A world utterly reliant on science will need all children to have a reasonable grasp of the subject. So, why are we failing to inspire them?

This article is by Professor Ian Chubb​ who is Chief Scientist of Australia.


It is impossible to say what the jobs of the future will be, but a sound understanding of science and mathematics are sure to be key.

1432004027730Every year we survey recent graduates and ask questions about their employment. And from those figures we are encouraged to draw big conclusions: about the quality of our universities, about the needs of our economy, about the value of different professions.

Why do we continue to do that? Why do we narrow our focus to the present employment profile for last year’s graduates, rather than grasp from other countries that the employment profile of the future will be different, and that it is time for our education system to prepare for that difference?

And why do we assume a system has “failed” if it lets science graduates become teachers, or managers, or bankers, or if it lets engineers become economists?

Much was said about science last week with the delivery of the federal budget and the opposition response; some people like some bits and not others. It is an important conversation.

And I hope that we, like other countries, will question the direction in which we’re headed — with a little more imagination and ambition.

We could start in schools, where the workers of 2030, 2050, or maybe even 2070, have started to learn whatever we can teach them today.

For 20 years, we have presided over declining levels of participation in science and mathematics in years 11 and 12, and watched our students’ performance slip down the global ranks, while assuring ourselves that, with calculators, they’ll be all right.

But I think about the sort of jobs a child in school today might want to do in 10, 20, 50 years. And I wonder, which of those jobs will not require an understanding of science? How many will not need to know, at the very least, how science works, and how it might be applied in the workplace?

I’d say very few: in a world utterly reliant on science, most will need at least a reasonable level of scientific understanding. Our education system ought to provide it — to everyone.

Then I think about the issues confronting our country — from growing our economy, to protecting our environment, to providing us with food, to vaccinating our children. And I ask myself, which will not require science to find solutions?

I’d say none: they all require a conversation informed by evidence, and evidence interpreted with understanding. Our schools ought to equip all of our children to understand science, and inspire enough of our children with the passion to be scientists.

And then I think about all the other roles we might want science-trained people to perform, in a global economy founded on knowledge.

Which business will not need to harness technology, manage and utilise data, grasp complex financial arrangements, anticipate the changes of the future? Which industry would not be open to a person with an aptitude for science?

I’d say not many — and none with strong prospects for growth or even survival. And I would expect our schools would work with our universities, vocational training colleges and employers to put science-trained people in all manner of roles.

To do that, we need to look beyond the fossilised categories and expectations of the past and dare to think ahead.

Last month, the US National Bureau of Science released a paper examining its indicators for the science workforce. About 5 million Americans held positions that would traditionally be classified as “science and engineering”; but more than 16 million workers reported that their jobs required at least a bachelor’s degree level of science and engineering training. Many of these individuals worked in fields such as sales, marketing and management — reflecting, as the report noted, “the pervasiveness of technology throughout our economy”. The science workforce was not simply growing in importance: it was also growing in size and complexity.

The bureau concluded the “contradictory, confusing and often incomplete” picture of science in the economy stymied meaningful discussion of student pathways.

We could say the same thing about the conversation in Australia.

We could also think again about our perception of the skill sets developed through science degrees and vocational courses. In 2012, a study conducted for the Australian Council of Deans of Science asked more than 800 science graduates about their experience in the workforce. One in four worked in scientific or medical research; and 12 per cent worked in scientific or engineering industries. The rest had found jobs outside of science, across sectors including law, government, health, education, food, agriculture, mining and construction.

Regardless of where they were working, 97 per cent of the respondents said their scientific skills were useful in their work. They cited, in particular, their capacity to break down problems, work effectively in teams, question what they heard and adapt to shifting expectations about their roles. They saw themselves as workers well positioned for the changes they could see ahead.

It strikes me that we need people with these skills, and not just in lecture halls and laboratories. We need them in classrooms and corporate boardrooms as well.

We don’t all have to be scientists — and few would suggest that we all need specialist science training — but we certainly should not be discouraging those with a talent for science from making something of their abilities.

