The current stagnation in Australian science enrolments, identified in a recent report for Australia's Chief Scientist, is compounding declines in key disciplines during the 1990s, according to the author.
Dr Ian Dobson of Monash University’s Centre for Population and Urban Research and the University of Helsinki was commissioned by the Chief Scientist of Australia to prepare the report Unhealthy Science? which analysed enrolments between 2002 and 2010.
Over that period, enrolments in science courses increased by 30 per cent, below the sector-wide average of 33 per cent, with over 18,000 more science students at the end of the decade than in 2002.
In comparison, health and management and commerce courses gained the majority of increased enrolments with 97,000 and 66,000 more students at the end of the decade, respectively. Science overall had the fourth-lowest growth rate for 2002-2010. Only enrolments in agriculture, information technology and education fared worse.
Dr Dobson said that even if the sciences are no longer in decline, it was doubtful that zero-growth is good enough in a technology-based knowledge society.
“Innovation is more likely to come out of science and technology rather than from say, management and commerce, the source of much of the growth in university enrolments this century,” Dr Dobson said.
Dr Dobson had previously analysed trends in university science enrolments for the Australian Council of Deans of Science and found that during the 1990s, students increasingly enrolled in behavioural sciences, biological sciences, computer sciences and non-science disciplines with little or no growth in the enabling sciences of chemistry, mathematics and physics.
“The damage to the enabling sciences occurred during the 1990s, with the teaching of mathematics and physics declining by five per cent and two per cent, respectively, " Dr Dobson said.
"Chemistry increased by 16 per cent but this should be compared with growth in behavioural sciences of 93 per cent, biological sciences of 78 per cent, and all other sciences, such as earth and computing sciences, of 81 per cent."
Dr Dobson said that in a period when overall science intake increased by the equivalent of more than 20,000 full time students, the enabling sciences increased by the equivalent of just 414 full time students.
“The decline has stopped in recent years, but no positive growth has occurred. To drive innovation in Australia, we need more scientists.”