A successful entrepreneur, neuroscientist, and philantropist, Dr Alan Finkel has just commenced his role as the eighth independent science advisor to the Federal Government.
Prior to this appointment Dr Finkel spent eight years as the chancellor of Monash University. His biography includes a wide range of activities – from founding a California-based scientific instrument business to chairing CAASTRO and co-founding COSMOS Magazine.
We sat down with arguably the most important science advisor in the country to discuss not just policy, but also education, research jobs, discrimination and more.
How’s your first week been in this role?
It’s been busy already! I’ve been meeting with senior members of the public service, with the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne, and doing a lot of planning around specific roles I’m taking on, and work in my own office. It's off to a personally satisfying start.
Can you remind our audience what the Chief Scientist does?
Primarily it's based on the belief that science is good for Australia, and we need to do good science for research benefits. My role is to keep an eye out on the performance of our science and research efforts in Australia, verifying that research is clearly aligned with our national science and research priorities that were published last year. To do what I can to encourage support from the government for quality scientific and research endeavour.
I tend to take a very broad view of the role in my mind - the research we're doing in this country is not always about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, but humanities and social sciences contribute amazingly important research as well. I would hope that through my advice to the government we can maximise support for the equipment, supercomputing, data collection that enable quality research across the humanities and social sciences disciplines, as well as natural sciences and technology.
Your role also mentions communication of science to the general public - do you have any specific new plans for engaging more people with science?
I will continue the work that my predecessor Ian Chubb has done as part of his being in office, of releasing relatively short, insightful papers several times a year that take an issue in science – such as education, or climate change – gathering the key facts in a quick analysis and making that widely available. I think that's been a very useful process.
I will certainly do as much as I can to speak in public to broad audiences to get the message out about science, technology, and innovation. I will also be making it a point – pretty much whenever I speak – to try to tell a success story of Australian science and innovation.
I think the science communication is out there – we have a range of initiatives such as the National Science Week, and our national broadcasters are communicating science too, but it's not enough. What I feel is missing is sufficient celebration of our successes, where phenomenally good Australian science has been translated into broad benefits.
A recent example is the recent announcement about one of our cooperative research centres signing a deal with the international drug company Merck – it's wonderful to see that kind of success. Did you read about that on the front page of the papers? Possibly not. I will make it part of my mission to communicate those success stories.
Speaking of less successful stories, plenty of times you hear from scientists and graduates across Australia that they are constantly worried about academic employment opportunities and research grants – often resulting in a brain drain to the United States. What are your thoughts on this?
It's the kind of concern that scientists have had for decades, and it's very genuine. We are training a lot of scientists, a lot of PhDs - many of them enter PhD research with the hope they will have an academic career, and it's not possible for that to happen. There are many things we have to do – we have to ensure the continuity of the competitive grant schemes though NHMRC and elsewhere, and I hope in time they'll grow.
We'll also have to make sure that PhD students recognise the opportunities outside of the academic track, with the fantastic training that they get doing a PhD in Australia, they can use it in business, in the public service, or use it in unrelated fields - there are so many success stories, such as a PhD in physics becoming a successful financial advisor, using the thinking processes and the mathematical knowledge they got doing that degree.
What about employment in research?
It's difficult. We have to do the best we can to make sure that there are as many opportunities for strong research endeavour, and that means we need excellent, well-trained young people coming through the academic pathway.
But it's just not realistic in this country or in any other country for all or even a majority of the PhDs that we train to have academic research careers. The vast majority will end up with non-academic careers – it could be industry research, or government department based research, could be business, finance, or the tourism industry.
I think part of the problem is the belief that many people have – if you're doing a PhD, you're doing that specifically to have an academic career, and if you don't have an academic career, you're a failure. That couldn't be further from the truth. Somebody who has a PhD has learned to solve some of the most challenging problems around. That's certainly the kind of person that I in my past have hired in my non-academic engineering company, because PhDs are brilliant problem solvers. People need a broader view of the opportunities that doing a PhD affords – it's good training.
What are your thoughts on creating more science career opportunities for multicultural Australians, including Indigenous people - we do have this educational gap, and you hear time and time again from recent immigrants, and people of colour more in general, that it is sometimes harder for them to get jobs in science. What's your assessment?
It might be harder, but people can overcome whatever barriers are there. My parents were Second World War immigrants, and they were so grateful to arrive in Australia and see all around them the opportunities that were present.
They committed themselves to working, to getting the income and pushing their children through school, encouraging us again and again to devote ourselves properly to our study. You can arrive as a penniless immigrant and do very well in a country like Australia.
But what about discrimination? The kind of issue that's vexing many is not about applying yourself and getting that degree, but then not getting hired because of prejudice against skin colour or Indigenous heritage.
While I'm not an expert on discrimination issues and can't comment with authority, I find it pretty sad and it's just a terrible thing that a capable person would be prevented from opportunity.
Personally, in terms of science education I do have one comment to offer – I started a program called STELR through the Academy of Technology and Engineering back in 2008. It is an in-curriculum program for lower secondary school students in science, and it tried quite successfully to motivate kids by taking a very relevant topic in their lives and teaching a science that enables progress in that area.
Most of the funding to deliver this fairly extensive program, which is now in over 25% of secondary schools across Australia, has come from corporations who are trying to do what they can to help train young people in science.
Interestingly, quite a number of them are Queensland-based and Western Australia-based – these companies have made it a requirement for their donation that we in particular get the program out to remote and rural schools, especially in Indigenous communities. STELR is almost over-represented in those remote schools. So, you do what you can.
You have some strong ideas around science education for Australian children?
Yes, indeed. There are schools that teach science brilliantly, but in schools that don't do it properly there is sometimes a tendency to get kids to do mathematics by repetition, for example – without actually having the kids comprehend the importance or the application, it's like literally putting the cart before the horse.
You have to get kids excited by telling them something about the application, interesting things that are happening in the world around us, and then talk about the science that underpins it. It can be done, and done very effectively.
And lastly, you’re a proponent of renewable energy - which direction should Australia take in securing a possibly fossil free future?
In my opinion, the best thing for us to do is to develop zero emission technologies that are reliable, abudant, and affordable - so that they become an attractive alternative.
So, instead of trying to close down fossil fuels, make something else really attractive, and I think we can do that. That's where we have to invest a lot into research and development of technology to reach that combination of affordability, abundance and reliability.
So you think we can get there?
We can, but it's a very, very long term effort. The current energy industry is massive, most people don't appreciate the enormous scale – turning it around is more difficult than turning around the proverbial supertanker. We can get there, but there's going to be a 20-30 year time-frame to get where you, and I, and others want to be.
But my most important point about the 30-year time frame is that the slower we start, the longer it will take. We have started, but it needs to be done even more effectively. To do that, we need to develop more cost-effective, highly efficient technology and develop storage that goes with solar and wind.
Dr Finkel will address the National Press Club on Wednesday 2 March.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.