OPINION: The science is in: we need to raise the bar

DOESN’T science just happen anyway? Can we leave science to the scientists who know it better? If you have no opinion or interest in how we live our lives and how our future will develop then maybe the answer to these questions is yes.
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But if ever you worry about genetically modified plants, global warming, nuclear and alternative energy, drug-resistant diseases, coal seam gas, mobile phone radiation or a raft of other issues that face society, then some appreciation of science and its impact on our lives is essential to evidence-based decisions rather than emotive and sometimes irrational outcomes.

This week has been Science Week, a great opportunity for the community to engage with science and to showcase the University of Newcastle’s outstanding research and teaching.

While there is broad community interest in science, there are few opportunities to get up close and personal to real science and its outcomes.

However, there is a basic question behind this – is Science Week run just as a publicity exercise to justify the existence of science funding or is there a real problem to be addressed?

The position paper titled Science, Technology, Engineering land Mathematics in the National Interest: A Strategic Approach launched last week by the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, focused on the four main needs in Australian science – education, knowledge, innovation and influence.

Our students are losing their competitiveness against international benchmarks and international research benchmarks are forever rising to challenge our efforts.

The University of Newcastle has strived over its relatively short history to meet these challenges and has an outstanding record of achievement.

In research it has 14 areas of science that have been independently judged to be at or above world standard and the university as a whole is ranked very highly in the class of universities under 50 years of age.

These research standings attract high-performing researchers to Newcastle to inject valuable knowledge and skills into solving local problems, while also making discoveries that have both national and international impact.

The university’s webpage (http://www.newcastle.edu.au/newsroom/research-and-innovation/news/spotlight-science ) gives you a chance to discover more detail from 19 case studies where science in conjunction with medicine and engineering are making a real difference to our lives and those of the world around us.

The University of Newcastle has one of the most comprehensive and integrated outreach programs of any university in Australia and the world.

Activities have been developed that aim to not only interest students in science but also show them that they have a role to play in this exciting and challenging career opportunity.

These programs, which have been developed to promote interest and engagement in science and mathematics in primary and secondary students, have been so successful that some have expanded nationally and attracted both national and international prizes for their achievements.

If your children or grandchildren have been involved in the SMART program, the Science and Engineering Challenge, the Scientists in Schools, Mathematicians in Schools, Experimentfest or a range of other activities supported from the university, then they are the beneficiaries of a wealth of experience and research that provides them with better choice opportunities than students in other regions.

Another focus is the strategy developed by science, mathematics and education staff to create new educational methods used to train future mathematics and science teachers.

There are a number of research projects under way to develop new methods of instruction to build a more exciting and instructive school experience for students that will address the issue of declining participation in schools.

Science Week is not meant to be the only time the community engages with science but this showcase is designed to renew participation and engagement.

At any time of the year find out more about science – participate and even corner a scientist to ask them what they do and why they do it.

They are only human and would love to tell you more.

Professor John O’Connor is the head of the school of mathematical and physical sciences at the University of Newcastle.

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