Australian Science: Our Future

by Bryan Gaensler

The following is a transcript of the Telstra address, which I gave to on 17 November 1999 at the National Press Club, Canberra, Australia.

This speech is ©1999 Bryan Gaensler, and may only be reproduced or distributed for private use unless my explicit permission is given otherwise.

When I meet someone and tell them that I'm a scientist, I usually get the same series of reactions. The first comment is something like,"How exotic! I didn't know we had any scientists in Australia." And the question that quickly follows is usually, "So this science stuff, what do we actually get from it?".

These two comments, innocently made by so many people when they meet a scientist, are indicative of Australia's attitude towards science. People don't know what we do, and why we do it. And, taking off my scientist-hat for a moment, I guess these are valid questions. How does dissecting a frog, digging up dinosaur bones or making a picture of some distant galaxy, affect our lives in any tangible way? In Australia, many scientists work for universities or for the government, so ultimately their funding, both their salaries and the money for their experiments, comes from taxes. If scientists are going to be doing all these experiments and developing all these theories, there has to be a good reason why Australia's money is supporting it.

So to answer the second question first, "What do we get from science?", the most obvious way in which science matters is through our standard of living. As Australians, we've got it pretty damn good. Technologically, we're one of the most advanced countries in the world. Despite living on a continent which is mostly desert, we have an abundance of food on our tables, almost all of it home-grown. And we have standards of health care, sanitation and life expectancy all far superior to those in most other countries. I have to say, you don't appreciate just how good we've got it until you spend some time away from home.

And a large part of why we've got it so good is because of all our scientists, working in fields like computing, medicine and agriculture, making discoveries and developing ideas which are constantly changing our lives for the better. When people think of what science and technology give us, they usually think some magic gadget, a mobile phone that can receive faxes perhaps. But I don't think people realise what comes out of science. Absolutely everything - the material in your clothes, the the laser-scanner at the supermarket check-out, the plastic in your credit card, your watch, your contact lenses, your car, your computer and your microwave oven all come from scientific developments.

And that's just the technology side of things; it's hard to sum up in a few words what modern medicine has done for us. In 1915 (which is not that long ago), life expectancy in Australia was only around 50 years. Now it's more like 80 years, all thanks to advances in medicine. The point can be simply made by borrowing from Carl Sagan and asking all of you: who of you would be alive today if not for antibiotics, vaccination, heart surgery, and everything else that modern medicine has given us? Not me!

So science is not just some peripheral field for which we should provide token support just to keep the boffins happy. Science is the foundation of modern society.

A lot of people see science as something in the past. The discoveries of electricity and penicillin are just episodes we learn about in our history books, alongside the First Fleet and the Gold Rush. But just as history is a continuous thread from the past and into the future, scientific advance is also a living, evolving thing. Some of the ideas being tested in labs today are all one day going to become as much part of our lives as turning on a light switch.

There's of course genetic engineering, through which we will be able to modify our plants, animals and even ourselves to particular specifications. Scientists all over the world continue to work on artificial intelligence, in the expectation that we might one day be served by machines that can think for themselves and leave us less work to do. And there's nuclear fusion, through which we hope to be able to control the process which makes the sun shine, and thus generate almost limitless cheap and clean energy.

I guess you might have heard about some of these ideas. But were you aware of quantum computing, through which hundreds of imaginary copies of a computer can do calculations much faster than a single computer could ever handle? Or teleportation, where an object can be made to suddenly vanish, only to instantly reappear somewhere else? (Scientists have so far succeeded in teleporting only a single atom - we're a long way from getting to ask Scotty to beam us up - but the technique itself works fine.) Obviously there's going to be much debate about whether these new developments are good things or not - it's up to all of us as to how these discoveries are used. But one thing is for certain - one day they are going to become as much a part of our lives as computers and CD players are now. The seeds of tomorrow are being planted by the work that scientists are doing today.

