ARC Graeme Clark  Research Outcomes Forum

June 18, 2008, Canberra                     
Speech presented by Monash University Chancellor Dr Alan Finkel AM at the Graeme Clark Research Outcomes Forum        

1 THE STATE OF OUR SCIENCE

My family owns an old beach house that we enjoy immensely. It’s a charming wooden  cottage, two stories, with shutters and weatherboard cladding. It has been maintained  from time to time with a coat of paint, and an extension here and there.

It is truly beautiful. The trouble is, the foundations—consisting of wooden stumps—are failing. Lacking solid foundations, our beach house is leaning to one side and its future is at risk.

The edifice of Australian science is similar to our beach house. On the surface, it is doing very well. From time to time it has been maintained by a strategic realignment, and an extension here and there. The recently announced Future Fellowships are a valuable case in point.

Overall, government funding has generously increased over the last ten years, and, as you will see today, many of our scientists are extremely productive.

However, there is a weakness in the foundations that support the edifice. What worries me most is the shrinking number of secondary school students electing to study science.

We depend on science students in secondary schools to flow into the pipeline that ultimately supplies the workforce with graduate engineers, career scientists and other technological experts in high demand in our research institutes, universities and corporate Australia.

This is a particular area of concern of mine. That is, the teaching of secondary school science and the motivation of the students.

2 THE EDUCATION PIPELINE

Fundamentally, young people are not motivated to study science. An international study called the ROSE project that investigated the motivation of fifteen year old students  found that in developed countries interest in studying science is very low. This is despite the fact that these students live in a world driven by, and dependent upon, science and technology.

Participation rates in secondary school science have been steadily declining, especially in the so-called “enabling” disciplines of physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Science used to be popular. What has changed in the past generation?

When I was still a student, a friend and I made a rocket fuelled by zinc dust and sulphur. It didn’t fly, but we learned a lot from our experiment. On another occasion, I recall my amazement at the chemistry of oxidation as I burned a ribbon of magnesium metal to demonstrate its extraordinary flammability to my parents.

These were clearly dangerous activities to undertake, but they impassioned my interest in science. This interest led to me enrolling in electrical engineering and my career in neurosciences and manufacturing.

As a result of safety considerations, it is no longer possible to buy the chemicals that will enable these kinds of experiments at home. If you can find a  chemistry set to purchase, you can be sure that there will not be a single  exciting experiment in the package.

Students today are living in a Renaissance era, in which they are encouraged to follow their interests in music, multimedia, IT, drama, business and many other fields of endeavour. Why should they study science? Science is complex; it no longer delivers simple  answers.

How can we challenge the next generation, those who will be the foundation that will underpin Australia’s long-term ability to capitalise on its current economic prosperity?

I am involved in a project at the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering to address this problem.

We concluded that two things are necessary. First, a hook to grab the students’ interest. The hook must be a topic that the majority of them will find to be highly relevant. The second is to develop a curriculum-level initiative, that ultimately can reach all secondary school students in Australia.

Following these imperatives, we have initiated a novel program known as STELR.

The first challenge for the STELR program is the issue of relevance—the hook. Surveys have shown that the science topic that young people are most concerned about is climate change.

An important means for lessening climate change is to use renewable energy instead of carbon-dioxide-emitting, fossil-fuel energy.

In the STELR program, practical classes based on wind turbines and solar panels to create electricity, and the conversion of vegetable oils and sugars into biodiesel and bioethanol, are stimulating students’ interest in physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics.

STELR proof-of-concept programs are running at the moment in four Victorian schools for year 10 and it is planned, if successful, to broaden the reach into as many schools as possible in all states. Early indications are that the students and teachers are excited by the renewable-energy context.

At the same time, the Australian Academy of Science is trialling a different program, called Science by Doing.

It is too soon to know, but I am hopeful that one or both of these projects will make a difference.

3 TODAY

But enough with concern about our educational foundations.

Today is an opportunity to focus on the manifest successes of research in Australia, and not just in the sciences. Australian research is successful across a broad spectrum of disciplines.

I am looking forward to hearing the best researchers in the country share the exciting promise of their research.

In particular, many of today’s presentations will inform us about existing or future commercialization opportunities.

4 COMMERCIALIZATION

I thought about the numerous examples of Australian research underpinning commercial success. Should I mention Alan Trounson & Carl Wood’s successful commercialization  of IVF through Monash IVF?

Should I mention Graeme Clarke’s successful commercialization of Cochlear implants? Professor Clarke will speak today so this topic will be well covered.

Graeme Jameson will talk today and I expect he will mention the successful commercialization of the Jameson Cell that contributes to billions of dollars worth of coal exports.

There  are many other commercialization success stories for Australian research, including the Autostrad system developed by Hugh Durrant-Whyte. All of these are terrific stories, but the one I know best is the company I founded, Axon Instruments.

I left a postdoctoral research fellowship at the ANU to start Axon. Axon was profitable for 20 out of 21 years until it was sold to a US company in 2004.

What made Axon successful? Does its success share anything in common with the others that I mentioned or will be described today?

The first ingredient was that Axon was founded with a product in mind, not just a technology. This is generally true of the other commercialization success stories.

The second ingredient was an enthusiastic researcher—me in this case—to sell  the vision. This is also true of the other success stories.

The third ingredient was that Axon’s products were internationally relevant. This, too, applies to the other success stories.

The fourth ingredient was that we collaborated with scientists at several universities. Their needs drove our vision and their expertise inspired our  innovation. Collaboration with industry also features strongly in the other commercialization success stories.

Finally, a little recognized ingredient for Axon’s success is that its commencement was not impeded by a university.

During my career I have seen several good ideas stifled by excessive university bureaucracy. This is not a problem that is unique to Universities. I have also seen good ideas stifled in deals between companies, usually as a result of the excessive determination by lawyers to write one-sided agreements.

The moral of this last point? Universities and research institutes should a) be generous, and b) facilitate. In the last twenty years, understanding of these imperatives  has improved substantially. I think that most universities and research institutes  today are committed to facilitating commercialization by their researchers rather  than setting hurdles, but it never hurts to repeat the warning.

5 THE BOOK

(You have all received a copy of the book Outcomes: Results of Research in the  Real World.Outcomes is being officially launched at this forum. It is the excellent result of a partnership between the ARC and Palamedia Limited.

Looking through the projects in Outcomes, it is obvious that all of them have public-good potential, and many of them have commercial potential.

Outcomes is wonderfully easy to read. It captures the essence of the vision of the ARC—to fund research that will underpin Australia’s global competitiveness and deliver benefits to the community.

I’ve enjoyed reading Outcomes and I very much look forward to hearing today’s presentations.

I am more used to attending conferences that are focussed on a particular topic or a specific mission. The broad range of topics at today’s forum is a fresh approach that I sense in advance will be inspirational.

Please join me in thanking the management of the ARC for their vision planning today’s inaugural forum.

I certainly hope that today’s forum is the harbinger of a regular event.

Please also join me in thanking the ARC and the management of Palamedia Limited for creating the Outcomes book to capture clearly the essence of the broad  range of research supported by the ARC.

Enjoy today’s forum.

Thank you.