In this live recording hosted by The Science Show's Robyn Williams, Dr Rebecca Johnson, Professor Terry Speed, Professor Maree Teesson, Dr Phillip Urquijo and Professor Emma Johnston discuss their Eureka moments and the big issues facing Australian science.
This dynamic and engaging panel discussion covers a diverse range of topics including gravitational waves, equity in science, mentoring, perfect data and the important role that museums play in public engagement of science.
Kim McKay: Welcome along to the Australian Museum tonight for this very exciting evening to celebrate science and the launch of the Eureka Prizes. For those of you I haven't met, but I think I've almost met everyone in the room, I'm Kim McKay, the director and CEO of the Australian Museum. I'd like to start this evening by acknowledging the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation and pay my respects to elders past and present. And of course here at the Australian Museum we are the custodians of one of the most significant Indigenous collections in the nation, and so it's very important that we acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we are gathered.
I've got to thank our trailblazers of Australian science who are already…look, they are so eager, they are sitting down here already, it's fantastic…who are our panellists for tonight discussion. They will be introduced by Robyn soon. But Dr Phillip Urquijo, Professor Emma Johnson, Professor Maree Teesson. Of course Emma, you're just hot off the Press Club today, right?
Emma Johnston: I am everywhere.
Kim McKay: You are everywhere. If you didn't see Emma on Q&Athe other night, I'm sure Robyn will talk about that, but she was mightily impressive, so thank you for being with us because you are everywhere.
Maree Teesson, as I said, Terry Speed of course, and our very own Rebecca Johnson. So it's very good to have the surname Johnson now as a woman in science too I think, don't you?
Rebecca Johnson: Always has been.
Kim McKay: And of course Rebecca is the director of the Australian Museum Research Institute. And someone who probably doesn't need a huge introduction but I'm going to do it anyway is Dr Robyn Williams is going to moderate our fantastic panel this evening.
So tonight's trailblazers are here to talk about their Eureka moments, the big issues facing Australian science, and of course there are many, not to mention celebrating all that is fantastic about Australian science at the moment.
And for those people who can't be with us tonight, our ambassadors, we are recording this as part of a podcast that the Australian Museum is putting out, we're doing all of our lectures and talks now as podcasts.
Someone of course who inspired me to want to do podcasts was Robyn Williams because there's nothing like listening to Robyn's mellifluous tones on the radio each week on The Science Show. He's just great. It's so good to see you here Robyn and looking so fighting fit and chipper, thank you so much for coming along. Of course Robyn created the Eureka Prizes, he was president of the Australian Museum Trust way back when, science journalist, broadcaster, national living treasure, and we gave him the Australian Museum's Lifetime Achievement Award as well last year.
He presents The Science Showof course on Radio National, RN as they call themselves, and Ockham's Razoron the ABC. And his serves on so many different boards and capacities outside of the ABC and has done so much to progress science and science communication in Australia, it is extraordinary. And of course apart from curating the Eurekas, he is also a winner of a Eureka Prize. So that's a good idea, you create the award and then you get it.
Robyn Williams: It's very convenient.
Kim McKay: I'll be announcing one myself. Robyn, I can't think of anyone better to host our discussion about trailblazers in science, so I'm going to hand it over to you.
Robyn Williams: You are kind. You might in a minute when I ask you a journalist's question; what about the announcement at 5:15 today about the move of the Australian Museum out beyond Bourke?
Kim McKay: That would be called being slightly blindsided by the government I think. But, you know, Robyn, I've heard that the ABC is moving from Ultimo to Oodnadatta.
Robyn Williams: You're quite right, see you out there! Thank you Kim.
Kim McKay: Good, enjoy everybody, I'll be back later.
Robyn Williams: That was called tempting fate. I want to mention a couple of 'e' words…well, more than one, but two especially, two which are relatively unfashionable in certain quarters. One of them is 'elite' and the other is 'excellence', and they are mentioned these days in some parts of the media as if they are bad words, as if it's a bad thing to be top-of-the-line and to be excellent at what you do. This is what the Eureka Prizes, another e, that's what they are all about, and they are nothing really to do, as this museum is nothing to do with being separate from people. The whole point about being…if you are in Oodnadatta or the back of Bourke or if you're in the middle of Sydney or spreading around, a museum on the road, you are with the people at every level, you're in the schools, you're doing amazing things. So it seems to me those are two words to cherish, along with Eureka Prizes.
We are going to whip around and ask each of our Eureka winners, and Rebecca (who is going to win a Eureka Prize at some stage), their point of view about a number of things, starting of course with another e, Emma, who has just come back from Canberra, watching you on television, in the newspaper today. How was it in Canberra?