OK, so Medicine and Technology are Important Things, and we should keep working on them. But what about all the other aspects of science - all those chemists and astronomers and geologists and mathematicians working on strange topics like prime numbers or exploding stars? Well if there's one thing that science has taught us, it's serendipity - great steps forward come when and where you least expect them. The examples, both from history and from recent times, are countless. Imagine the reaction at the time to Benjamin Franklin, running around in thunderstorms, hoping lightning would hit his kite! But partly thanks to Ben's crazy experiments, the energy in lightning bolts now runs every aspect of our lives. Then there's a French scientist named Becquerel, who left some photographic film overnight in a draw, sitting next to some uranium salts. He came in the next morning to find white streaks all over the film, caused by something which would one day be called "radioactivity", now used for everything from smoke-alarms to chemotherapy. In the last few decades, prime numbers have been used to create uncrackable codes, strange soccer-shaped molecules called "Buckyballs" look like they might help cure some types of cancer, a pretty mathematical idea called chaos theory is starting to help us predict things like earthquakes and the weather, and a computer filing system designed to let physicists in Switzerland quickly share information has grown into something we now call the World Wide Web. Hopefully I've made my point - the next great discovery could come from anything, so you simply have to make sure you study everything! We just can't afford not to cover all of our bases.

Just as important as the fact that science is useful is that it is also interesting, beautiful and inspiring! If you ask most scientists why they spent all those years at university, and why they work so hard now, it's not because of the hope of becoming famous, or of winning the Nobel prize, but because what they do is truly fascinating. My interest in astronomy began as a young boy, when I was simply breath-taken by how beautiful the sky is at night. I now get to use some of the world's biggest telescopes to study that beauty in incredible detail, trying to understand what's out there, and how it will one day all end. Hopefully it's not hard for you to see what motivates me to get out of bed in the morning! We scientists find the same aesthetic and undefinable pleasure that's locked within Monet's lilies, Shakespeare's sonnets or Pachabel's Canon buried within the molecules, mathematical patterns and galaxies that we work on. If we aspire to value diversity and beauty in all its forms, then surely there is nothing so diverse and so beautiful as the Universe around us.

So coming back to that innocent second question, "What do we actually get from this science stuff?", the answer is that science is the difference between me sitting in a cave, hunting woolly mammoths and wondering what those lights are in the night sky, and me writing this speech on my laptop while flying over here from Boston the other week, having spent the last year at MIT using billion dollar satellites to study objects millions of light years away. That's what we get from science!

So now that other comment, the one that makes me cringe, "I didn't know Australia had any scientists." And I'm ashamed to admit that I once thought this too. There's no simple reason why we don't know about our scientists. It's partly that a standard scientific education concentrates on things that happened in the 18th century and earlier, it's partly the media's focus on sport and entertainment, and perhaps partly our own cultural cringe, that we'd rather hear about some great NASA discovery than something done by our own scientists. But Australia has a proud history and tradition in science, and a plethora of science heroes to match Steve Waugh or Cathy Freeman.

Let's go back to arguably Australia's very first scientist, an astronomer actually, a gentleman by the name of James Cook. This Cook fellow sailed to Tahiti in 1769 to observe a transit of Venus, a rare astronomical event which was used to determine the distance to the Sun. On his way home afterwards he made a few side trips, including to a place which he named Botany Bay. Modern Australia owes its existence to a planetary alignment, and to a keen scientist who wanted to observe it!

In the 20th century, no less than seven Australian researchers have won Nobel Prizes in one of physics, chemistry or medicine, starting in 1915 with William and Lawrence Bragg for probing the structure of crystals, through to Howard Florey who isolated pennicillin, and on to our most recent laureate and 1997 Australian of the Year, Peter Doherty, for his work on the immune system. Then there are our other modern heroes - people like Graeme Clark, who developed the bionic ear, or Andy Thomas, our most recent NASA and MIR astronaut. And then there are the thousands of unsung heroes, our scientists and our students, often working long hours in remote locations or with limited resources, sinking years of their time into pushing back the barriers of our ignorance bit by bit. So Australia just doesn't have scientists, and it has a lot of scientists, and they're very good at what they do. One thing that continues to astound me is our scientific diversity. There is just an unbelievable number of topics being worked on in this country - a quick glance at various universities' web pages shows departments specialising in, for example. marine science, wool technology, mining and petroleum research, Antarctic studies, pharmaceutical research and satellite systems... the list is a lengthy one. We have a number of niches in Australia - our oceans, our livestock, our fabulous Southern stars - and we are clearly taking advantage of these natural resources in the directions for our research.

