Science project

Tuesday, 01 February 2022


    A year into her tenure, Australia's chief scientist has issued a challenge for scientists and boardrooms to counter the rise of misinformation, to collaborate more and become more conversant with deep technology.

    In a world of self-styled sceptics, armchair pundits and conspiracy theorists, one might imagine that our most pre-eminent scientist might be bemoaning the proliferation of poor science and fake news that has so clearly confused the world.

    And yet, Australia’s Chief Scientist Cathy Foley AO PSM remains sanguine. Ignorance can be solved, she believes — if society makes scientific research as accessible as fake news, it can stop confusion in its tracks. “The problem, of course, has been that you can get fake news for free, but the best science literature is so often behind a paywall,” says Foley. “It’s nobody’s fault, it just happened that way. If you want properly researched facts, you still have to pay a lot for it.”

    Foley’s solution is a new social compact for scientific news dissemination. “Why can’t we find a centralised way of engaging with publishers of research literature and making it fully available to all Australians?”

    She is exploring whether the funding allocated to publishing in journals could be centralised, allowing all Australians to access research that is currently behind paywalls. Foley is in the early stages of this work, which forms one of four foundational goals she wants to achieve during her five-year term. This would help to ensure that proven, validated science is easy to find, digestible to the average Australian and simple to access. It would mean a profound change to scientific publishing culture, but Foley believes enough people will want to read the facts to make the proposal viable.

    Foley joined a distinguished line of national science leaders, succeeding Dr Alan Finkel AO in January 2021. The highly regarded physicist is best known for work on semiconductors and superconducting sensors, which can detect and map underground deposits of silver, gold and nickel. Much of her work has been about the commercialisation of science. As CSIRO Chief Scientist, she was also active in setting up an innovation hub with the NSW government for “deep- tech” startups located within CSIRO labs to support their acceleration.

    Foley, who chairs the Forum of Chief Scientists — from the states and territories — has riding instructions to “drive collaboration between industry and the science and research community” to support the COVID-19 recovery and put science at the heart of policy.

    Quantum technology

    Boards have an extremely important role in all this, Foley says. She’s calling on directors to look ahead at what is happening in science and to make sure their companies are as technologically conversant as possible.

    Foley cites the growth of hydrogen hubs, which are moving at speed to support real-world adoption. And if there is one idea she wants to plant more firmly into the corporate psyche, it is the growing use of quantum technologies, so-called “deep tech”. She believes quantum technology should already be firmly on the agenda for directors and boards. It is being harnessed by some organisations to improve computational speed and logistics, but its potential has not yet been fully grasped even by its strongest tech advocates.

    Scientists are talking of the “second quantum revolution” as one that will affect communications, sensors and computers. Before we know it, there will be not just quantum computing, but quantum sensors, cryptography, secure communication and imaging. Quantum computers will be capable of solving problems of process optimisation and simulation that any conventional computer — current or future — would take millennia to achieve.

    We are in the middle of a worldwide quantum “race” to transcend conventional computer capacity and build scalable quantum computers. Australia has done leading work in this area, establishing a Centre of Excellence for Quantum Computation and Communication Technology. A 2020 CSIRO report found quantum computing in Australia has the potential to create 10,000 jobs and $2.5b in annual revenue by 2040, while also spurring breakthroughs in drug development, industrial processes and machine learning.

    Foley notes that quantum technology has attracted billions in global funding and fierce corporate and government competition. There are a few entities dipping their toes into the deep- tech sphere, although quantum computers are available on the cloud (through IBM and Google). Airbus Ventures has invested in using quantum computing to reinvent aircraft design, while in Australia, the NSW government has been looking at using quantum computations to optimise its train system. Deutsche Bank is using it to improve investment outcomes and several companies, such as baker Tip Top, have even tested its effectiveness on logistics.

    Tip Top makes millions of loaves of bread, delivered to thousands of people every day. They used a quantum algorithm to improve their delivery design. “It reduced their costs by about 14 per cent and increased profits by seven per cent, and as a result, it has also had an effect on reducing emissions,” says Foley. “In 20 years’ time, quantum computations will be akin to the way we use mobile phones — there will be aspects of quantum in everything.”

    In November, Foley was appointed to head the National Committee on Quantum, a group of stakeholders and experts charged with developing the National Quantum Strategy and quantum technologies prospectus. Even more optimistic than the 2020 CSIRO report, the Prime Minister’s office estimates that the development, commercialisation and adoption of quantum technologies can deliver Australia $4b in economic value and create 16,000 new jobs by 2040.

    Deep tech and directors

    Game-changing tech extends beyond quantum computing, and Foley wonders what questions boards are asking of themselves and their representatives relating to deep tech. “I’d ask those who evaluate board performance whether their assessment processes recognise science and technology as part of the board’s overall thinking,” she says. “Have they got those skillsets there? Are they able to demonstrate that? Are they looking into the future of how tech and science can make their businesses better?”

    Startup companies, predictably, are at the cutting edge of higher technologies and she wonders whether technology is even discussed at the board level of many bigger institutions. Are boards being assessed for their tech and science knowledge? Are technology people included in the makeup of boards?

