Listen to the live recording of the 2016 AMRI Address and Lecture delivered by Professor Mary O'Kane, NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer.
Recorded live in the Hallstrom Theatre, Australian Museum, on 2 August 2016.
Professor O'Kane chose to speak on the evolution of scientific knowledge and the skill of posing 'the right question'.
"I think anything we do in the science and innovation space to make it more solid and more part of our story, has to be consistent with our culture and values … Australians are very good problem solvers; they like having a go." Mary O'Kane
Kim McKay: Welcome to the Australian Museum for the third Australian Museum Research Institute Annual Address. I think I know everyone—I'm Kim McKay, the Director of the museum, and I would like to start tonight by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we're gathered, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and pay my respects to Elders past and present. It's important, as I always say, that we do that here, because we are the custodians of one of the most significant Indigenous collections in Australia.
We have so many special guests this evening who have come to hear the wonderful Professor Mary O'Kane address us this evening. So Mary of course is the Chief Scientist and Engineer in New South Wales. We also have the president of the Australian Museum Trust, Catherine Livingstone; Professor Merlin Crossley, who's from the University of New South Wales.
So August is an important month at the Australian Museum. It is our Month of Science, where we try and focus all of our public-facing activity and some of our internal stakeholder activity too on science, our research, and also all of the fantastic activities that we now have happening at the Australian Museum Research Institute.
I want you all to think back to that first time you went into a museum as a child. I remember my first time very clearly. It wasn't here. It was at the British Museum, but it changes your thinking and understanding and just allows your curiosity to leap forward. So I'm very excited about some of the STEM projects we have in train here and the opportunities for the future.
And that's why, as well, that it's great to have Rebecca Johnson leading the Australian Museum Research Institute now. Rebecca is very committed to STEM education and has made an incredible impact since she's had this role for just over a year. And we're very proud of what Rebecca has been able to achieve.
But mostly I'm very proud tonight to be able to announce that Sydney University has just made Rebecca Johnson adjunct professor in the School of Veterinary Science. Congratulations, Rebecca.
And with that, I'm going to allow Rebecca now to come and tell us a little bit more about the Australian Museum Research Institute's achievements in science this year. Please welcome Rebecca.
Rebecca Johnson: Thank you, Kim. It's truly a privilege to be here representing the Australian Museum Research Institute tonight. I would also like to acknowledge that tonight we are gathered on Gadigal land and I would like to pay my respects to Gadigal Elders both past and present.
So when I sat down to write this speech tonight, it actually doesn't contain any of the things that Kim's just talked about. We have so much going on here at the museum. What I wanted to know was what brought you here tonight. So the immediate answer is quite obvious. Tonight we are honouring an inspirational science and engineering leader for New South Wales, Professor Mary O'Kane, as she delivers our third annual AMRI address. And she's going to do that in a few brief moments, after we've heard from our Trust President, also an inspirational leader, Catherine Livingstone.
In addition to the great taste that we clearly have in inviting eminent and high profile speakers, what else has brought you here tonight to the museum?
Kim McKay: Free drinks.
Rebecca Johnson: Great answer, Kim. We've put on great free drinks. I hope that the answer is that the strong partnerships and collaborations that have been forged for the duration of our long and rich history at the museum, but most particularly in the last three years since the establishment of the Research Institute. And as a scientist who spends a lot of time managing people these days but has participated in a lot of collaborative projects, I believe that collaboration is absolutely essential for everything in life, and it is most definitely essential for science and technology in 2016 and beyond.
And as someone that's been participating in a lot of collaborations, I think that the best collaboration is one where everyone feels like they've got the best deal. Because if you feel like you're getting a great deal in a collaboration you're going to try harder because you are genuinely getting benefit, and the sum is literally better than all of the parts.
So whether or not you are from a university or one of our sister state government research institutes that Kim's mentioned, one of our funders who are here tonight or one of our many incredible museum staff—I'm very proud of the team that we have here—we are much richer for the collaborations and partnerships that we have with you all here at the Australian Museum.
So the research that we do is not only critical to understanding and describing our biodiversity and understanding our culture—biodiversity, for example, we described 145 new species last year, which is something that people don't realise still happens. We also translate that research into critically important uses in conservation, understanding biosecurity risks, and for our cultural research in promoting a more socially inclusive and understanding culture. And I hope that you will agree with me that there has never been a more important time for us to be more tolerant and more understanding of our fellow humans than now, not only just in Australia but also globally.
So we recently had our natural science collections here at the museum valued, as we have to do quite regularly as a state government institution. And the value of those collections came in at just under half a billion dollars. So that is quite a significant state asset, I think you'll agree. It becomes more valuable, the more science that we do on it. So our scientists continue to work on that daily and improve its value. We welcome visitors to work on those collections who also improve its value. So effectively the equation is more science means more value to this asset. And I can't think of a more satisfying equation. Apologies to our CFO, who I'm pretty sure is in the audience.
Kim mentioned that I would mention some research highlights, and it is impossible for me to pick one. So I actually threw this open to staff recently and said, 'Everyone send me your highlights for the past year.' And I had so many. They were anything from being able to participate in research expeditions on the RV Investigator, which is a commonwealth research vessel. They were hosting the International Crustacean Conference here at the museum which hadn't been done for many decades. They were being invited to Vietnam and South Africa to teach the scientists there our rhino horn identification test.