Our current successes on the scientific stage can be considered a great source of national pride. It ensures that our society remains prosperous and that our high standard of living is maintained, and has resulted in Australian research around the world being synonymous with excellence. To what do we owe this success? To the seeds sown over the last few decades. Opportunities like free university education (sadly no longer available!) and innovations like the Special Research Centres funded by the Australian Research Council have paid dividends, having produced a stable of Australian and Australian-based researchers with superb breath and depth of understanding in their fields.

We can rightly be satisfied that our past investments have borne fruit. However, our current attitude towards science and how it is supported should give us cause for concern, and casts doubt on whether our history of scientific and technological achievement can be sustained.

Let's start with our universities - I can't overstate what a crucial part universities play in our total research output. Obviously a large fraction of Australian science comes out of the university system, particularly in areas of basic, pure research. But let's not forget that even in the private sector, every single researcher now working for some company still had to have gone to university at some stage. So universities are the absolute foundation upon which all scientific output is based.

Now the Federal Government regularly points out that government funding for research is, as a fraction of our GDP, one of the highest levels in the industrialised world. In total dollars this might be true. But in the specific area of tertiary education, the government has, in recent yeaers, made significant reductions to funding. When the Coalition came into power, it set out to cover what it perceived to be the huge over-expenditures by the previous government. For the universities, this meant annual cuts of 1, 3, 1 and 1 per cent in the last four years. While this isn't good, it doesn't sound too bad. But what's also happened is that the goverment no longer funds salary increases negotiated through enterprise bargaining, resulting in an effective reduction of a whopping 20% into the money going into the university system. It's almost as if the Government has announced a "Going Out of Business" sale, and the results have left our higher institutions in crisis - typical across the country are forced redundancies, major staff reductions across the board, increased class sizes, and the merging and, even closing, of various research departments. Enthusiastic and talented students are starting to look elsewhere, because there are no stipends or scholarships available to support them through their postgraduate studies. And an increasing fraction of those who do get the necessary qualifications to pursue a research career are subsequently getting out of the game, in search of a more lucrative and satisfying career path than the frustration of being one of hundreds competing for the few research positions on offer. If you compare the top Australian universities to the top institutions in the US, it seems that we're getting about a quarter of the funding they enjoy. Clearly this makes it hard to be internationally competitive, both through our capability to attract the best people, and through the funds that are available to support world-class research. It has been said that to move a country from the Third World into the First, one of the most important things to establish is a good education system. Likewise, it seems to me that the quickest route away from the First World is to tear down that education infrastructure, and some of the decisions made by the Federal Government seem to suggest it is intent on doing exactly that.

While government cut-backs to universities have directly affected basic research, this is not the only way in which the scientific community is suffering. One way of encouraging businesses to put their money and resources into research and development is through tax concessions. Previously, this figure stood at 150% - that is, if a company spent a million dollars on research, it would be entitled to a 1.5 million dollar deduction off its taxable income. But the current government has reduced this down to 125% - that's suddenly an extra $250 000 of your million research dollars, gone on tax. Obviously, it's now somewhat less attractive for Australian companies to sink their resources into such efforts. Some of our biggest companies, including BHP and Telstra, have made enormous cuts to their R&D efforts in the last couple of years. Meanwhile, CSIRO divisions have been forced to maintain constant budgets despite steadily increasing operation costs, and the Australian Research Council, the source of almost all grants for scientific research, can only offer sufficient funds that one in ten grants will have any chance of success.

