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Research funding is based on 'popularity': chief scientist
18/05/2012 - Chief scientist Ian Chubb says most research funding in Australia is based on a popularity contest and the subject choices of teenagers.
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He says governments need to work out how to give research funding to the subject areas where it was most needed, not where bachelor degrees were most popular.
About 60 per cent of government research funding went to universities and was heavily influenced by what courses undergraduates choose to study.
As the funding for universities was linked to student numbers, it was often used to employ more staff in the most popular areas and then those staff conduct research in their field.
"This means that ... probably much more than 50 per cent of all government spending on research is seriously influenced by the choices of our 17- and 18-year-olds," Prof Chubb told the annual conference of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Association in Adelaide on Thursday.
"Is a popularity contest the best way to ensure Australia is conducting research and preparing a skill base that will prepare us for the challenges of the future?"
Prof Chubb noted those students had a whole range of influences on their course choice, but most were along the lines of "choose something you find interesting" rather than thinking of the national interest.
"We can't force students to take degrees in the national interest, ahead of their own," he said.
"We need to make them so interesting ... that students want to study these topics."
Prof Chubb highlighted skills shortages in agriculture, where there were 743 graduates in 2010 but about 4500 jobs advertised, and engineering, which produces about half the number of graduates needed for the workforce.
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