I see that Ross Pogson is in the audience. One of my personal highlights is Ross, our mineralogy curator here, he's an incredibly charming and clever man, and he will be at dinner so please go and see him. Ross, through his sheer charm and persuasiveness got a donation of an opalised plesiosaur from Coober Pedy, which was valued at $250,000, for our collection. So that's a pretty amazing donation for us to have, that now is added to our scientific collection—that someone could have sold on the open market but it's very special that we've got it here. So we have had so many highlights, and those are just an absolute handful.
So also very importantly around collaboration we're very soon to announce, with collaborators, a very significant conservation initiative that involves every single museum in Australia and every single university and partner that is working in that particular conservation focus. So Kim has a surprise but mine's different to hers. We have another exciting project that we will be involved in and will be announced very soon.
So as you can see, we are very excited about the future of science at the Australian Museum. And that is critically combined with our very important education programs, as Kim has mentioned, because there is nothing more important than going forward with an educated and understanding society for a sustainable future. And there is no-one more fitting as a trailblazer of collaboration, innovation and excellence in science as the truly inspirational New South Wales Chief Scientist, Professor Mary O'Kane. And it is an absolute privilege that we will be hearing from her tonight. But before that, please allow me to introduce another amazing and inspirational lady, our Trust president, Catherine Livingstone, who will say a few words and then introduce Mary. Please welcome Catherine.
Catherine Livingstone: Thanks, Rebecca. And can I add my welcome on behalf of the Trust to everyone who has come here this evening and, as Rebecca said, we have a truly inspirational speaker tonight. I did want to pick up on the indefatigable Kim, who mentioned STEM education, and it is reallyimportant for us here at the museum. But in actually its full dimension. So people have said perhaps we're emphasising STEM too much and we're not emphasising the humanities, arts generally, because the two need to go together. And absolutely they do. And the place they come together is at the museum.
So Kim mentioned the Janet Laurence exhibition, if you look at all of our culture exhibitions, all of the humanities dimension to that through the nature and biodiversity. So we combine and embed STEM in the broader fabric of the natural and the cultural world. And no other institution can do that as adeptly as we can and capture the imagination of children. And over 40,000 children come here every year, and over 140,000 are connected to the museum through our outreach programs. So the museum—I know we keep saying it's unique, but it actually is. So in the context of STEM education I think we have something particular to offer.
But as Rebecca said, it's actually my pleasure and role to introduce Professor Mary O'Kane, who as you know is the New South Wales Chief Scientist and Engineer. And that 'and Engineer' is really important because the combination of science and engineering is actually what makes the world go round.
Mary has many other roles and interests and is involved in two CRCs that deal with spacial information and the space environment, which I think we would all agree is really the next frontier, and Mary's an expert in 'up there', but also in 'down there', because she's involved in two institutes for Antarctic and marine science research in Tasmania in Australia and also associated with the New Zealand institute. So a physical and intellectual breadth that is quite extraordinary.
Mary was of course vice chancellor of the University of Adelaide and I had the pleasure and honour of working with Mary on the CSIRO board.
But also we bear the highs and lows of an inquiry into the national innovation system in 2008. But the interesting thing about that, and Mary I don't know whether you remember, it was the first time in any discussion of innovation systems that actually museums had been called out as a really important part of the national innovation system and particularly the way they connect and bring in children and the broader community, and the community across all age groups.
So I'd really encourage you to read that 2008 report—excellent report—but particularly its recommendation around museums. So on that note, Mary, can I invite you to come up and deliver your address.
Mary O'Kane: Thanks, Catherine. I wasn't sure what you were going to say, 'Did I remember…' There's a few other memories of that review, too. One of which I will cover. So Catherine, Kim, Rebecca, I'm very honoured; very, very honoured indeed to be giving the third Australian Museum Research Institute lecture. And in doing so I, too, want to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and seek the blessing of the Elders past and present as I talk about one of my very favourite topics.
I think it might be like misleading advertising for what was put on the brochure. I was thinking of talking really about STEM and problem-solving, and was gently dissuaded from that for a variety of reasons by Merlin Crossley, who I consulted on the matter.
But I think that was good, because it sent me back, much to the frustration of my office, to a topic that I've lived with right through what's now a long career in science, and one that has worried me right through. I've never felt comfortable on it. And that is the topic about Australia's ambivalence about science, as I see it, and I'd be very interested in the feedback.
I'm going to use the term 'science' very broadly—science to cover obviously the extension out to engineering—but also to cover research and development. Knowledge more generally but with a scientific cast. And I thought there's no better place than Australia's most venerable science institution to be doing that. Yes, I know the Gardens came first, but they're outside. And I think it's such a wonderful renewing organisation. I think Catherine, Kim, Rebecca, it's just the liveliest, the greatest fun. And the fact that you spawn such a…venerable institution spawns such a feisty, new research institute I think is just fantastic. And I'd like to say a big thank you, Rebecca, for all you've done in helping me with various inquiries—the koala genome project—some very sensitive inquiries get done in government, as Kate Wilson and Terry know so well. And it's been fantastic to be able to draw on the Museum Research Institute and Rebecca, you particularly. So thank you for that.
But it's a good place to talk about science and how Australia views it. And as I said, it's a debate that's worried me, but I think it's a very crabby debate in Australia, where we don't—I don't think many people feel they really have a handle on all the data, all of the issues. But it gets quite cranky and people mumble and grumble on about it.
And I'm particularly delighted that we have representatives of foreign governments here, because I'm always interested to see how others see us.
So let me start. I've organised the talk into talking about how we support science and things we like, how we see what's good about our science. Things we…a little riff on things we're good at that I don't think we know we're good at. Then I want to talk about the downsides, the bits we don't like about our science and we're not so good at an institutional, national level. And then I want to talk about how should we deal with that ambivalence and what we might do. You'll disagree violently with lots of this speech and that's what I want, because I want to hear what others think about this, because I'm hoping this can turn into a few things.