One affect all this is having on our Australian scientists is the dreaded "brain-drain" - young researchers are taking their knowledge and ideas elsewhere, frustrated by the lack of opportunity at home. And this is something I am in the process of facing too.

It is healthy, and encouraged, that young Australian scientists spend a few years getting some overseas experience - a path I've taken with my three-year position with MIT and NASA. Like many Australians in my position, I've every intention of returning home in a few years to put my bit back into the system which taught me eveything I know. But at universities in the United States and Europe, there are more jobs on offer and the salaries are considerably higher. And there's no pressures to keep doing more with less. Thus the temptation to take a permanent job abroad can often be too great. As for getting top-quality scientists from elsewhere, in the ten years up to 1995, an incredible 31 000 scientific researchers migrated to Australia - a "brain gain", perhaps. But if our universities remain in crisis, then the people we need working in Australia if we want to be taken seriously as a research powerhouse are going to see little incentive to relocate to a country where things are so tight.

So the danger signs are everywhere - we run a very real risk of falling back from that cutting edge which we've worked so hard to get to. It's not too late to stop the rot though - some decisive action could ensure that Australia moves into the next century as a technological leader. The thing which really has to change is policy - in recent times, Australian governments, both Labor and Coalition, have not set particularly high priorities on science, education or research. In Europe, the USA and Japan, it's taken as given that research spending brings long-term prosperity and success, and it is disturbing that Australia does not seem to share this realisation. I would go so far as to argue that Science surely needs its own ministry, rather than being the very little sibling of Industry and Resources as it stands now.

The other change in attitude that is needed is that we have to start thinking big. The days are numbered when small ventures, limited to a single university or institution, are going to accomplish ground-breaking results. The funding structure needs to encourage large collaborative national, or even international, efforts,

For me, the obvious example is in my own field of astronomy. Around four years ago, the European Southern Observatory, or ESO for short, offered Australia membership of its organisation. This was an incredibly exciting opportunity - ESO is a group of eight European countries who own and run some of the largest telescopes in the world, and are at the moment finishing the construction of an absolutely enormous instrument in Chile, the VLT (which of course stands for the Very Large Telescope - what else?). Joining ESO would have guaranteed Australia an absolutely plum position in astronomical research over the next few decades, generating not just exciting scientific results but creating jobs for hundreds of researchers, and projects for as many students. The entire Australian science community, not just astronomers, but everybody, ranked this their top preference in terms of what major project Australia should invest in over the next few years. However, the Labor government of the time decided that it was not in Australia's interests to invest in a project which was not on Australian soil, and let the opportunity pass them by.

ESO will always be the one that got away. But while ESO and its Very Large Telescope is now, us astronomers are always thinking ahead. The long term future of astronomy, at least in my lifetime, is surely in the proposed Square Kilometre Array, or SKA for short, a telescope to be built in around 2015 which will be around 100 times more powerful than anything we have today. The SKA is going to answer most of the outstanding questions in astronomy today, and will undoubtedly raise even more. With the SKA, we will be able to look out in space and back in time right back to the beginning of the Universe, and see the birth of the first stars and galaxies. We'll be able to study the clusters and clouds of gas in our own galaxy in minute detail, and be able to search for planets around other suns. A few months back I went to a conference in Amsterdam which focused solely on the possibilities the SKA offers, and they are just astonishing. It's worth noting that there was a large and enthusiastic Australian presence at this meeting - we're as excited as anybody else about what this telescope could do.

But building this incredibly sophisticated instrument is going to take research efforts and funding from many countries - astronomers from Australia, the US, Canada, China, India and the Netherlands are all keen to be involved and have already started working on preliminary designs. Australia in particular, is extremely well-placed. We have a long history of excellence in astronomy, and have the expertise to be a key player in designing and building the SKA. What's more, one thing that everyone agrees on is that the SKA is going to have to be built somewhere which is dry, flat and has clear skies. Sounds awfully like Australia, doesn't it? In fact, already a site in Western Australia is being taken very seriously as a possible location.

