Chief Scientist on her brief from government: “this is a fabulous thing”

Dr Foley explained why in a speech yesterday

Chief Scientist Cathy Foley says her brief from the prime minister is to drive collaboration between industry and science/research communities. And Industry Minister Karen Andrews wants her to place science, “at the heart of policy development.”

This Dr Foley says, “is a fabulous thing. Science is critical to solving humankind’s greatest challenges.”

How to apply it was the policy heart of her address to the National Press Club yesterday.

She set the stage with a personal story of her PhD research on a semiconductor material she discovered could create white light.

“I knew my research was a potential game changer.  But back then, commercialisation was not the mindset. The job of a scientist was to publish a paper. This was the end point. And there was no concept of passing the baton to someone else. So I published the findings, got my PhD and moved on.”

Then a Japanese team picked up the research and won a Nobel Prize for creating an LED.

“With the benefit of hindsight, you might describe that as a brutal lesson in lost opportunities!  Not only for me, but for Australia.  But it has been a valuable lesson,” she said.

This is smart politics, acknowledging two of Dr Foley’s core constituencies. She points the importance of basic research as the foundation of applying science.

And she appeals to the people who pay for it, immediately ministers but ultimately electors.

“From where I stand, a few things are clear.  There is no shortage of excellent research in Australia.  Our discovery research must continue.  But let us be frank, our research is not being translated into new products and innovations nearly as often as it could be. As a result, Australian ideas and industries are being lost offshore.”

Dr Foley also explained the core ideas she starts with and how she means to go on.

“Science is where we start.  But science cannot do it alone.  We need to engineer the solutions, with the right design and user interface. We need the right business model, supporting policy and regulation, and the social licence to ensure that a given technology is what society is willing to support.  Discovery happens in small teams. But innovation and impact needs bigger teams. We need to coalesce around common goals and concentrate our efforts to get that critical mass. “

And the Chief Scientist set herself a heroic challenge. She described her experiences at CSIRO in, “knitting together different components of the research and commercialisation system” and added;

“As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I’m now in a position to do something similar on a national scale.  This is the task of building connections and collaboration to advance the adoption of Australian science, technology and innovation.  To take our science to impact.”

Dr Foley also set out the “four critical foundation issues” she will champion

* AI and quantum computing

* education. “If Australia is to avoid locking in a two-speed society, we need people with the expertise to design, develop and operate future technologies”

* diversity, “It should not need saying that we are more likely to succeed if we use our full human potential … including the knowledge base of Indigenous Australians.”

* open access. “Access to information is the great enabler for innovation and for research commercialisation.  Lack of access to information is a real roadblock, and hinders our ability to compete internationally.”

Dr Foley added, she is “closely considering” an “OA strategy in Australia.”