Innovation Month Summit – Science and Society: improving the conversation– Prof. Ian Chubb

– Thanks very much ladies and gentlemen. It’s good to be here to talk about something about which I know little. And there are those who would say nothing has changed. So let me begin by saying I think that Martin Wadsworth’s were wise words for us all. There are a number of
things there and I’ll touch on some of them as I go through this talk. But it is a very important thing that you’re doing because I think that one of the things that we have tended to lack in Australia and I, in an in-house thing like this, I can be reasonably critical, I think that we’ve not done a lot of the things that Martin
outlined routinely. We’ve become risk adverse, we’ve become tentative, we’ve become almost compliant and I would argue generally speaking and I’m sure there are some stellar examples of the opposite in this room but generally speaking, I don’t think that we’ve been great in translating good ideas when the time is right as Martin suggested but good ideas when the time is right into something that actually makes a difference to the lives of Australians or to Australia’s place in the world. And we have to bear in mind both of those things. We are charged with making life better for Australians. We are equally, I think, charged with the responsibility to
position Australia well in what anybody with half an ounce of observational powers would do to be not particularly friendly indeed, the fairly opposite a
fairly hostile world. So we have to make our way. We’re not entitled to anything. We’ve got to earn it and we’ve got to earn it by being good at what we do. It’s really that simple. And earning it and being good at what we do, means people like you and people like me, people like our colleagues and our friends who are not here today doing very well whatever it is that they have the
responsibility to do. So I hold the position of Chief Scientist as you know. All that means is that I haven’t done science since 1985. I haven’t done an experiment, as is you want you get (mumbles) more laboratories in the rest of your life then you ever want to see ever again. Because it is largely true, when you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. But anyway, you go around and you talk to people who are utterly committed to their task and their role. And it’s a pleasure to meet them and to deal with them and one of the privileges of my
life and in my various parts of my career has been that I’ve been able to deal with right up until the present day. Some of the smartest and most committed people that this country has to offer and I think that
we need, as Martin said, to support them to celebrate achievement and to not be afraid of making mistakes because often times as
a scientist you know, that when you make mistakes it’s when you learn most by trying to find out why something went differently from the way you had anticipated. Anyway, when I was thinking about what to say to you today and particularly when the topic is cross pollination, what would a scientist think? Even an old one who hasn’t picked up a test tube for 20 odd, 30 odd years. Well what this one thought about was the natural world. And the natural world because the natural world, the world around us, the world that we haven’t particularly intruded into or the world that we have learned from. We can learn how it organizes itself and it organizes itself
for strategic purposes. It organizes itself to evolve, to survive, to prosper because if it doesn’t do any of those things, it will die. Or the parts of it that don’t do those things will die. So when I bring that together with cross pollination what do I think about? I think about the honey bee. So this is going to be
a story most largely on the honey bee. So how, you might ask,
is the public service like a honey bee? Well tell me, you could advise me which of these facts apply. The honey bee lives in colonies of up to 60,000 workers. Around 98% of them are female with just a few drones,
all of whom are male. And they’re distinguished by the fact that they’ve got one thing but they don’t have a stinger. Each bee communicates with it’s neighbors using pheromones and symbolic dances. Experienced forager bees fly out to gather pollen and nectar delivering it to younger workers who stuff it into wax cones to be fermented into protein for the just hatched bees. The nectar is transformed through repeated regurgitation into what you eat. (crowd laughs) It just sounds like a public policy doesn’t it? (crowd laughs) But it turns it into honey
through regurgitation, repeated regurgitation, not just once. So the hive is maintained by sophisticated suite of designated tasks from mulch bees who carry out the dead ones, to water carriers to bring in water, to guards guarding the hive, to fanning bees that use evaporated cooling to regulate the temperature of the hive. And there are a lot more designated tasks for those bees because what they want to do is evolve, survive and prosper and they might not have the cognitive capacity to think in those terms but that is what they do. But of course there are no drones, no, there are no drones in the public sector, not here anyway and there are no dances from ending liquids or regurgitated projects in the public sector except those which you bring back