We just can't afford to miss this boat. The SKA will go ahead, with or without us. The countries who put time into it now will reap the benefits for decades in the form of scientific advances, technological spin-offs, educational opportunities and prestige, while those who stand back and watch will be shut out of the game. It would be an absolute tragedy if that ends up being us.

Australia doesn't just need to change how it approaches science, but how it looks towards its scientists as well. Our culture abounds with role-models and icons from sport and from the performing arts. But as I said at the start, most people don't realise that we have scientists. How many great Australian scientists can your average person name? Clearly we need to raise the profile of Australian researchers and the work that they are doing.

I am not suggesting that scientists should be making millions of dollars or have regular guest spots on "Hey Hey It's Saturday", but they really deserve better recognition and appreciation than they're currently getting. Particularly in the media, I am continually frustrated by stories which excitedly report on some American or European scientific discovery, when surely there is a story with an Australian angle which would be equally appealing.

A couple of years ago, one of our main newspapers had a front page story concerning a picture some American scientists had taken, using the Hubble Space Telescope, of two galaxies in the process of colliding. Spectacular photo, great story. But an Australian PhD student and his supervisor had been working on the same pair of galaxies for a couple of years, and yet the story failed to even mention their work, let alone make the Australian contribution the feature of the story. This is just not good enough. When I was growing up in Sydney, I didn't even know that Australia had astronomers at all, because every space and astronomy story I ever saw focused on what was being done overseas.

Ideally, our country would have some easily identifiable spokespeople for science, so that when an issue came up that required comment or insight regarding say, global warming, carcinogens, or the internet, a particular eminent researcher could turn up on the TV or radio and speak plainly to the Australian public. That way we wouldn't just have this vague perception that Australia has perhaps a few scientists, hidden away in various buildings and working on who-knows-what. We'd have familiar faces, we'd have recognisable scientists, and people would actually know what research we do in this country. This would take time and effort from both the media and our scientific community, but if it means that Australia can put some faces to its science, it will reap dividends in the long run.

I want to finish off by reflecting on my own personal experiences of science. In the last twenty years, I've gone from a little boy who loved the stars but thought there were no scientists in Australia, to a fully-qualified astronomer, completely educated here at home, and hopeful of getting a long-term job here once I've spent a few years overseas learning a few different things. One thing hasn't changed though, and that's my basic love of science - of the sense of discovery and excitement I get from simply trying to understand the world around me. The reasons I love science are many - the thrill you get at the moment you discover something, the sense of accomplishment of contributing something completely new and original to the world, the aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of nature, the chance to play with some really high tech gadgets, and the opportunities to travel and meet people all over the world. I wake up every morning, thrilled to be doing what I'm doing.

And so one of my goals, and one I have had a great oppportunity to work towards as Young Australian of the Year, is to pass on some of that thrill to other people. In particular, we've got to sell science to the younger generation, because the kids of today will be our politicians, business leaders and journalists of tomorrow. Convince them now that science is a good thing, and our society will naturally move in the right direction in the decades to come. And really, it's so easy to get kids into science! Every kid is born a scientist - they all want to know how far, how big, how hot, how fast, how many, and how quickly would their sister be vaporised if she hit a black hole at the speed of light. And they usually want to know to three decimal places. It's only later that all this curiosity gets bled out of them.

So if we scientists can convince the politicians and the journalists and the general public that science is beautiful, wonderful and exciting, not to mention incredibly important, and if we can make you realise that our Australian scientists are actually bloody good at it, then we've all taken the first step in securing our future. With time and energy from our scientists, vision and direction from our leaders, support from the media, and above all enthusiasm from our kids and from the public at large, there's no reason why Australia can't play a part in all that the future holds.

Please feel free to email me with your comments.

This speech is ©1999 Bryan Gaensler, and may only be reproduced or distributed for private use unless my explicit permission is given otherwise.

Last updated: 23-Jun-2002
Bryan Gaensler