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PM's Prizes for Science


17 October 2018

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What a magnificent celebration of Australian science.

And how fitting it is that Australia’s top science prizes are being awarded this year in Nobel Prize month.

Back in 1979, Englishman Sir Peter Medawar, a Nobel Laureate in Medicine and Physiology in 1960, wrote an essay, Advice to a Young Scientist.

It is a profoundly wise piece of work dealing with such things as the world problems, moral dilemmas, ambition, collaboration, and women in science, an issue I will come back to.

In discussing the efficacy of science, Medawar writes:

Many young scientists hope that the science they come to love can be the agent of a social transformation leading to the betterment of mankind; accordingly they lament that so few politicians are scientifically trained and that so few have a deep understanding of the promise and accomplishment of science.

He’s right, we need more politicians with science in their blood, for sure.

In these past eight years in the Australian Parliament, I have been thankful for how my engineering training has equipped me:

  • with the Parliamentary Friends of Science
  • and Science Meets Parliament
  • in my assistant ministries
  • and now, as Minister for Science
  • and, by the way, knowing how to run a project, on time, on budget.

 We know that scientists do indeed make the world a better place.

 Tonight is about shining a light on Australian science.

 When I met with the winners this afternoon, I talked about the personal and public aspects of what it means to be on the PM’s science prize list.

Your personal toil, and achievement – then there’s the public’s expectation of you, as Medawar put it, the agents of social transformation leading to the betterment of mankind.

That’s quite a job description.

Tonight - these prizes acknowledge the research and application of diverse disciplines and talents right across the science spectrum.

And it takes a nation to raise a scientist - our schools, TAFEs and universities, our industries and businesses, our governments, communities and families each have a part to play.

What we’ve come to call a STEM education or career involves so much more than academic content.

For STEM to be the driver of innovation and economic growth, we need to ensure those at the wheel have both the academic and modern skills to steer the nation’s course over many generations to come.

I’m not only talking about the likes of the scientists.

I mean the technicians, the trade workers, the other degree-qualified professionals, the managers, all the occupations that call for STEM-related skills and knowledge – occupations that are projected to grow at twice the pace of others.

Australia does not have nearly enough men and women in, or in the pipeline to, these roles. And it goes further than that.

We find that we’re also wanting in the more fundamental STEM literacy and technology skills that are increasingly needed in a whole range of Australian industries. More Australian businesses are seizing next-generation opportunities, re-imagining what they produce, and taking up digital and Industry 4.0 technologies.

Many around the country are working hard to turn this around – the Coalition Government, and myself, included.

We are tackling this at every level:

  • through our significant investments in science and research infrastructure, and our science agencies and institutions
  • the establishment of an Australian Space Agency
  • our defence and medical research projects
  • our wide-ranging National Science Week program
  • our citizen science endeavours
  • our support of the high school international olympiads, and I know we have olympians with us here this evening.

And our plan for women.

There’s been a global wave of celebration in the wake of two exceptional women recently being awarded shared Nobel Prizes in their science disciplines – Professor Donna Strickland, for physics; and Professor Frances Arnold, for chemistry.

It is a powerful thing for women and girls around the world to see what they can be.

This must happen here too - to address the under-representation by Australian women in STEM studies.

The Coalition Government has a suite of measures and long-term plans that are well underway, and I encourage you to seek them out.

There’s one in particular I want to mention, we have with us Australia’s first Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith.

As an acclaimed astronomer, science journalist, and intergalactic rock star, Professor Harvey-Smith is charged with opening the STEM galaxies to Australian women and girls.

At its heart, the Ambassador’s role is about getting girls and women to think about their vast career possibilities in the STEM fields, encouraging them to study STEM subjects at school, to find their passion, and stay with it.

It is also about raising awareness of these issues in the community, advocating for gender equality in STEM, helping to bring about the change we need in Australia, and being a voice for women and girls.

I know that Lisa will bring her own special flair and energy to the role.
Ladies and gentlemen, the demand for STEM know-how has never been higher than now, and is fast on the rise.

Nearly 40 years ago—about a decade before most of us had a clue about the internet—Medawar wrote in his Advice to a Young Scientist that increasing the numbers of women in science is not primarily about providing us with gainful employment and an opportunity to develop our full potential:
It is [he wrote] above all because the world is now such a complicated and rapidly changing place that it cannot even be kept going (let alone improved…) without using the intelligence and skill of approximately 50 percent of the human race.

His logic is irrefutable.

But of course we all know it is also very much about gender equity and individual opportunity because without these as the standard, the barriers to women’s participation do and will persist.

Instead, we need to remove these barriers.

We need to embrace what’s working and change what’s not.

We need to make sure girls understand and believe they’re just as capable with numbers and building things as the boys in their class.

We need to make STEM a fun, creative and engaging part of early learning, along with reading and writing.

We need male and female STEM workers and professionals standing alongside one another as role models and mentors to younger aspirants – including here on stage at the PM’s science prizes!

We need girls and boys, women and men in equal numbers, working together in STEM pursuits from their primary school years right through their varied careers.

For Australia,

  • this is about gender equity and individual opportunity,
  • and this is about ensuring that our men and women together are strengthening our STEM capabilities, growing our workforce and economy, and applying their intelligence and skill to a better world.

Ladies and gentlemen, my warmest and most enthusiastic congratulations to this year’s recipients of the Prime Minister’s science prizes, to all finalists, in all categories.

Please know that we are—the whole nation—is watching in awe and anticipation of you: your intellect, your relentless pursuit of the science you’ve come to love, and whatever comes next.

Australia is a luckier, better, and wealthier nation because of you.

Have a wonderful evening.