I'm just going to quickly race through a whole range of the support for science things, and I'll have missed things. As a matter of fact I thought of one as the others were speaking. But for a start, how do we view it in surveys and things? In 2013 CSIRO did a really good study backed on a series of other surveys done by ANU, but the Department of Innovation and others, where 57% of Australians said they were interested or quite interested in science But 60% said they were interested in technology. So more than half interested. And all those caveats about surveys, but that was one of their headline findings.
Australia does believe in investing in science. Australia spends 32.5 billion a year on R&D. In terms of our expenditure on research and development, as a percentage of GDP, we spend about 2.1%. It might not sound like a lot but it's a fair bit in terms of actual dollars, as I said. We particularly spend high comparatively to other countries in terms—we're up in the top list, we're not the top—but in terms of the investment higher education, expenditure on R&D and higher education and in government.
So we have things like CSIRO. Very few other nations have big, publicly funded research—what's the 'A' for? PFRAs. For things like CSIRO, ANSTO and AIMS, that we spend well in those areas and have these great national institutions in science.
Australian government…Australian governments, actually, support science. I mustn't forget our own government, which is a big supporter, and the other state governments. But the commonwealth provides $9 billion a year to support research and innovation. It supports strong institutions such as universities, which in turn drive one of our biggest exports, overseas education, which of course is about our fourth biggest export. And that is brand driven off the R&D done by the universities. So it actually is very much—that's our biggest service export and it comes…it wouldn't get that if we didn't have this great name for R&D.
I've already mentioned CSIRO, ANSTO and AIMS, the big national research institutions. But we also fund things, as I know so well, like the Antarctic Division, and a range of other things like the Bureau of Met that does quite a lot of R&D and certainly is a science institution. In fact, as I'll point out a bit shortly, the Bureau of Met website is the top website of all Australian government websites. Australian government, Kim. And is certainly the top Australian government science website as well.
We have great science infrastructure, and particularly over the last 15 years or so we've put a lot of money to building our science infrastructure and sharing it between our various institutions, our universities, our science institutions, and industry. And I think that's good, and it looks to be renewed and we're going to do more shortly.
And of course we have one of the biggest R&D tax concessions in the world, funding to the tune of $2 billion a year, and it's one of the most developed and long-running of all. Australia symbolically represents science, they have chief scientists, the Australian government. So we've had, going back to Ralph Slatcher, who was appointed by Bob Hawke to be the Chief Scientist and was in the Prime Minister's Department. Since then admittedly it's moved generally to industry, but we've had a range of very good national chief scientists, and quite of a few of us in the states. And of course in one very enlightened state, as Catherine points out, is the Chief Scientist and Engineer.
Australia is extremely well known in some research fields. We're very well known in astronomy. You only have to think about our radio astronomy, think about the SKA, and the lead we took there, along with South Africa. You can even think it doesn't just stay in the science. As Catherine pointed about the science and the arts, you only have to think about the film support for a film like The Dish.
We're very, very good in marine science, and well known internationally for it. And in both cases we leverage off the national advantages we have to create an international position. In the case of astronomy, we have quiet skies. In the case of marine science we of course have the great coastline, a long coastline, and we face three oceans and several seas. And of course some of those—at the top end it's in the tropical waters, at the bottom end it's polar waters, it's cold waters, and of course we manage the Antarctic coastline that's assigned to us.
Australia is exceptional in other areas, too, and I certainly am not going to cover them all, but often they're in less well known areas. I don't know how well but I don't think it's as well known is Australia's leading position in photovoltaic cells. Martin Green has been the world father of those cells, generation after generation, Martin at UNSW. And it's a big position.
We're extremely well known in control theory. I'd argue that we're probably about the second, probably behind Russia, but still very much there. Famous in mining, and you only have to think about recent developments in mining and a great colleague of Catherine's and mine, Hugh Durrant-Whyte, of course led the way at the request of Rio Tinto on the building of the mine of the future for them and of course BHP Billiton has one. And if you're asked, as Hugh often asks people, 'Which country has more autonomous vehicles than any other country in the world?' It's of course Australia. It's not that they're running around the cities, they're running around the mines.
You think of the Jameson cell. Graeme Jameson, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Newcastle, was the inaugural winner of the Prime Minister's prize for innovation last year. And that cell probably makes us something like $8 billion a year in terms of rock crushing and rock floatation.
We're very famous in geotechnical engineering, as befits a large, big continent that we have to manage, and you only have to think of Scott Sloan at Newcastle Uni also, and again we're extremely well known internationally in the field, but maybe our rock-crushing ability isn't so known generally.
Think of the Capital Markets Cooperative Research Centre, leading the way into the whole idea of financial data signal processing and the idea of keeping enormous financial databases. And the impact that's had on legislation with regard to stock exchanges around the world and in particular with fraud control and dark pools, and just goes on producing.
And going back a bit, think of some of the big things that were big engineering projects that also involved big science, like the Snowy Mountains Hydro Project. Would we do it again today, because of the environmental issues? Not sure.
But it certainly spawned a whole, big engineering industry in Australia in the sense that Australia became known for great big hydro projects, and that led to some of the successes or the development of several of our big engineering companies that are international stars. Think WorleyParsons, think Cardno, they all have their roots back in there.
