Science is too important to leave in the lab
Australia has a desperate shortage of young people enrolling in science and maths at our schools and universities.
Encouraging kids to embrace careers in science will be critical to Australia’s economic and social development.
Improving the scientific literacy of Australians – as well as the science savvy of business and political leaders - will also be crucial if our nation is to compete and prosper.
Let’s face it, science is now at the centre of virtually every important aspect of our lives and, indeed, at the heart of many of the most troubling decisions facing national and state parliaments.
In the last few years, governments have had to deal with scientific issues as varied as stem cell research, tackling climate change, bio-security (including how we handle pandemics), GM crops, and the science of rivers and water security.
Australia has a rich history of scientific discovery and innovation.
In my own State, we had the Nobel Prize winning father and son team, William and Lawrence Bragg, and their work on X-ray crystallography that eventually led to the discovery of DNA.
We had Lord Florey and his Nobel Prize for work developing penicillin that has saved countless lives.
There was Mawson and his work in Antarctica, and his geological mapping that helps to underpin our current mining boom.
There was Oliphant in the development of nuclear power and Basil Hetzel, one of our greatest living Australians, whose work in promoting the iodising of salt has improved the lives of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.
But celebrating science excellence must be as much about the future as the past.
Early next month, the Duke of Kent will open Australia’s “Science Exchange” in Adelaide, which will promote science nationally to young people and the wider community.
It is funded by the Federal and South Australian Governments, with generous support from business, particularly from gas giant, Santos.
The Science Exchange, or more formally known as The Royal Institution Australia, is based on - and linked to - the world-renowned Royal Institution in London, which has been democratising science for more than 200 years.
The RI’s leadership has ranged from Sir Joseph Banks and Michael Faraday, through to Adelaide’s Braggs and its current director, Baroness Professor Susan Greenfield.
Its scientists have been awarded a total of 14 Nobel Prizes, and 10 of the chemical elements were discovered in its famous Albemarle Street research laboratory in the heart of London.
Susan Greenfield was one of Adelaide’s first Thinkers in Residence, and a series of science projects have been successfully distilled from her residency.
Her ‘Science Outside the Square’ events have drawn thousands of people, ranging from young people who flocked to her ‘Science in the Pub’ series, to the mass audience whose attention she captivated while discussing the science of sport during the half-time break of an AFL match at AAMI Stadium.
The Royal Institution Australia (RiAus) will be based at Adelaide’s historic Stock Exchange building, which has been refurbished to former glory, and at the same time turned into a high-tech centre linked to the media and to London, to enable international debates on current global science issues.
Like its British counterpart, the goal of RiAus will be to bring science to the people, and people to science.
Importantly, the Australian Science Media Centre (AusSMC) will be based there.
Each day, newspapers, electronic and web-based media report science issues.
Through the AusSMC, hundreds of Australian journalists can have on-line access to interview 3,000 Australian scientists.
When big science stories break – such as the outbreak of swine flu - the AusSMC can put journalists in touch with science’s best and brightest.
These are experts in their fields, as opposed to unqualified interest group lobbyists.
Thousands of media reports have already been generated, and the fiercely independent AusSMC has the support of major media and scientific organisations, as well as our universities.
Bringing the RI to Adelaide dovetails neatly with our University City push.
Carnegie Mellon, one of the top universities in the United States, became the first institution to offer US-accredited Masters degrees here when it opened its campus in the heart of Adelaide.
Cranfield, Britain’s defence industry university, has set up an office here.
We are also now home to a campus of University College London, which is ranked seventh on the list of the world’s top 10 universities compiled by The Times Higher Education Supplement.
For the first time, it will offer a degree program outside of Britain and - like the RI - University College London has chosen Adelaide as the place to establish its historic first-ever overseas presence.
These world-class institutions complement the scientific enterprise and excellence that is nurtured within our existing universities, schools and research organisations, such as Waite (leading innovation in agriculture and wine), our new $13 million BioSA science and technology Incubator at Thebarton, and our Defence Science and Technology Organisation installation.
What we need to do now is take science out of the lab, and bring it into the lounge room.
The aim is to make science as appealing and engaging as a night at the cinema, or an afternoon at the football.
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