when the time is right. But there is, on the other hand, a need for large scale collaboration, effective communication, environmental awareness and planning for the future just like the bees do when we don’t get in their way. So if the bees have got it, do you? If not, how might you
develop those skills? Well I, from my position, would expect to offer you one piece of advise, you could study science. As a scientist, you would research widely, you’d know how to do that. You would think critically,
that’s instinctive. Scientist are bred to be critics. To critique everything and to take little at face value. But to weigh the evidence objectively and to respond accordingly. And you would learn how to, I’m sure this is not something
you don’t know all ready, but you would learn how to present your case with integrity
because it’s based on evidence, that’s based on data, that’s based on information, that’s based on thinking, that’s based on a robust exchange of ideas with your colleagues and out of that comes something that you can defend and you can defend it right up until the time that more evidence is developed and then, if it shifts your view, you change your view. And you find problems not just with the view to seeing them
and identifying them but to solving them. You probably would be surprised to know how many times in my life I get told what’s wrong with things. And how rarely I get told in my life what to do about correcting what’s wrong or what seemed to be wrong and we’ve got to look at it differently. We’ve got to see a problem as a solution. Get a solution to that problem, identify it and be willing to change it if you get it wrong. It is about taking that risk. It is about making a decision with the best available information. And it will often times be imperfect but it can still be good enough to make a decision and that’s what scientists do. So if you were, you would be using a frame of reference, a way of thinking which took humans into space, doubled the span of our lives and made computers a trillion times faster
in just over 50 years. And I’m a fan of a man called Carl Sagan. A brilliant, long dead now, American astrophysicist who wrote a book called The Pale Blue Dot. And it’s worth a read
if you haven’t seen it but in it, he describes
how the pale blue dot is the planet earth taken from a satellite that’s way beyond Neptune. So billions of kilometers away and there’s this little dot in the
vast blackness of space. And he talks about that very eloquently and much more than I can because to be that eloquent I have to read what he said. But what the point that he makes, or the point that we can make, is that the computer in your pocket that you call an iPhone or some sort of phone, Smartphone, has 100’s of 1,000’s of times the computing power that that satellite had to
be turned around over that vast distance and take a photograph of our planet, the only planet we’ve got. It’s our home. It’s where we live. We’re going to make the best of it. We’re going to cherish it and preserve it. It’s up to people like you and me to contribute to that. So I think that we certainly can’t deal with all the world’s many problems but I think that we’re beginning to grasp the uncontroversial truth about science in public policy. In almost every government strategy paper, federal estate, there will be a line or two about science and research maybe, possibly, with
some funding attached sometimes with a plus in front of it and sometimes with a minus. There might be a few footnotes that point to published papers and
the consultation list might have a researcher on it and that’s all good as far as it goes but how often do we get to the end of a funded program without the scientific
data to judge it’s impact? How many departments fund their staff to do a masters in economics and how many of you would get support if you wanted to go and
do a masters in science. How much do you know about what scientists are doing in university’s and how well do you think that what they’re doing over there matches what you’re doing or want to do over here? How often do we think
to ask these questions? So I don’t think we need more science in the public sector if that means more lines and more strategies but I do think we need more science. I think we need a new philosophy of what it means to do policy will. And that philosophy would begin with the premise that every issue that we consider important, our health, our economy, our environment, our contribution to the world will require science somewhere as we strive to get a solution for it or to the issue that we’re addressing? It can’t just be growth science in the lavatory or grand designs in the public sector. Tony Blair, a former Prime Minister of Britain as you would all know, gave a speech to the
royal society of London in 2002 and in that he said words to the effect of, science let’s us do more but it doesn’t tell us whether doing more is right or wrong. We’ve got to be in a position as a society to have the conversation to reach a good decision, an informed decision and act on it together. So it’s not just our obligation in the public sector to
understand the science but to enable others to understand it and to act on it as well. So that sets before us three great impurities that under pin our capacity to achieve anything of
lasting significance. We have to support our standing science our researchers can contribute to what the country wants to achieve. That in itself has got