Moving to a different topic, a lot of bright kids, even though we worry about kids doing science, when you look at the top 2% ATAR in NSW, 15% do science, 14% do engineering and other ICT; 8% do medicine, and remember that number's low because medicine's controlled, and a lot of medicine entry is graduate now. And if you total up everything science, and include architecture and go a little bit hazy at the edges, just over 46% of kids in the top 2% do a science related course at university. That's pretty impressive. So for our worries at the top end, they're still there.
We go to the often cited publication statistic: 3% of the world's science publications come from Australia, and a similar percentage of scientific citations. Very impressive in the face of the growth of big science operators like China, that we've actually grown. We were 2% about 20 years ago and we've grown to 3% when they've been booming. And remember we do it off 0.3% of the world's population.
And similarly, if you then weight things for population or you weight things for GDP, we still stay pretty good. We stay about 10th in the world if you do those particular weightings.
Recently the Australian Academy of Science looked at the economic impact of science. Again, looked at in a broad definition, and estimated that it accounts for 14.2% of production in the economy, or about 185 billion in gross value added in 2012/13.
And it's a very good study where they say the biological sciences, the physical sciences, and married the whole lot. And again, there's lots of economic studies, all the CRCs have to have one, you know, it's there. And the economic impact is definitely there.
If you turn to the various competitiveness and innovation indices you can see that Australia continues to rate well on a lot of scientific fronts. With the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index, Australia rates 8th on the quality of scientific institutions, and 8th on higher education and training. Pretty good. Not top, but pretty good.
On the Global Innovation Index, the INSEAD one—and yes, we don't know when this year's is coming out, that's a piece of gossip for later. We tend to rate 10th on knowledge workers, which is an umbrella grouping of whole issues about knowledge workers, participation by women, training in the background. So we're okay.
I do agree about our love of museums. I do agree about Kim's comment about people going to a museum for the first time and then many, many more times. And museums, zoos, gardens—we love our science cultural institutions and I never hear anybody complain about investment in them. (I know, I know, we won't even go there about next year's budget.) But I think people feel very good about them.
In Australia of course we have a great science curriculum. The work done by ACARA for the national curriculum, if you just read it, it's an incredibly inspiring document and I think we're very lucky to have worked so hard, and I think we've got a very good quality product.
We've got fantastic science media, and I'm not just saying that because of the gentleman sitting on my right. We have institutions like Robyn Williams, like Norman Swan, and we've got great television programs like Catalyst, and we're very lucky we're getting a little colleague for Robyn and Norman, Jonathan Webb. And for those who are Sydneysiders, he's a nephew of John Ward, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney. And his father was the chancellor of Adelaide, so they're sort of deeply embedded as a family in universities. But he's coming to the ABC too.
Talking around to various editors and journalists in preparation for this speech, they pointed out various things: that Australians do like TV series based in science, whether they're forensic ones or going back to Country Practice. That science gets a good run in newspapers and social media, particularly if it's relevant to one's life. So often people like medical and health things, but they definitely read them.
We see also in government interest in science, thanks to Trevor Danos, who's very associated with the museum but associated with many things, we introduced science breakfasts for Sydney, for the business community here, which we now hold in Parliament House, and if you're interested in getting on the mailing list we'll happily put you on, or just look at when they're on from the Chief Scientist and Engineer website. And they're very well attended. Whether we have Michelle Simmonds talking about quantum computing or Kathy Belov turning up with her devils. They are just wonderfully received, and show that the business community does like hearing about science.
Kim spoke about citizen science. I couldn't agree more about how much Australians love citizen science. She told some of the great examples about the museum. Some of the best ones I've tripped over are when I was doing the Bureau of Met review way back in, oh, 2007 or something…
…and I used to find just how dedicated people are to taking weather measurements and so on, for which people all over Australia do rainfall measurements and wind measurements, and send the results in by—it used to be post and it's slightly more modern now—and all they get for it is the BOM calendar each year. But then there's people who do whale watch, whale counting, who just won't leave the house and are very thrilled that Woolworths will deliver in case a whale shoots past while you're out.
We're very proud of things like our Nobel laureates. We have 10 Australian-born Nobel laureates, and we're very proud of those who came here and who then got a prize, like Brian Schmidt, who's a wonderful addition both to Australia generally but also to our debates about science.
We worry and care about science issues. We worry about science discoveries going offshore. We worry about STEM—Catherine referred to it. We worry about cuts to things like CSIRO. That's caused enormous pub discussion. We worry about environmental damage when we see science advice being ignored. We like the concepts of new forms of energy like renewables—not always all other forms. And we have some interesting government structures. We had the Prime Minister's Innovation and Science statement last year, and yes, I'll come to the other side of maybe it wasn't explained well enough. Catherine referred to the review of the National Innovation System, and I agree with her—read it. It's still a good read. It was written very coherently in a week, but it is a good read. And it does touch a lot of really important issues. Museums are of course the most important, but there are a few other things in there that are good too, like public sector innovation very much got a go. Open government was really moved along by that.
We had the Prime Minister's prizes for science. Not as important of course as the great event at the end of August, but still quite an important event in science celebration each year, and his new innovation prize.
We had the New South Wales Scientist of the Year and the Premier's prizes for science, and that's a great event at Government House each year. It's been very successful. We're in a time where it's very rare to have the Chief of Staff to the Prime Minister is a surveyor, an Antarctic surveyor at that, with his own mountain down there, Mount Clarke. He was formerly of course Drew Clarke was Secretary of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism, later Secretary of the Department of Communications, and brings a great deal of science information right where it matters.
And of course we have the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering…whatever Council it's called at the particular time. We've had future-looking science bodies like ASTEC. We've had personal institutions like Barry Jones, and we have our great learned academies. There's a lot that's good in science.
