Overhauling how we engage with science in Australia
According to a recent Graduate Destination Report (2014), 52% of Life Science undergraduates in Australia were unable to find employment upon graduation in any area of work. This is up from 47% in 2013 and putting Life Sciences behind Visual Arts as one of the most difficult fields to find employment in. This includes jobs that were not science related. That's roughly 1,000 students per year unable to contribute to science, or $20 Million (average of student HECS debt in Life Sciences) of unused training. A call for more STEM has been sounded, and its freaking awesome! Especially when considering public perception of the sciences. Yet where will these new scientists go? Can we blame our graduates for looking overseas for work or changing fields entirely when faced with the way things are with science here in Australia?
While more STEM is fantastic, and a possible solution to issues like giving Australian investors more confidence with investing in Australian Biotech companies, or nurturing a science literate society in general, the impact of this call will not be seen overnight, nor is it the only way to achieve this. So what are we going to do with our graduates in the mean time? Unfortunately if you get left out of the science scene, or any scene for too long, you may find it hard to prove to employers your capabilities in these areas of interest due to lack of experience. I was surprised to find out when returning to studies as a mature age student that my grades had a shelf life. After almost 8 years, they were said to have "expired" and not that important when considering my enrollment. I relied heavily on my life experience to prove I was capable of undertaking a Bsc in Biological Sciences. Often, the basis for employment extends beyond just our academic performance, to our extra curriculars, values and character, painting a unique picture of who we are and how we could fit into the workplace. Universities are just starting to implement new syllabi that address these challenges, but what else could be done to help give would be scientists more experience?
The way in which we engage with science needs to be overhauled. We need to empower and inspire not only students, but passionate and inquisitive members of the public, in pursuing their interests in the sciences. The goal should be to harness the power of their imaginations and facilitating the progression of their understanding and knowledge in the sciences, in a fun and safe setting. These new entrepreneurial scientists could yield new products and services that tackle more than just the problems we face today, but also more novel and seemingly nonproductive innovations. Many of the biggest discoveries have been through side projects or serendipity after following a hunch and in many cases, by accident eg. Penicillin. the Internet is awash with many more examples.
The cost for supporting this is relatively low. While a lot of theory must be understood to be a good scientist, people can find just about any kind of information online or in the bookshop. Entire directories exist now of free online units offered by schools like Harvard or MIT (See Massive Open Online Courses). Science is no different from any field when it comes to the benefit of hands on experience. This experience, for the moment, is still something primarily undertaken at school. There isn't enough support for students and interested members who want to engage with science outside of this setting to satisfy their questions and/or curiosities with nature or to practice basic techniques in their fields of interest. Many of these fields like molecular biology or microbiology require infrastructure not available outside of higher education or professional settings, and rely heavily on government funded grants which focus on areas of "deemed" importance. This "research what we want" style of support has led to some amazing discoveries but it's severely handicapping our ability to unleash our full potential here in Australia. Industry has always offered their own support in the form of internships, but the competition is high and the supply limited. Again these internships are for specific outcomes in specific fields of Science normally lasting 2 to 6 weeks.
By re-purposing unused equipment that is "outdated" by today's standards, and establishing simple "science club" like laboratories in communities around Australia, ran by passionate scientists and industry professionals, we could open the flood gates to innovation, learn to communicate science in new and captivating ways to the public and ....our imagination is the limit, as it should be. It's happening everywhere else around the world, so why not here, and why not now?