Inspiring the next generation of scientists is harder in the face of official science denial

On 15 March 2019, 20,000 students joined the School Strike 4 Climate. Image: Shutterstock

The government says it’s committed to STEM education, but how can we inspire the next generation when they see our current scientists being ignored and worse?

By all accounts, it’s high on the Australian government’s agenda to promote STEM education (science, technology, engineering and maths). It has allocated over $64 million to funding early learning and school STEM initiatives – and the rationale is easy to understand. 

According to the Australian Academy of Science, even just a 1% increase in the number of people choosing STEM careers over the next 20 years would contribute over $57 billion to the economy. And that’s not to mention the value of STEM skills to young people in our increasingly digital world, or the inherent value of STEM in driving innovation and improving and prolonging our lives.

But when that same government appears to ignore its own scientists on an issue as critical as climate change, it’s hard not to be confused by the mixed messages. 

The official stance of Australia’s national science agency CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (along with at least 97% of actively publishing climate scientists world-wide) is that anthropogenic climate change is happening. And just this month, 11,000 scientists from 153 countries warned of dire consequences if we fail to take climate change seriously and don’t start making some big changes now.

However, contradicting its own official agenda promoting and celebrating STEM, the media has been reporting examples of our highest government officials treating established science with disbelief and disdain.

“Raving lunatics” and conspiracy theories

Yesterday – with more than 600 schools closed while much of the east coast of Australia braced itself for unprecedented bushfire conditions –  the government reportedly sent an email to experts at a climate change adaptation conference to avoid discussing the link between bushfires and climate change. Also this week, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack speaking on ABC Radio National labelled anyone linking those same bushfires to climate change as “raving lunatics”. One government senator has promoted a conspiracy theory that the Bureau of Meteorology is rewriting weather records to make it look like the Earth is warming faster than it is. 

Then there was that infamous occasion in February 2017 when then-Treasurer, now-Prime Minister Scott Morrison brought a lump of coal into parliament to try and make a point that it was “safe” – contradicting established science that burning fossil fuels like coal is warming the globe and causing dangerous climate change.

How can we expect our young people to believe the message that they should choose careers in STEM fields, while at the same time they’re witnessing their future career mentors, colleagues and managers being treated with disbelief and disdain?

“Society’s leaders have a responsibility to lead,” said Adjunct Professor Grant Wardell-Johnson, Director of the Curtin Institute for Biodiversity and Climate, in an official statement responding to the recent bushfire emergency.

“They are paid to make decisions every day.  Every decision not to act in the face of a clear climate change emergency condemns their fellow citizens to increased danger through the impacts of climate change.”

Gemma Chilton

Author: Gemma Chilton

Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.

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