Australia is falling behind in science and engineering and is the only nation in the OCED not to have a national strategy for science, engineering, technology and innovation, according to a new report.

In the report, Chief Scientist for Australia Professor Ian Chubb AC says the nation’s policies and investments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) have suffered from a lack of coordination, with the $8.6 billion in federal money being spent on research and innovation spread across no fewer than 13 portfolios and many of the patchwork of programs funded by  state and territory governments failing to align with federal efforts and/or in some cases relating to programs for which clear goals are not apparent.

As a result, Chubb says, Australia suffers from gaps in the skills pipeline, a culture of risk aversion and a lack of innovation.

Worse, outcomes and participation rates in science and mathematics education are falling. The number of countries outperforming Australia rose from three in 2003 to 12 by 2012 in mathematical literacy and from three to five between 2006 and 2012 in science literacy. Participation rates in science in secondary school, meanwhile, is at 20-year lows.

“Australia’s STEM investments and policies have suffered from a lack of coordination, misdirected effort, instability and duplication”, Chubb said. “We have long presumed that good things will just happen if we wait.”

While the shortage of engineers experienced during the mining boom has faded, a number of commentators remain concerned that Australia is not graduating sufficient numbers of qualified professionals in this area to meet long-term requirements, especially following budget changes allowing a likely escalation in the cost of engineering degrees.

In March last year, an Australian Industry Group survey indicated that more than a quarter of employers across the economy were having trouble recruiting staff with basic science and maths skills, with problems being particularly acute for employers looking for technicians and trade workers.

In June, meanwhile, renowned construction industry advisor David Chandler warned that the number of quality graduates coming out of universities was on the decline and was jeopardising not only Australia’s building sector productivity but its competitiveness across the economy.

In his report, Chubb calls for a strategic and coordinated approach taking into account national competitiveness, education and training, research and international engagement.

Amongst 17 recommendations, he calls for the establishment of an Australian Innovation Board to draw together disparate efforts and target research and innovation effort, acceleration of the integration of STEM experts into industry, encouragement of students through inspired learning and teaching and the adoption of a long term plan for scientific research.

Chubb says such moves are vital if Australia is to avoid falling behind in a world of new industries and skill requirements.

“Our competitiveness cannot be underpinned by our natural resources alone,” he said. “Australians must decide whether we will be in the forefront of these changes or be left behind. We have a choice.”