Education in STEM and arts paramount to Australia's success: Senate Committee

The Senate Economics References Committee has made a number of recommendations on how to best tackle the future of innovation in Australia, extending the focus of education in STEM subjects to those under the humanities, arts, and social sciences umbrellas.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

The Senate Economics References Committee has made five recommendations to the Federal government on how to tackle innovation in the country, focusing mainly on the reworking and stability of existing policies and procedures that impact innovation; as well as the importance of education in the arts, humanities, and social sciences, and also science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

The first recommendation in its final report [PDF] Innovation in Australia, is that the government commit to maintaining stable, coherent, and effective administrative arrangements for innovation policies and programs, with a focus toward investment in research and development that equates to three percent of the nation's gross domestic product (GDP).

The committee recommended the inclusion of policies that address "structural and strategic barriers that inhibit innovation" which it said includes the enhancement of collaboration; free-flow of knowledge between universities and the private sector; increasing the size of the research and development workforce employed in industry; and ensuring that public funding to support science, research, and innovation is long-term, predictable and secure.

The committee wants to see an independent government agency to coordinate and oversee the innovation system policies and programs, as well as see the federal government collaborate with state and territory governments to support the role of local and regional innovation ecosystems.

The final recommendation made by the committee was that the government place due focus on the education system and acknowledge the importance of the interplay between the STEM subjects and the humanities, social sciences, and creative industries.

"While the significance of the sciences to innovation can hardly be overstated, especially in relation to the core STEM subjects, it would be equally unwise to overlook centrality of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in a future-oriented innovation strategy," the report says.

"The jobs and industries of the future will depend on a workforce that can harness the wide-ranging skills that are fostered, collectively, by the sciences, the arts, mathematics, and technology."

The committee said innovation is a fundamental driver of productivity and economic growth which can deliver positive social and environmental outcomes when cross-sector collaboration is engaged in.

"Nations at all levels of development have therefore put a premium on boosting innovation potential, through the quality of their knowledge infrastructure," Australia's Chief Scientist Professor Ian Chubb said in his submission to the Senate. "Many have strategies that target public investment to identified areas of priority and comparative advantage."

Previously, Chubb said the key to a successful entrepreneurial economy is the close involvement of the country's universities.

In the report released in October, Boosting High-Impact Entrepreneurship in Australia: a role for universities, Chubb said that entrepreneurship is a human endeavour and is thus inseparable from education, not independent of it.

"Australians aren't short of talent but we need to get better at turning our creativity into successful products and services," he said. "To be a more innovative country we need to encourage an entrepreneurial mindset at every level of education -- starting in schools, continuing in higher study and enduring throughout working lives."

"In popular culture the entrepreneur is the rogue genius who succeeds without -- or in spite of -- education. And it would be extremely convenient if that were true," Chubb said. "If we cannot teach entrepreneurship, we can only recognise the born entrepreneurs, and get out of their way whilst they get on with the business of change."

According to the committee, innovation requires not only consistency in policy approach but also stability in governance arrangements for advisory bodies.

"A successful innovation strategy will encompass the many interdependent parts of the ecosystem," Chubb told the committee. "It will be a whole-of-government agenda, linking the needs in different sectors of the economy to the capabilities in which the government invests."

The committee said that a number of submissions in addition to Chubb's highlighted that the lack of a whole-of-government approach to innovation strategy is one of the major reasons Australia has struggled to translate its high calibre research and development achievements, in both academia and industry, into innovation efficiency and effectiveness.

Last month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said before the year is through he would deliver an innovation statement containing a set of policies that focus on how Australia can attract and retain talent, as well as how the nation should support and encourage startups.

Turnbull said that as an open market economy in a much larger world, Australia must be more productive, more innovative, and more competitive.

"Across the board, we must acquire not just the skills but the culture of agility that enables us to make volatility our friend, bearing fresh opportunities -- not simply a foe brandishing threats," Turnbull said. "Reform should not be seen as a once in a decade or two convulsion, accompanied by a hyperbolic scare campaign; rather it should be seen as a change of political culture."

The federal government will release its innovation statement on Monday.

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