My message is simple. Let’s build the science education system we need to underpin the nation we want. Let’s give every child the foundation skills in science to be part of that stronger Australia. And let’s open our high achievers in science to new pathways and to the myriad roles we need them to play, wherever they fit in the workforce of the future.

Professor Ian Chubb​ is Chief Scientist of Australia.

It is imperative in science to doubt; it is absolutely necessary, for progress in science, to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.

To make progress in understanding, we must remain modest and allow that we do not know. Nothing is certain or proved beyond all doubt. You investigate for curiosity, because it is unknown, not because you know the answer. And as you develop more information in the sciences, it is not that you are finding out the truth, but that you are finding out that this or that is more or less likely.

That is, if we investigate further, we find that the statements of science are not of what is true and what is not true, but statements of what is known to different degrees of certainty.

Every one of the concepts of science is on a scale graduated somewhere between, but at neither end of, absolute falsity or absolute truth.

American Ambassador's Reception For Sundance LondonWhether right or wrong, eloquent or simple, if your ideas are not phrased in ways that encourage others to listen and learn, they won’t do either. Even Robert Redford, actor, producer, director and founder of the Sundance Institute, doesn’t rely on his fame to achieve his goals. Some years back, he shared this advice in the Harvard Business Review:

“I learned that the corporate powers that be aren’t going to be interested in the fruits of your labors and passion unless you are adept at understanding their agenda and speaking their language. You must always present yourself more conservatively than you privately feel you are. You can’t be forceful, loud, confrontational, or declarative. You have to sell what you have on their terms.”

Redford shared some similar thoughts about “getting them where they live” regarding his communications with members of Congress.

“For example, you say, ‘I know your part of the country,’ and start on common ground that isn’t political. Once you establish that connection, you can say, ‘I understand there are other views, but here’s mine.’ And then you carefully, intelligently, and rationally lay out your arguments, based on a lot of research and absolute control of your information.”


Sounds reasonable. But, it’s a tall order. When you’re passionate about something, it’s easy to think others will feel the same. But that isn’t how persuasion works. No idea stands on its own merits. It’s always wise to remember that an idea you’ve created and considered has no history with the person you wish to persuade. It comes to them cold, so to speak. They’ve made no investment.

Let’s say you have a jewel of an idea. The person who can implement it, however, doesn’t have much time to listen. How do you get him or her to listen and to take an interest in promoting your idea? How do you “lay out your arguments” and “control your information” as Redford suggests?

Among the most important steps is figuring out your primary claim. If you’re enamored with an idea, skipping this step is easy. You expect people to see what is so clear to you. And that is a HUGE mistake. 

One way to select a primary claim is to consider the interests, concerns, and emotions of the person you wish to persuade. Conveniently, this approach has the easily remembered acronym of ICE. If this step is ignored, there’s a tendency to provide a multitude of claims. The result is what I call “claim clutter.” You basically dump the reasons to accept your idea onto the other person, resulting in confusion and possibly annoyance. If some of the claims are winners, the losers among them lower their credibility. All the more reason to prioritize your claims, making sure what you say initially is going to grab the other person’s interest. 

commercial-kitchen-equipmentReturning to ICE, if concerns are more important at the moment than interests and emotions, then that is the best place to start. I was fortunate years ago to obtain some excellent advice from my boss’ secretary. I was heading into his office under full steam for what would likely be another unproductive encounter. “Have you ever asked him about the pressures he has on him?” the secretary asked. “Maybe if you knew, you’d approach him differently.”

That was among the best pieces of advice I’ve received during my career. I discovered the pressures my boss was experiencing that could have made implementing my idea, no matter its merits, impossible. I went away, reconsidered, redrafted, and presented the idea in a way that addressed his concerns – first. It worked for him and for me.

Ideas are only as good as the claims that support them. Those are only as good as their relevancy to the interests, concerns, and emotions of the people hearing them. When an idea seems wonderful, that’s when you really need to stop and think. Remember this rule: Never love an idea so much that you let it stand on its own. 


Kathleen also blogs here.