I mentioned I'd riff on the matter, too. And I mentioned the Bureau of Meteorology website. So I think there are things where Australians are naturally good at science but don't always think about it. Have you noticed how much…you know, it was raining tonight, and I asked somebody, I couldn't see from the building, whether it was. 'Is it raining?' What do they do? They do what lots of Australians do. They pull out their phone, look at the Bureau of Met website. But they don't go and read the forecast or read what they're saying, 'It is raining in Sydney.' They look at the radar. Australians do it, you know, whether you're predicting the surf or whatever, Australians are natural meteorologists. They do it really, really well.
I've already mentioned citizen science and how much we love it. We're desperately proud of our flora and fauna and the environment and we love talking about it. It's part of our culture. And we're also very good—not all of us, and we won't talk about greyhounds tonight—but in sports issues we're very, very good at working out betting odds on the run, and working out all sorts of sports statistics. The Olympics are about to start, and you know how Australians just sit there working out sports stats and talking about it.
We're not as bad at maths I think as we sometimes think we are. But as somebody said to me when I was talking about lots of examples like this, 'Nobody calls it science.' It's just something we do.
Now I want to go the other side, swing all the way into the other direction and talk about bad issues in Australian science. Not always desperately bad, but not good. First of all there's the image issue. I think we, and like many other nations, tend to think of scientists—and look at the cartoons as the great example, just do a Google on cartoons of scientists. All you see is people in a white coat, looking a bit as though they're on the spectrum, or do it on engineers and they're all wearing hard hats and looking, again, on the spectrum but a bit more sunburnt. You need people like Veena Sahajwalla, the great professor of engineering from UNSW, who at least has been on the front—is Veena here? If not, she's been on the front of if it's not Vogueit's one like Vogue, and we do need to even up the thing.
Many people don't want their kids to be a scientist. However involved in science they are, there's generally a sort of feeling against—science is not the best thing and particularly for girls. A recent study by CSIRO showed—no, sorry, it's the 2013 study—showed that youth in developed countries are much less interested in getting a job anywhere related to science in its broadest definition than they are in the developing countries, and that is a very well…that might have been said by CSIRO but it's very well known across the world. And I find it very, very scary.
We know that people are much more values based and they react to science issues more from values than wanting to know science, and I think that's said to be very true of Australians, so that you'll get somebody who will like the science of climate change and reject the science of GMOs.
And I think there's some important messages in there, just as I learned some very important messages when I was doing the review of coal seam gas activities in New South Wales, and realised that people's thinking about a lot of these issues is not really about science—again, it's about values. And so often it's about other issues where people use a science proxy on the front. Not to say there's not truth in that proxy, but so often things like the coal seam gas issues came down to some much more, and very nasty issues, about land access and so on.
The other thing about Australians is we tend to—I talked about how much we loved our flora and fauna—but we tend I think to like the natural world better than the constructed world. And there's exceptions like the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge here in New South Wales, but I think we do tend to favour that way, and not always think about things like energy where we are so well endowed. Australia has every form of energy available—not loads and loads of oil but we still have a fair bit of it—and yet we're scared. We're in a totally locked up energy system at the moment, unwilling to move out and change things when we could be doing so much.
We've already touched on, various ones of us tonight, about STEM. STEM I think is a big issues, and of course we have worried for some years about Australia's declining results in PESA for the 15-year-olds, and how poorly we're beginning to do in science and maths, comparatively. It's important to say we are still doing fairly well in absolute terms but we're slipping all the time against other nations. And I think sometimes with STEM we get so worried we stop really thinking straight about it. I think, for example, to say we should be emphasising it for jobs, we have to think hard. There aren't as many jobs in science, until we sort the system out, as there might be.
But I think people need STEM for daily life, to manage the incredibly rapid growth of knowledge. And children will see it. It's growing exponentially, so they will see more.
I also think STEM is very much about the maths issue, and very much about the fear of maths and symbolic reasoning. And the emphasis we really need to put is on getting teachers really confident so they inspire students—when they're not being inspired by the museum of course. And of course we need more engineers. We are low in engineers, and I'll come to that again.
I now want to move briefly to talk about some negative things about research funding. It's not always well known, although it is to several eminent people in this room from universities. University research in Australia is not full-funded, or full-funded from grants. For competitive grants in Australia, Australian universities typically get well less than half out of what they earn, and they have to find the expenditure from other things—from the education bucket from overseas students, from investments or whatever. It makes running universities very, very hard, and it really distorts the issue of funding in universities. At the moment the ratio of expenditure to income in universities is 2.7. So an awful lot has to be found, and that's growing. It was 2.4 in 2005/06 and it's been steadily going up for some time.
I talked about the cuts to CSIRO. Maybe they're worthwhile. Maybe they're sensible, but they weren't explained, and I think Australians were cross, particularly about the recent ones, about climate change. It was interesting to watch that reaction.
I mentioned about how good we are in publications and citations, and yet when you look at it, they come from a very small percentage of our universities—research parts of our universities and CSIRO and the other institutions. They're by no means distributed across the system. And that's for most nations, but it does do some interesting distortionary things in the system.
Our patent numbers are very poor, so our publications might be pretty good in absolute terms, and our citations, but our patent numbers aren't good, and we come about 21st in the world on the various indices whether they be global competitive index or GII, the INSEAD innovation index—somewhere between 21st if you adjust for population, about 26th if you adjust for GDP.
We have many years ago found that we were having some problems with our citations and publications, and that seemed—to the extent we could get to the bottom of—be due to the fact that as we started to educate people at home, which really only started for the PhD in really round about 1980. Although it had been going since 1950 the numbers weren't big. But when lots appeared, people seemed to disconnect and weren't publishing with the rest of the world. We're really working to reverse that, and we now put a lot of emphasis on co-publication with institutes around the world, but it's something where Australia slipped.