to be set out properly. We have to build science capability right across the economy in agriculture and education, mining, small business, in every sphere that
science and technology are going to touch. And we have to be able to explain the science to the community and do it in a way that constantly reiterates the value of science itself. And that requires a different kink of public service or a service that understands it’s role differently. And as one example, I’ll go back to the old honey bee. From ancient times, human beings have moved hives from place to place. They did this to improve the capacity of the bees to generate honey or to vomit. Today the bees travel on trucks and they do so in massive numbers. Now they’re not moved just to make more honey, they’re moved to increase the productivity of agricultural land and we do it know because
we know the science and that science leads to policy. In the U.S., it is said that pollinators, chiefly the honey bee, are responsible for one in every three bites of food that people take. Three and four native plants across the world rely on pollinators
for their survival. But there’s a problem. Honey bees have been in serious decline in the U.S. and other parts of the world including this part for
the past three decades. – [Man] Partly due to our interventions, partly due to pesticides, partly due to a parasitic mite, partly due to environmental stresses including mono cropping that reduces the diversity of the bees diet. So the Americans take the issue so seriously, the President ordered the creation of a National Pollinator Health Task Force and signed off on a National strategy that all agencies are required to follow. Now we don’t see a problem of quite the same magnitude in Australia but we do face many risks including exotic pests, drought and loss of access to areas of native flora. And we also want to scale up agricultural production when we top off the benefits of free trade agreements on the assumption that we will. So a sensible policy would have to think about the ways that science will need to be deployed, how science will need to
lead to understandings that we presently don’t have. We might be able to identify the issue, the problem if you like, then we’ll need science. And as a department of health, I employ you to fund the people that are going to do something about this. And I’ll wait for the evidence to make sure that it’s good. We need science and we need science where we need it. Obviously we need new knowledge. Some of it going overseas but all of it understood in the context
of local conditions. So we need environmental scientist who understand bee habitats and the impact of the
environmental change. You could say the same to about human habitats and the impact of environmental change. When a geneticist determined which bees might be more resistant
to colony collapse, we need geneticists in the human sphere as well. We need mathematicians to help model the spread of pests. Bees probably called humans pests if they could speak. But we do need mathematicians to help model the spread of our population. We need engineers to build sensors and data systems so we can understand what bees are doing and what we’re doing to bees. In other words, we don’t just need a few bee researchers but we need a strong research system harnessing many types of skills for the bee research and we need it all to feed into policy. We need to understand the natural world and what it will take to survive because it’s survival will seriously impact our capacity to survive. So what are we going to do with the knowledge we obtain? We have to put it to people and all the relevant industries so that they can corporate it in practical ways. Farmers have to think about it when they plant crops and practices. Council planners have to think about it when they’re zoning. Custom officials have to think about it when setting up the screening programs to keep pests and diseases
out of the country. And food manufacturers have to think about what it means for when they source their food. All science all link
back to the honey bee. There would be many more people who need the benefit of science turning in all of those sectors even if they don’t work in research roles and that really means
getting the community informed so the community, all of those people, when they have to, can make an informed, a better informed decision then their
presently likely to do. So, they can do their jobs, the people that I’ve listed, if the rest of us have enough science to understand the problem as well. We decide if we comply with quarantine restrictions or not. We decide if we make our communicate welcoming places for bees or not . We decide if we want to be part of a citizens science project that make it possible to collect data on a massive scale or not. And good public policy would enable people to make good choices because they’re both science literate and they’re well informed. So, what all this adds up to as far as I’m concerned is that we have an enormous list of public policy concerns and we could go through the similar sort of exercise that
I’ve just referred to with respect to the honey bee for nearly every problem we face. The prerequisites for everything we’re trying to achieve are a strong science enterprise, a