    “It’s not just turning up to a meeting and dealing with a profit-and-loss sheet,” she says. “Is anyone on the board actually talking about the need to engage with the research sector? Because the research sector is very hungry to engage with boards.”

    There needs to be someone on boards looking properly at innovation, actively inquiring about the government’s investment in science and tech and reaching out to find out what is there. “Maybe it’s about inviting people into their board meetings, people from publicly funded agencies — the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, Geoscience Australia — and asking them directly: what can they do? Why should boards not interrogate what’s happening in the university sector? There’s a lot there for the taking.”

    Pathways and priorities

    In her March 2021 National Press Club speech, Foley outlined four foundational priorities to her role as chief scientist that are critical to its success. These are: open access to information, building digital capability, access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, maths) education for all and diversity in the research community. Yet what seems most important to her are the “pathways” — the willingness of industry, government and the research community to open up the interaction and limit the siloed environment.

    When all the elements work together, the results can be amazing, says Foley. The obvious example is Australia’s combined social, commercial and scientific response to COVID-19, which required cohesion from all pillars of society.

    You could view the pandemic as a global experiment, she says, with each country conducting its own version. This resulted in different recommendations and in the end returned vastly different results. The Australian version of the experiment was clearly effective. “Australia did very well simply by following really good advice from the relevant experts,” says Foley. “Other countries have not fared as well.” The response to COVID-19 has proved the validity of doing science in real time.

    In the debate on zero emissions targets, Foley thinks it’s more important to focus on how than when. “Nobody in the world knows how we can get to zero emissions in the first place,” she says. “It’s not like we follow the rules and bingo, we have zero emissions. There is still so much work to be done. As the Chief Scientist, I can see, as the government stated, that there is still a 15 per cent gap in the technology to get to zero emissions – and that’s the challenge I’m taking to the research community.”

    Women and science

    Foley is now in a unique position not just to advocate the cause of science, but also the cause of science and equality. The latest STEM Equity Monitor shows more than a third of men in tertiary education are studying STEM qualifications, but for women, the figure is only nine per cent. As Foley sees it, society is the loser by not having a full representation in our responses to problems.

    Women have children, go through menopause and often do more than a day’s more work in the house each week than their male partners, she says. They have less time and more social expectations to be the primary child carer and social secretary. The physical sciences are among the most competitive research areas, and women haven’t been able to navigate these challenges while also putting time into their work.

    “We need to change the system through putting in place different metrics that recognise quality research rather than numbers of papers,” says Foley. “We need longer employment contracts to allow researchers to develop stable careers. We need a greater awareness of the career opportunities outside of academia for those who study science, maths and other technology-related core subjects. This will all contribute to changing the dynamic.”

    Where the climate is concerned, she is a strong advocate for hydrogen energy, but also realises building up the scale for this kind of clean energy source will take time, perhaps the same amount of time that it will take to deconstruct our dependence on fossil fuels. And yet she is amazed at how quickly clean tech is coming on.

    Catalysing times

    Foley believes we have come a long way since 1984, when — defending drastic budget cuts — Science Minister Barry Jones pointedly said it was because scientists hadn’t lobbied hard enough, accusing academics of being “the wimpiest collection of lobbyists you can imagine”.

    The world has changed and technology is at the fore, addressing all kinds of issues, including global pandemics and the resultant communications needs. Scientists and researchers have developed the know-how to communicate, they understand how to lobby governments and, conversely, more businesses are finding the portals to science thinking and innovation ever more accessible.

    Foley remarks that in 2020, around 250 startups came directly out of Australian universities — and that occurred in the midst of a pandemic. In the past, academics would not have left their paid jobs, but now they are seriously contemplating life outside their ivory towers.

    This is the future our chief scientist wants to see. Businesses taking forward-thinking risks on newfangled technologies while academics and researchers take risks in the commercial world, each enjoying a slice of the other’s action.

    “Research is our superpower,” says Foley. “We need to build an ecosystem where knowledge moves back and forth across these long-established boundaries. That is how we will make progress.”

    By Adam Courtenay

    Photography by Jessica Hromas

    Australia’s chief scientists

    Alan Finkel AO (2016–20)

    Neuroscientist, inventor, researcher, entrepreneur, educator, policy adviser, philanthropist

    Ian Chubb AC (2011–15)

    Neuroscientist, academic — vice-chancellor Australian National University, Flinders University South Australia, senior deputy vice-chancellor Monash University

    Penny Sackett (2008–11)

    American-born astronomer, former director of the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Australian National University

    Jim Peacock AC (2006–08)

    Molecular biologist, president Australian Academy of Science, chief of CSIRO Plant Industry

    Robin Batterham AO FAICD (1999-2005)

    Chemical engineer

    John Stocker AO (1996–99)

    Immunologist, CEO/chair CSIRO

    Michael Pitman OBE (1992–96)

    English-born biologist, Sydney University academic

    Ralph Slatyer AC (1989–92)

    Ecologist, director Research School of Biology

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