House debates

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Grievance Debate


6:41 pm

Photo of Katie AllenKatie Allen (Higgins, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I hoped the previous member would stay for this debate, because he has been talking about how important science is, and that is actually the topic of my contribution this evening. I am very pleased to be able to provide what I think are some quite sensible remarks.

The first thing I would like to say is that the previous speaker, on the opposite side, doesn't seem to understand the concept of our democracy, which is based on freedom of speech. So too for science. Science is about freedom of speech, it is about the contest of ideas, respectfully. So what is interesting is that the previous speaker made a lot of very personal comments about our Prime Minister, which I find deeply offensive. It is extremely offensive to be playing the man and not the ball. But anyway, we will leave it at that.

As we face a post-COVID world, it has become even important that we turn to science, because science will help us build the skills we need for economic recovery. Seventy-five per cent of jobs in the future are slated to require skills in science, technology and engineering and mathematics, or what are commonly referred to as the STEM subjects. It is now more important than ever that we arm Australians of all ages as they need to be able to understand our tech led recovery.

As a scientist, I have always believed in enabling others through the powerful exchange of ideas. That does not mean gagging ideas. It means listening respectfully, debating them and then coming to a conclusion that is expert, informed and evidence based. Science represents an ideal form for this exchange, especially in encouraging greater fascination amongst people of all ages in understanding the world we live in.

Some people think that science is just something you read about in a book, but in fact you actually need to go and discover it for yourself or as a scientist. It is about discovery. It is about curiosity. It is about being open-minded. Our country depends on problem solvers who are educated, trained and curious. Boosting the confidence and engagement of our next generation of STEM students, especially among young women, is fundamental to our government's agenda of ensuring that the next generation is prepared for the future of work, a future that is underpinned by the growth of the knowledge economy.

As a medical researcher for many years, I spent time in the profession understanding the importance of science, technology, engineering and maths. It's a real passion of mine, and I am proud to be a part of a government that is investing deeply in STEM. Indeed, Australia has produced some of the best medical research on the planet. We really do punch above our weight. A unique blend of Aussie character, of seeking opportunity but being resourceful and resilient by making do with what we have, can be seen as much in the corridors of our research institutes and universities as in the outback of our sunburnt country. Having travelled internationally for many years and worked as a professor at a UK university, I believe we have a unique blend of resilience and resourcefulness in our science, and that leads to a very unique approach to our science. The need and demand for skills in STEM have only grown, and we need to make sure that we support our young scientist as they go out into the world.

That takes me to another point, and that is that the take-up of STEM subjects is showing some encouraging results in our education system. I was able to see this firsthand recently when a young constituent, Grace, an eight-year-old from a local school in my electorate, Malvern Primary School, visited in me in my electoral office to explain to me her amazing idea. Importantly, she was actually awarded an enormous cheque for this amazing idea. She received a cheque of $10,000 for winning the Origin Energy company's Little Big Idea competition with her idea. Grace came up with a 'kick me pedestrian button' in the wake of the COVID crisis. This idea was to stop people using their hands to touch the buttons at traffic lights and therefore prevent COVID from spreading. I repeat: this is an eight-year-old girl in my electorate who came up with this idea. During our meeting, we spoke about how she wants to become a scientist when she grows up and find a cure for diabetes, since she has it in her family. We had a chat about disease treatments and cures and some of the studies that I've worked on in my career as a medical researcher.

After my meeting with Grace, I feel confident that the future will be very bright, especially with even more investment from the Morrison government to back STEM. And, my goodness, what a lot of investment the Morrison government is making into STEM and STEM skills for young Australians. We have provided significant funding for initiatives to teach and learn STEM in early learning in schools. This was announced in the recent 2020 budget. This includes $9.6 million to extend and evaluate the Primary Connections, Science by Doing and reSolve: Mathematics by Inquiry science programs to support student learning, including resources for teachers; $5.7 million to support the Foundation to Year Two expansion of the Early Learning STEM Australia program to improve STEM literacy and numeracy in Australian schools; $4.8 million to extend and evaluate the STEM Professionals in Schools program by partnering teachers with STEM professionals to enhance STEM teaching practices and deliver engaging STEM education in Australian schools; $4.4 million to extend and evaluate the Let’s Count program to help develop the early numeracy skills of disadvantaged children; and $2.8 million to extend and evaluate the Little Scientists program to help early learning educators to build their skills and confidence in STEM so that they can lead fun and inquiry-based learning.

The government is also providing $1.5 million to support the delivery of Artificial Intelligence in Schools, under the Australian Technology and Science Growth Plan, as part of the $29.9 million Artificial Intelligence Capability Fund measure; $9.5 million to strengthen the capacity of teachers across Australia to teach mathematics and numeracy through online professional development courses for teachers of foundation to Year 10 students, supported by face-to-face professional learning, and a repository of teaching and learning resources through an online mathematics hub—all music to my ears.

But, more than that, our government has a focus on women in STEM. The Morrison government's Women's Economic Security statement, which has been handed down for the second time in this year's budget, builds on our commitment to women in STEM. If you are to bridge the gender pay gap then it is critical that we equip women and girls to gain the skills to access high-skilled, high-paying jobs. That is why the Morrison government is providing an additional $14.5 million to support women and girls looking to enter STEM fields. The government is provide additional funding for the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grants program, called the WISE program. To date, the WISE program has provided $8 million to 46 organisations supporting a range of projects that have increased women and girls' participation in STEM and entrepreneurship. The government is also committing $25 million for women in STEM cadetships and advanced apprenticeships to create STEM career pathways for up to 500 women through industry sponsored advanced apprenticeship-style courses starting next year. I encourage anyone in my electorate or, indeed, right across Australia who is interested in any of these programs to apply—and, if they don't know how to apply, to contact me, because I'm really very interested in mentoring women in STEM and making sure that we can provide the grants that are needed to get women back into STEM and to make sure that they participate in STEM in greater numbers.

On this sides of the House, we know that science and technology are fuelling a transformation in the workforce. That is why the government has passed legislation to increase the number of graduates in areas of expected employment growth and demand, including STEM and IT. This will incentivise students to make more job relevant choices, which will lead to more job ready graduates by reducing the contribution of areas of expected employment growth and demand.

We know the jobs of the future that are expanding at speed are in health, IT and psychology, and we want our education to provide for those students so that they are job-ready for the explosion of jobs in these areas. This is particularly important as we look to pivot to new market opportunities, as reliance on our resources shifts in the new energy order that is evolving as we speak. We need to better educate and train the next generation in STEM to ensure we grasp the new opportunities with both hands. This includes investment in renewables, batteries and storage, and hydrogen. We have a $500 million commitment to building a hydrogen export industry. This is to be welcomed and is part of the first Low Emissions Technology Statement that was delivered recently by the Minister for Energy and Emissions Reduction, Angus Taylor. The minister had five economic stretch goals in the Low Emissions Technology Statement. Technology, not taxes, is what we have been driving forward when we are looking to an opportunity of agreeing a renewable future.

Science is a contest of ideas, just like politics, and we should champion scientific solutions for the challenges we face. We can achieve this through investment and actively encouraging more participation in STEM, particularly among women. As we emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to create an agile and innovative economy with highly skilled and highly paid jobs. Investment in STEM is key to achieving this.