Tuesday, 26 February 2013

We need more Engineers, Scientists and Mathematicians in Australian politics

Australians do not put enough value on mathematics, science and engineering. 

This observation comes from interacting with literally thousands university students as well as discussing my research with the general public in numerous settings. It comes from the fact that maths is not mandatory for high school graduates. It comes from the fact that many universities do not demand "specialist" mathematics (equivalent to "standard" maths in other countries) for a large range of course offerings that require maths. It comes from the fact that Australia's international ranking in primary school mathematics is poor and becoming poorer (e.g. TIMSS 2011 Chapter 1 PDF). It comes from the fact that very few students study science in the high school. Or just have a look at the ridiculously low entry requirements for those studying to become high school teachers.

I have been told by several high school teachers that they are not supposed to tell kids they are wrong unless it is accompanied by compliments; a ludicrous proposition if a child is to grow up to be a scientist, mathematician or engineer. Or just a rational person capable of critical thinking.

As a research scientist and engineer, all this makes me thoroughly melancholic. 

It is because of my math and science education (from a Hong Kong primary school and New Zealand high school) that allowed me to study Computer Systems Engineering at Monash on scholarship. This led to postgraduate research in a robotics lab where I developed smart robots and got the chance to travel widely to visit international research labs. I am now working on an implantable visual prosthesis that will provide bionic vision and novel Augmented Reality technologies; my work even got me some press coverage! Science and mathematics have allowed me live the Confucius quote: Find a job you love, and you will never work a day in your life.

I am sure there are a large mix of factors at play, especially traditional cultural values. I can go on and on about how society overvalues sports and undervalues education or how there is a massive cultural divide between Australia and many of its Asian neighbours in terms of how society values maths, science and engineering. 

I am also going to ignore the gender gap in math and science. It is a loaded topic and I feel that a rising tide lifts all boats; societal and government interest in math and science will help alleviate gender biases. I don't agree with fixed male-female ratios in classes; just feels a bit too 1984 for my liking.

What I will talk about, or at least begin to, is a inequity and bias that exists in the composition of our government that may have something to do with why our politicians seem unable to improve math and science education or fully appreciate the need for investment in an innovation culture to boost jobs in manufacturing and other suffering sectors. 

Note that I am not saying that this bias is a fault of anyone; I see it as a systemic fault that probably developed over time.

On a (somewhat obsessive) whim, I went and looked up the education background of the Senators in the Australian Senate. Details are available in a Google Spreadsheet.

Here are my findings for our 76 senators:

  • Half of the senate have an Arts or Law background (like our current PM Julia Gillard)
  • 22 senators had no formal tertiary education (very surprised by this)
  • Other well represented disciplines include Economics (11) and Education (7)
  • There are 9 senators that have a degrees with "science" in the title
    • These are generally social, biological, environmental or health science qualifications
  • As far as I know, only Bridget McKenzie has a "hard" science qualification (math background)
  • There are no engineers in our senate. (What gives?)
  • Nor are there any computer scientists, software developers (or physicists, neuroscientists, physiologists, biomedical scientists...)

Given my findings above, I am not surprised at the poor state of Australia's math and science education. I think it is difficult (may be impossible) for someone to advocate math and science in an earnest and effective way without significant personal experience with the rewards of studying and applying these disciplines. It is not just about jobs and catching up to our OECD and Asian neighbours; it is also about the joy of it all. 

It reminds me of the following video where US science advocate Neil Degrasse Tyson discusses the argumentative conflicts in the US government. Our government seems to suffer from similar problems despite having a few more economists. May be we need more engineers and scientists.

It seems the solution may be to get more mathematicians, scientists and engineers into the government or at least involved with the political system in some grass roots fashion. We also need more of them out in public talking to kids and young adults as they will be the ones that select political leaders in the future.

In subsequent blog posts, I plan to look into the qualifications of the Members of parliament as well as the reasons why engineers seem to stay clear of politics in Australia. My initial hypothesis is that a combination of  the nature of their tertiary education and the high paying jobs they land after graduation drives them away from political roles.

Assuming the Wikileaks party gets formally registered, I may also have a look at the party's position on 
on math and science. Early rumours suggests that the initial members include mathematicians and physicists. A welcome change to Australian politics!


  1. Here's a report I found interesting related to education:

    http://www.oecd.org/pisa/pisaproducts/46619703.pdf (2009, page 7)

    A lot of the developed Asian countries rank high, but interestingly Finland ranks 3rd. If you read up on how they do things there it's quite interesting. Some of the highlights from memory:

    - teaching is seen as a prestige job and is competitive (Masters degree level)
    - promote co-operation instead of competitiveness (very non-Asian!). I think they had an example of the smartest kid in the class would be helping out the other students.
    - less time at school, schooling starts at age 7

    1. I recall meeting quite a few German MSc and PhD exchange students who intend to go back after graduation to become a High School teacher. They mentioned an exchange program partly funded by the government to encourage them higher degrees to improve Science teaching in schools.

      I think regardless of approach, the issue in Australia is that very few high school science and maths teachers have higher qualifications or have used their disciplines in industry. Both sets of experience would help a lot in convincing kids that they need maths and science.

      Making maths compulsory would be a good start...

    2. Making maths compulsory seems sound.

      Going back to the original topic, I think we're better off just banning, or putting a cap, on politicians with only an Arts/Law degree :) (unless they show exceptional skill)

    3. Not sure about banning etc. I think making the public aware is probably the first step.