I talked about our Nobel laureates that we're so proud of. We might have 10 born here but Norway—much, much smaller than us in population—has 12. The Netherlands, just a bit smaller than us, has 17, and Switzerland, same size as New South Wales, Switzerland in population terms, and it has 16. Okay, there might be a locality effect there, but nevertheless we're not that wonderful.
We worry, as I said, about inventions that got away. And while I think we talk about it and we agonise, do we do much about it? Some of the ones that got away: I mentioned solar photovoltaics. Admittedly we get licensing fees back from that, but some of the other famous ones, of course, were the black box, the aviation black box. And things less known but very, very important: AMDAR, measuring pressure and temperature in the nose of aircraft. Invented in the BOM, disappeared, was picked up in overseas meteorological bureaus, eventually came back here but the commercialisation had happened elsewhere.
And I haven't yet mentioned the one that worries us most in this area of negative issues around science, and that's our very weak productivity and our innovation issues. Productivity growth in Australia has been poor since the early 2000s. After a tremendous surge it's been declining or static and poor. Not unlike a lot of other developing countries who've caught down to us—not up to us, down to us—in recent years. Even great innovators like Finland, as I was pointing out in another speech recently, are starting to worry; they're coming off the top.
I've already mentioned the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index. Australia was ranked 21st in 2015 and has been similar in other things. Beaten by, going from the top, Switzerland, Singapore, USA, Germany, Netherlands, Japan, Hong Kong, Finland, Sweden, UK. And that only goes to 10. Or if you look at INSEAD's global innovation index, Australia last year was 17th. Where the top went down, Switzerland, again number 1, Switzerland, UK, Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, USA, Singapore, Ireland and Luxemburg. So the same players tend to be at the top. We tend to be a fair way down. We're waiting for the 2016 results on both, due out shortly. But it's worrying that a country that should be so good is beaten and has been for so long.
Canada is an interesting comparison. This is for you, Duncan, and Canada does better than Australia but is also poor. And I often wonder if there are similarities between the economies. So it sits between us and that top lot.
The issue seems to be, at the top level message is Australia doesn't convert its relatively good scientific and innovation inputs into outputs.
And again, read the 2008 review for some insights into it. But generally we are very weak. We sort of tune up the inputs, put more money into science and things; we don't convert it well. And despite general emphasis on the good inputs, we still are slipping on some things. For example, on the global competitiveness index we only ranked 27th for maths and science education. Now that's a survey measure, so that's how it's seen by the business people who are in the survey. Similarly a survey measure, also with the GCI, we came 77th in 'Do we have enough numbers of science and engineering graduates' survey measure, pretty scary.
I've already mentioned outputs, things like patents. There are many, many, many outputs. These are big indices that are composite off around 80 to 120 subset components. But another one is in royalty and licence receipts, we only come 32nd. So it's really quite an issue. When you drill down, as I did in the Chaikin Oration given a year and a half ago or so, I think—there are two things that stand out as to why we're so much weaker than those groups at the top. And they're these:
The first one, in technological innovation. Australian firms are not desperately keen, by and large, to keep to the really leading edge of innovation. And they don't realise they just have to renew and renew. It's just not a message that gets through. We're also weak in business sophistication. That is really about business models, whether they be really unusual ones like Google or so on, but even sophistication in managing things like the supply chain. We're weak at it.
I mentioned where we with our expenditure on research and development as a function of GDP, we're good-ish at 2.1 but we're way off the top. That's Korea at 4.3, Israel at 4.1 (and that's not including Israel's defence spending on R&D). We all often have talked about our business expenditure on research and development, and while it's improved in recent years, in Australia it's only about 56% at the moment. So it's much lower than many other countries around the world.
Just a few other statistics in this area of poor issues in science—very few of our leaders, prime ministers etcetera are scientists or engineers. We're not Germany; we're not China in this regard. More of our corporate leaders are particularly engineers, but don't always actually talk about it as issue. And I've already talked about our worry about the environment and whether science is wrecking it. We won't have the coal seam gas talk tonight.
So just now to go to where does this ambivalence come from and what should we do about it? Probably some of the ambivalence comes from economic theory in Australia, and the prevalence of our belief in the importance of the level playing field, which became particularly important in the 1980s as we looked from being a very protectionist economy. We opened the economy, we floated the dollar. And there were very good reasons.
Our economy surged, but possibly it meant that we had to think about what that meant in terms of things that are underpinning the economy, like science. I think because of the emphasis on the level playing field there's a great ambivalence about industry policy. Do you need one? I'm not sure you do. But science and innovation are often seen as tack-ons to industry policy, whatever that is with whatever government, and nobody ever seems to know—if you've got ambivalence in science, try ambivalence in industry policy.
And you can, if you don't feel like tacking it on to industry policy you can tack it on to education policy and there it's seen as not so relevant as school education, you know, that's what we really need to do.
So it's often that I think it's actually been in a sort of policy jelly for some time, since the 80s. It's often pointed out that science is expensive, and as Australians because of the level playing field we don't pick winners. And if you do pick winners you get failures—and failure is part of the scene in big science. And you only have to think of our experience even in relatively recent years. The solar flagship, the CCS flagship project. Think about ARENA and the renewable energy space. Big visions, again, around the time of the Rudd government, and good things have happened; great things have happened. But it hasn't delivered on what we saw, and we blame people for that, or we blame ourselves or something; it gets very upset.
