Opinion- 14 April 2005






Peter Hall Makes Some Points Regarding --

Lies, Damned Lies and 223 Extra Statisticians




The Australian Government’s Innovation Report for 2004-05 is just out. Its executive summary will make uplifting bedtime reading for the nation's scientists and engineers, who apparently have seldom had it so good.

How fortunate we are to live in a country where science and technology are so healthy. "Numerous government agencies are reporting progress in achieving long-term strategic research [goals], often in areas of public good," observes the Innovation Report's executive summary. "The Australian Government invests in human capital at every level, including schools and the higher education system." From 2000 to 2002, Australia's higher education expenditure on research and development increased by 23%. Investment by business in university research shot up by 29%. The decline in participation by school students in science subjects, which dates "from 1976" and so is not the government's fault, is today "partly offset by increasing participation in other sciences, such as psychology." Indeed, according to the executive summary, in our universities "the number of science and engineering graduates rose rapidly as a percentage of total graduates over the last few years."

However, if you want to know what is really going on you'll have to dig another 80 to 100 pages deeper into the Report, and dissect the data and graphs. There you'll find a very different story. In fact, "the fall in numbers of [school] students undertaking specialised mathematics and science subjects in senior years is a cause for concern." You'll wonder how the rapid rise in numbers of science and engineering graduates, noted in the previous paragraph, sits with the "decline in the proportion of year 12 students, and participation at the undergraduate level in university, in the physical sciences... [This] suggests that the long-term sustainability of Australia’s skills base in the enabling sciences could be under pressure."

Moreover, you'll discover that by 2002, "participation (as a proportion of total year 12 enrolments) in both physics and chemistry had fallen to below 20 per cent (17 per cent for chemistry and 16 per cent for physics)." See the Figure above.

You'll notice too that whoever wrote the executive summary missed the fact that in science and engineering, "PhD graduates as a proportion of total PhD graduates have dropped from 46.9% in 1989 to 37.2% in 2002." That's a fall of 20%, during a period where Australia became more reliant on technology than ever before. It's very hard to reconcile such negative data with the executive summary's upbeat report on "strengthening our ability to undertake research, accelerating the commercial application of ideas [and] developing and retaining Australian skills."

You could well wonder how such misrepresentation of data was possible, given Australia's "net gain" of "223 mathematicians, statisticians and actuaries." Some of the more creative of these must have been put to work by DEST. However, you'd realise that those net-gain data are based on nothing more reliable than jottings on arrival cards at Australian airports. In fact, the shortfall of statisticians in Australia is so acute that it provoked a recent, DEST-backed enquiry by the Statistical Society of Australia. (The enquiry has still to report.)

You might conclude that the Innovation Report's executive summary puts a disingenuous, selective spin on data that the body of the Report correctly labels as causes for concern. And you could wonder why your  tax dollars were spent on that exercise.

Professor Peter Hall is at the Mathematical Sciences Institute, The Australian National University, Canberra