science based economy and a science informed community. And I think that all public policy should enable these things and all public policy should harness them effectively. To that end, when they are looking to develop a national science policy, the government is, in principle at least, embraced some recommendations that I’d put up six or eight months ago. We’re not consulting on how to turn that into a national science policy, hall of government science policy. Part of our problem in this area is that if you look at where our (mumbles) for science is funded across the federal government, it’s in something like 14 portfolios
across multiple programs depending on how generous you are. It’s either 150 programs if you take them all in or something like 50 if you have a ten
million dollar threshold. So it’s broad. There’s no connection. There’s decisions taken over here that have an impact over here and it’s not necessarily taken into account when this decision is
taken over on that side. So we’ve go to get better at doing that and scientists have got to get better at communicating what it is that they need to do and how they go about their task and how they go about their task of learning
so that that can fit in to the policies that you and your colleagues will develop. Ultimately, and I say by way of closing, that science is a means. Public policy is a means and science working with the community is a means. They’re all means to an end and the end surely is an Australia that is much better than the Australia that was before we got together and did all
of that work together. So they do have to work together, much better than they ever have and they have to do that because the rest of the world is doing it. We can’t slip behind, you can get so far behind that you can’t actually catch up. When you look around
and see what’s happening in the rest of the world, you see from the European union through the United Kingdom,
Canada, the United States, all of the countries in our region are all taking this approach that says there are some big issues that confront our population, that
confront our community. There won’t be science working on it’s own that will find the solutions but it will be science working in
a context but it will be science as part of those solutions and we have to be strategic about how we support it, coherent in how we support it and pretty innovative in how we use it do develop ideas. As Martin said, to learn from mistakes, to take a few risks, to always have the policies in your drawer
that you will be able to use to pull out when the important moment arises and get the timing right. But if we can get it all together, then it will be truly a great outcome for all of us but there’s
a lot of work to do for us to be able to get it together and I’ll look forward to participating with all of you in that task. Thank you. (crowd applauds) – [Voiceover] Thank you Professor Allen Ryan from the Hargraves Institute. In your position you see lots and lots of science and activities going along across the whole of Australia. Can you just share with us something that you’ve seen recently that you say is the best thing that you’ve seen that we’re doing? Something that inspires us? – Well I have seen a lot. So my hesitation is not that I can’t think of any but I have seen a lot. I think some of the work that we’re doing on the Australian river
systems is fantastic. Of course it is stuff that we have to do for ourselves because it’s impossible to imagine that anybody else would do it for us. I think some of the work that we’re doing on studying the genetic composition of (mumbles) is really very high quality and very useful in interpreting how these things have evolved and developed over a period of time. I think that I’ve seen things like the Atlas of Living Australia which is a big citizen science program where if you’re out there and you see a black and white bird, you can take a photograph of it and send it in. You don’t have to be a scientist though, send it in, they’ll say don’t worry, it’s only a Magpie. Alternatively, they’ll say it’s something we’ve never seen before and then they can map the habitat and where it is and where in Australia it is. It’s a growing proposal and very good. There’s an equivalent
thing for marine science with people who turn over rocks on the seashores, see something and can either get in in to the data base because it’s new or they can be told what it is but it still fills in a dot on the map to show where the habitats of those things are. I think our Synchrotron is great. I think the government has been right to focus on some medical devices as one of the areas which we will grow because I think that some of our lead capacity in those devices is significant and it shows what we can do when we try. So there are a lot of things. I’ve been to schools where, I was at a school last Friday where they’ve developed what they call a fab lab where the students in year nine and 10 and in some cases even earlier are making things using 3-D printers with laser cutters and all of those sort of things so there’s a lot of inspirational things. My only criticism often is that we don’t build scale from what we do well, we just try to do something else as well and we don’t fund things well enough to stay on the top and sort of stay at the leading edge. So there is a lot that we do that we can be proud of and pleased with but I think there’s still a lot to do because we’ve still got the tendency that we