There can be science mistakes. I'm not sure, as I said, we would do the Snowy Hydro again. So I think one of the really important things is we have to think about a social licence to operate, and we certainly haven't been good at that. And in a quiet way I think the New South Wales government has worked very hard to deal with that. When you think about their gas plan, where they adopted all 16 wonderful recommendations from the Coal Seam Gas Review, and have now largely implemented them, I think that is very, very important, and even if we closed our gas industry in the process, when it reopens it will be in much better shape.
The ambivalence also comes because we are a small nation, and it's often pointed out, can we really do big science? We can just sort of tack on to others. And that brings me to something which I think is the core of where I want to go as I finish up.
I mentioned the argument about 3% of the world's science, and that has been emphasised by us and refined as an argument for many years. We do 3% of the world's science off a very small population base. We publish 3% of the papers—proxy for 3%—and that gives us access to the other 97% of science done around the world. And it's often done as the sort of tea party idea that we bring our 3% tray of scones; the rest of the world brings the cakes and tea and the ginger beer and so on. And as the Academy of Science said in a report this year, 'Scientific research is an international endeavour. No nation has the people or the resources on its own to do all that could be done. If every nation relied on the efforts of others, no research would be conducted and every global citizen would feel the effect.
'Because Australian science is integrated with a much larger global scientific enterprise, our scientists are one of the primary channels through which the nation gains access to the vast global pool of advanced scientific knowledge.' And so on.
And that is the core argument that I, like many others, have used as the defence of our science system. We must put enough in to cover that 3%. But then you notice the innovation story where we're doing the 3% but we're not converting. So try an experiment with me. How ambivalent are we really about science? What happens if we decided that the government support let's say for science and research was to be cut by 10% or 20%. Would we really notice it? Some in the audience would because they're nuts like me about watching the stats here. But would we really notice it if it happened over a few years? Could governments sort of slide the money out? I think you could if you were clever enough in the Treasury. But now try another experiment. If we had to say what part of the budget had to be cut in the science and…thing, what would you say? So how would you prioritise the science budget is the question there.
And let me talk about a counter example, one where I don't think we're remotely ambivalent, and that is sport—and very timely to talk about it at the moment. No worries about level playing fields in sport, well, you know—yes, no. And there's no worries that we're a small nation. We know we're good at sport. It's part of our culture, part of our identity. It's also seen as part of the whole issue of leadership. Australia shows leadership on the sporting field and people are encouraged to do so. We close the loop on sport. If we are worried about our sporting performance as we have been about our recent Olympics performance, we put the money in. We train people. We really emphasise sport. We don't seem to close the loop on science, science and engineering. And is that because we are a Sleepy Hollow economy? That we're a derivative economy and we really can't change it, so should we bother?
Which makes me wonder, should we just stop agonising, or is it only I who agonise? But I don't think so. I think we do worry a lot, but should we not, perhaps? I don't think we're ever going to be number one in science and I don't think we're going to drive the whole economy off it. But I do think there are things we can do. And in the way to talking about what those are, I think there are lessons from the world of sport—not to completely build the Australian sporting thing-o from Canberra, the training thing. But I think anything we do in the science and innovation space to make it more solid and more part of our story, has to be consistent with our culture and values. Too often I think those of us who play in this space and talk about it a lot say, 'Why don't we do what Switzerland does? Switzerland comes top in the innovation thing; we should find out what Switzerland does and plonk it here and do the same here. So the import and drop mechanism I think we've tried it many times and you do get good ideas.
And you do find that science systems are more like each other than unlike around the world. But I think we need to think about what would work with our culture.
One thing where I think—and many of you have heard me on this and read my pieces in the press about it—I think Australians are very good problem solvers, just like they're good meteorologists. I think they like identifying as good problem solvers. They're bits of rebels. They like being seen as such. They like having a go. And I think if you can touch off some of that, you can touch in to part of the cultural arrangements where we might get something.
And also, while we're very anti picking winners under our economic theory, we have embraced, happily, the concept of the nudge, and Richard Thaler on nudge theory and how you might get behavioural change by governments causing change. I'm trying to think of a good example that's not the fly on the urinals in Germany. But we'll leave that one in place. We won't even try and think of that—to improve aim in case you're wondering what the fly does.
So I think, as well as talking about good problem solvers, if you think about nudging I think we can start to look at what we might be able to do to resolve some of the ambivalence about science and link it back to helping productivity.
Again, many of you have heard me talk about the issue of brokering. The areas where Australia is very, very successful in R&D in terms of where it does link to the economy is mining and agricultural. And that is characterised by extraordinarily good brokering between our science community and between our R&D communities. So in the case of mining it's Amira, which did stand for the Australian Minerals Industry Research Association I think, but is now just Amira Ltd, and it's a global company negotiating between its owners, the big set of mining companies—and they're big and little—and research institutions around the world, and particularly Australian research institutions.
It's led to all sorts of things. I mention the Jameson cell, that's one example. There are many others.
Ag R&D, particularly through the Research and Development Corporations, the Grains Research and Development Corporation, the horticulture one, Meat and Livestock Australia, and so on. And we are good at that, and it reflects in some of the measures. For example, in one of the innovation indices we ranked as 10th in the ability to do joint ventures. We are very good, not just company to company but very good across the R&D space.
I suggest we push the problem solver…next idea, so I think brokering should be used across other industries, which should learn from those two that we're so good at and are such important parts of the economy, particularly our export economy, and really look at how we could do that better. I've often again talked about how good our people in universities and CSIRO are; they love solving problems. They're very good at defining problems, and if they can't solve it for you they'll tell you from where around the world through their enormous international connections who can solve it.
