Government must prepare Australia's economy for the future: Ian Chubb

Australia's former chief scientist Ian Chubb believes that in order to compete on a global economic scale, governments need to do more than just talk about what they want to achieve.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Australia's education system, research programs, and innovation agenda will secure the nation's place in the digital world, but it is up to the government to ensure the wider community has the ability to adapt to those changes, Australia's former chief scientist Ian Chubb has said.

Having served his time through four prime ministers, six science ministers, and five education ministers, Chubb used his keynote at the Connected Education Summit in Melbourne to share his view on Australia's economic climate.

The former chief scientist said that for a long time, Australia has had easy advantage in abundance: Things that could be burned for cheap energy; things to dig up and sell for easy money; and bits of the country it could "flog off" for other people to do the difficult things.

Having been lucky, he said it is now time for Australia to be smart.

He labelled the government's National Innovation and Science Agenda and its STEM strategy for schools "very good starts" -- but said being armed with merely a mantra and no sort of guidance would not achieve much for the country.

"Both require more than rhetorical commitment -- they actually require implementation. And they require to be seen as a start, and not the end game," Chubb said.

"If I was prime minister for a day, I'd invest in our future."

Chubb used a story about a sheep that wandered off the path as a metaphor for Australia's economic journey.

The sheep, which grew its hair long with no one to shear it, and was thus barely able to see or walk, had a surplus of product for not much more output, Chubb explained.

"The fact that he could barely see, stand, or walk was immaterial; he increased his product faster than his costs, and that's all that mattered," he said.

"[The sheep] is not a bad metaphor for Australia."

Chubb said that from one perspective, the sheep was doing very well and was a model for a great economy. However, under the surface, the sheep was also in a great deal of trouble.

"He was riddled with parasites, and basically he was one dingo away from a very nasty death," he said.

"This was all achieved by his own natural advantage -- and isn't that true of our nation as well?

"What if one day our dingo turns up? The day when nobody wants what we can dig up and sell for the price that we want, or when nobody wants the bits that we can flog off? So what do we do then?"

The end of the sheep story saw it being adopted by a passerby and nurtured back to health, with Chubb saying this was where its similarities with the Australian economy ended.

"There won't be economy passersby to adopt us and show us how to live a good life -- that transformation will have to come about through our own initiative," he said.

"We don't even have to break new ground, as we have the example of other nations and the experience of our own past efforts.

"It's too easy to think that commodity prices will boom again as they have in the past.

"She'll be right."

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

Chubb handed over the reins as Australia's chief scientist to Alan Finkel in January. Since then, Finkel has emulated the ideals left behind by Chubb.

Last week, Finkel described his ideal nation as one where all children leave school filled with knowledge and aspire to deepen this for the rest of their lives.

"But there are still too many children in schools today without a properly qualified and supported science teacher. There are too many ideas with commercial potential that never leave the lab," Finkel said.

"There are too many workers in professions highly exposed to automation and global competition looking to the future with concern. Of course that weighs heavily on our minds today."

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