can fund everything that anybody ever wants to do whereas in fact, we can’t do that because we don’t fund it well if we try that. So there’s a much more strategic and more coherent approach is needed. But we build off, our best of the equal are the best in the world by all the measures that you can apply and we’ve got to be able to sustain them. – [Voiceover] Thank you, hi. Erica (Canight) from Health. An honor to hear from you today so thanks on behalf of all of us. I wanted to build on your point you just said about the scalability. Where do you see the private sector in this policy embraced science approach? – [Man] Not playing the role that they should either. I mean I think, as I’ve said several times in these consultations where having a better national science policy, whole of government science policy is that there are three main pillars, three main players in
that particular game. There are the universities, there’s the business world and there’s the government and all three are copable to some extent for their present position and so the business world says that it spends to the order of 18 billion dollars a year on R&D but if you try to find out where they spend it, they spend about 400 million in universities,
about 120 or so on CSRO, a few tens of
millions in a couple of other agencies, most of it’s in-house but 70% of our researchers are actually in universities in the public sector. So there’s that disconnect which puts us right down at the bottom
at the OACD table. And I don’t think we
can afford to be there. The British have just released a report talking about how to
get their interactions between researchers and the private sector better than they presently are. Whereas we are at about 4% interaction between researchers and our education institutions, they’re at about 40 and they’re still worried
that it’s not enough. It’s a cultural shift
both in the universities and in business and probably in government that really requires programs that put incentives in the right place, the right sort of incentives in the right place for the right amount of time and I don’t think we’ve
got that right yet, for any of them. – [Muhammad] Muhammad Ali from TGA. Thank you very much for such an enlightening talk. My question relates to brain drain from Australia as far as researchers and scientists are
concerned to USA especially. I just wanted to know that is there any new concentration or any new approaches being adopted by the government at higher level to stop this process and to improve the working conditions of scientists and
professors at university? – [Man] Well, I don’t
really know how to answer that so I’ll answer the question that there’s nothing new that’s been put in place in very recent times to change that so the Laureate Fellowships and all of those sorts of things which do bring people here from overseas, on a relatively small scale. But the notion of a brain drain has always been somewhat problematic. I mean it is true that Australians leave and we have about one million Australians living over seas at the moment I gather. And some of them are very talented people of course and we miss that talent. On the other hand, we do bring people into the country too who are very talented and so I don’t know
that anybody’s ever done a balance sheet that says, talent out versus talent in with a net outcome of plus or minus. But I don’t think that it’s the single most dramatic thing effecting our scientific capacity in Australia. I think the single most dramatic thing effecting our science
capacity in Australia, is the lack of a whole of government approach over the last 50 years. And so you have itty-bitty projects that are developed up for a particular purpose at a particular time, doesn’t matter how good they are, they’re terminating program grants. There have to be offsets for everything. I think those things are antithetical to a strategic approach. So somewhere in amongst it all where as that might be important for some aspects, somewhere somebody ought to be making a judgment that says, this is so important we’ve got to do it and they don’t have to be offsets the third time we want
to run that same program or whatever it might be and we can build scale by learning from what we do that’s successful. And then there are things like the frack area of a
research infrastructure a few months ago. It was a silly argument to have. We were going to have to have research infrastructure so without any question was the timing of the announcement more than anything else and there were people then beginning to threaten to go. But it reflects more on
the former part of it rather than the former part was, we did not have a sensible,
long term strategic approach to the development of something which has inevitably got a long pipe line. You can’t have a Synchrotron that is on a four or five or ten year grant. If we’ve got it, we got to run it. We’ve got to operate it
and it’s got to be good. And when you do that, you need people. You need people with talent, people with skills to run it, operate it, manage it and you need people with talent and skills to use it. We would be much better off if we had a much more strategic approach to all of that then the somewhat peace meal approach that we’ve muddled through over the last 50 years. – Okay thank you Professor Chubb. (crowd applauds)

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