull's talk of innovation is hampered within his own party which is made up mostly of lawyers with a lack of expertise in, or appreciation for, STEM fields, writes Sameer Murthy

MALCOLM TURNBULL'S push for an innovation boom is intended to diversify Australia’s economy since the mining industry is contracting, as shown by the reduction in terms of trade and plummeting prices of commodities.

This idea is strongly supported by accounting firm, PwC, who believe that by shifting one per cent of Australia’s workforce into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) roles, a $57.4 billion increase in GDP will occur.

This certainly is pushing Australia into uncharted territory because previously the "lucky country" was fortunate to have valuable commodities underground. There was no need to foster a real culture of innovation or entrepreneurship to form the backbone of Australia’s economy.

While this is an admirable move forward by Turnbull as he seeks re-election in 2016, there is a significant problem within his own cabinet. This is the lack of diversity in educational backgrounds – let alone STEM fields –with prominent names like Julie Bishop, Christopher Pyne and Turnbull himself, all having law degrees.

Australia is a market-based economy which limits the government’s role in influencing the economy but it still has an important role in guiding overall economic direction.

Therefore, a lack of educational diversity in cabinet has the possibility to undermine Turnbull’s ambition to transform Australia’s economy.

The number of prominent Australian politicians who have studied law is quite astonishing. The list includes Julia Gilliard, Tony Abbott, Bob Hawke, Gough Whitlam and John Howard. Studying law does provide a solid basis for politics as it allows an understanding of society and the Constitution, breeds good leadership skills and focuses on the importance of communication. However, having a cabinet full of lawyers means there is a lack of familiarity with the all too crucial STEM Fields.

Politicians with law degrees have the capacity to competently evaluate on ideas and have experience in dealing with the art of persuading the public on new ideas. However, STEM backgrounds allow the cabinet to have an insight into planning new ideas along with the practicality and cost of the innovations. Specifically, an engineer's job is to try and develop products to make it easier for society to function.

This is very similar to the cabinet’s job, which is to develop policies that allow the continuing of Australia’s economic growth and development. Thus, those in the cabinet with STEM backgrounds, are not just able to deliver practical policies that benefit Australia’s long term future but also have better insight into the direction of scientific funding. They may more hesitant on cutting funding in these areas to lower the budget deficit because they can comprehend the long scientific process that includes idea development, making a hypothesis and experimentation with the product.

Australia would do well to look at tech-oriented countries like Germany, USA and Israel in which the cabinets have significant proportions of ministers who have studied a STEM field and other areas, such as psychology, at university. Angela Merkel, under severe scrutiny lately, has otherwise been one of the 21st century’s most successful politicians and received her doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry. Her scientific background has been an asset in making sound economic decisions in Germany’s manufacturing and tech-based economy, as they have become the leaders of the European Union.

The heavy influence of science and engineering in Chinese politics is to be acknowledged as a positive feature. Wan Gang who is China's Minister of Science and Technology, has a background in maths and mechanics and it is rare to see a politician with his qualifications in Australia. His Australian counterpart is Christopher Pyne who lacks significant expertise in STEM areas — which further highlights the Australian government’s STEM problem.

In China, the development of energy and manufacturing industries and the construction of megacities have all been planned 10-15 years ahead of time which has allowed the Chinese leadership to deal with a booming population successfully.

There can be no doubt that the quantitative problem solving mentality that a STEM background inculcates has allowed China to achieve this success and rise as a superpower with an increase in real GDP from US$357 billion in 1990 to US$10.35 trillion.

Turnbull’s entrepreneurial background will provide reasonable input for policies to kick-start the "innovation boom" but his pre-political experience was largely within the finance industry.

In terms of having a diverse cabinet, Australia can take inspiration from the 1980s when the highly educated Bob Hawke and the early school leaver, Paul Keating combined to implement the biggest changes in Australia’s microeconomic policy, such as floating the Australian dollar.

Some policy changes that Turnbull’s government could consider are guiding State and Territory governments to increase teaching of computer programming in schools and encouraging more people to take STEM subjects in year 11 and 12.

The recent decision to slash funding from the environmental science department in the CSIRO will mean that at a minimum, 100  jobs will be cut and that isn’t the best message being sent by Turnbull’s government in terms of their priorities for STEM areas. It just shows again that politics has never been simple and will never be.

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