It's deeply untested. And while the prime minister has often talked about—and I should have mentioned this in the bad things about science—about the issue that our universities don't commercialise. I think that's nonsense. I think from long years of working in universities, they're not natural commercialisers, they're not natural entrepreneurs—vice-chancellors excepted—but they do love working on problems. So it's up to industry to work out roughly what the problem is, throw it over, and it will be solved. And I think that is where the connection really comes.
But I think we ought to emphasise the problem solver issue, and above all to emphasise the image of problem solvers. So I think with that quote I read out before, let me change it slightly. Let's say that I think the main story should go like this:
Because Australian science is integrated within a much larger global scientific enterprise, our scientists are one of the primary channels through which the nation gains access to a vast global pool of advanced scientific knowledge. And boy, are we good at bringing our own and international knowledge to bear on solving hard economic community, social and environmental problems. And aren't we making a motza doing it. And I think if we added that idea and worked on it, it would start to bring all this together. And we need to celebrate this when we get it right, and really talk about it.
I think we need to think about what problems we want solved, and here this might be nudging or incentivising. For example, I'm at an age where I'd like a lot of emphasis on research on independent aged care. Robots in the home here we come. And I am an artificial intelligence person, so I'm looking forward to them. And I'm very happy for some of my super fund to be used in encouraging science-intensive companies in this area. I'm sure there's other areas where people want.
I talked about the social licence to operate. I think it's really important Australia put time and effort into that, particularly if we're going to do more mining, more agriculture, more new uses of energy. And that's important for governments to deal with—state, federal, local, whatever. Governments can be good users of science and that's often been said, but it's still very, very important that they be seen to be doing it, and that the whole issue of science and R&D is owned not by industry departments, but it is seen as important by the Treasury.
Big data is something Australians have embraced as a concept very well. Very closely connected to citizen science but it means something particular in this country. Our nation is a big country and we've had to manage with a small population. We have incredible satellite data—yes, I do know a bit about it, Catherine—telecommunications data, because we've had to manage a really big telecommunications system and we're distant from the rest of the world.
We have loads and loads of environmental data, marine data and so on, and we can collect it. And we've been automating our data collection systems, not to mention astronomical data, for a very long time. Australia found big data well before many other countries did because we had to. And so we should use it.
The other thing I think we should do, and this will horrify many, is I think we should dust off the Commission of Audit. Tony Shepherd, where are you? Because I think we spend too much money in areas possibly where we're not getting the best bang for the buck. And while I mightn't agree with everything Tony said, I do agree with an awful lot. A couple of people asked me did I write that chapter—I didn't, for the record, and I didn't put Amanda up to it either. But I think it's worth thinking, and just as I was finishing writing this bit the indefatigable Roy Green sent me an email; Glen you'd have got it too, where he sent us the link to the British government's case for the creation of a UK science and innovation body, a new public body in that area to bring all the research councils together and reduce the overheads and the cost of that. And at a very fast read it's worth reading. And I think it's worth learning from.
I think again for a controversial comment, I think the things I talked about, like the Poms body, are more important than some of these, but these are important. I think is worth trying to encourage a couple of our universities to get right up in the top league. I didn't mention that as a negative, but our universities tend to come in at 46th, is where I think Melbourne starts on the ranking of the Shanghai Jiao Tong. I think we do need to try and encourage to get up there for brand purposes and for attracting more people.
Maybe we should be looking to have one from each of the big states right up at the top of the list, and a couple more from round about the country.
I talked about STEM. I think STEM is important, and particularly to address getting good maths teachers, people who are good at maths and who are good at teaching making sure we all love maths and science. But science I'm going to rely on the Museum. We really do need to encourage more kids into ICT and engineering. That's where you get a lot of the transformation and our numbers in engineering are by no means great. They're worse than our science numbers by a long way in terms of what we need.
I think the media, Robyn, I think there's more to do. Maybe not you, you're perfect, but I think things like The Financial Review should think about maybe a women's technology to go with men's health. And I think we do need to think about other things we might do in that. I think things like the science breakfasts are important. But maybe I should be talking to Catherine about joining with the VCA to try and get more people coming to them so more people hear about the fantastic science here in New South Wales.
And my last one here is I think we need to be forgiving of big science failures. I think we need to understand that sometimes we've got to go back and back over problems. It's understood well in things like DARPA in the US, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, which had many goes at things like machine translation, starting back in the late 60s they had several attempts to do it. The most recent attempt was in the late 90s early 2000s, where they finally cracked a very good performance. The day after they cracked it, Google employed the whole team. That's Google Translate to these days. But sometimes you don't get it right and you mustn't, I think, just completely condemn.
So to finish can I just ask us to think about a couple of things in that regard. What would success look like if we did some of these things and we really tried to stop this ambivalence, this endless agitation in the science community and in the industry community about science and innovation?
Long term it would look like a very productive nation that is very knowledge led, with good technological solutions not just in industry but in social and environmental problems, and lots of fast-growth, knowledge-led companies that are led and operating with an ethical framework. But sort of that's easy. What would success look like incrementally? This is harder. I think we would be able to measure it off things like the innovation indices. We'd start to see ourselves coming up on many of the many measures in those. We would want to at least stay constant at the 3% and hopefully go up in the share of publications. But I think we also would want to see patents going up, we'd want to see a better understanding of complex issues like energy—not just saying renewables are good no matter what, etcetera. And above all I think we'd want to see the angst about science disappear and somehow while we mightn't see it as sport, we'd see science as an undiluted good thing. Thank you.