Emma Johnston: Fabulous. E, everywhere, Emma. So first of all we had a Eureka moment right at the start of the Press Club meeting and we realised that we knew all the answers to solving the problems of equity in science. So instead of having a press club meeting we stormed Canberra and we installed ourselves as the new ministerial advisers and the new ministers and we've changed everything and it's all going to be fine, so we can just relax about…
Robyn Williams: The women took over.
Emma Johnston: Yes, that's it! No, no, the reality was it was a really good Press Club meeting, not just because I was speaking, but there were…Tanya Monro gave an outstanding talk, she is a professor and DVCR…
Robyn Williams: University of South Australia.
Emma Johnston: University of South Australia. Nalini Joshi, first ever mathematics professor at the University of Sydney, gave an outstanding talk.
Robyn Williams: The front page of the Sydney Morning Heraldtoday.
Emma Johnston: Excellent. And whilst we all gave different perspectives on the issue of encouraging and enhancing women in science and improving gender equity within science careers, we also had these continual themes. We'd all had very different upbringings, we've all got very different research fields, and yet those themes came through consistently, that equity (which is another e word) and excellence are not two separate things, but sometimes the way that we define excellence, the way that it can be defined through cultural expectations, through cultural norms, through homogeneity of people within certain environments (another e word), it gets a little bit skewed. And so what we need to do beyond changing the structural barriers to women in science, and there are several structural barriers still in existence, is change our definition of excellence to include all of those things that we actually really feel are important; teaching, for example, research that isn't particularly high impact in the external world but has a huge impact in the state government for example, or it has a huge impact in the longer term, not right now. And so being able to engage and to change those definitions is part of changing the norms and increasing equity within science, and that's kind of how it went.
Robyn Williams: Excellent. And the response?
Emma Johnston: Very positive as far as Twitter is concerned. Twitter is going off. But yes, we had a really good response in the room and I was lying about that bit about storming Parliament, so I'm not quite sure how far the policy changes are going but we've got some good ideas.
Robyn Williams: You reminded us on Q&Aa week ago as professor ubiquity about how only about 17% of the positions in Australian science, the senior ones, are occupied by women. How are you going to get inspired young people taking on the challenge without putting them off with bleak stories about how tough it is? You know, that balance is difficult.
Emma Johnston: And it's chicken and egg, it's all chicken and egg because we have so few women in the senior roles within science, and actually it's gone down to 16% this year. So that was last week, 17%. And as I said, slightly contradicting the chief scientist…oof, that wasn't a great move…but anyway…as I said, the numbers aren't necessarily improving for women in science, and that's because if we don't keep our eye on the ball things go backwards because of cultural norms. So we have these few people in the senior roles. The media then, due to tight timeframes and also the need to present the most senior authoritative voice, tend to go to those people for comment and then we get underrepresentation of women. So women actually take 40% of the STEM jobs in universities and the research sector. So we are there, we're there in a huge numbers. We have been, more than 50% of the undergraduates and more than 50% of the postgraduates in the natural and physical sciences for decades.
But we are not in the senior roles, for a number of different reasons, and therefore we are not getting exposure. And we know that if the role models aren't there, the younger generation become less confident, they become less attracted to those roles, and so we are getting this negative cycle, this vicious negative cycle, and I think it's up to all of us to change that because unless we do it from multiple angles we can't actually attack the problem very well.
Robyn Williams: Thank you. Well, Dr Phillip Urquijo from the University of Melbourne, winner of the 2015 Eureka Prize for emerging leader in science. Emma of course got the one for promoting science. And at 31 the youngest ever coordinator of a large-scale physics experiment. When you got the Eureka Prize, did it make a difference, apart from the cheque?
Phillip Urquijo: Last year I had come back after being outside of Australia for about eight years working on particle physics experiments in Europe and in Geneva in particular, also in Japan. And coming back to Australia and being very lucky to win this award, it boosted my profile in Australia. So my profile with other physicists, with students, with people within my own university, it all got boosted to a point where I am noticed and the research program that I'm working on is something that everyone is actually quite interested in.
Robyn Williams: What is the research program?
Phillip Urquijo: Perhaps I'll go back to something a little bit more simple then. So my field is on particle physics and in particular experimental particle physics, and the idea there is we understand the processes of nature by looking at the most fundamental building blocks, so the matter particles and the force-carrying particles that describe everything that we essentially see.
Experimental particle physics is an area where we commonly use very large collider based detectors that will smash particles together close to the speed of light. There is a very famous one at CERN in Geneva, the Large Hadron Collider. I worked on that when we discovered the Higgs boson a few years ago. I've worked on a similar one in Japan that's looking into a puzzle concerning the missing antimatter in the universe. So this puzzle essentially is related to how matter and antimatter was produced in equal abundance essentially as the universe was formed from the Big Bang. So we had a state where we had pure energy, then matter and antimatter was produced in equal abundance. But when we look out into the universe today, there's no antimatter left, there is no mechanism that can describe it. So this other particle collider I'm working on is looking to measure the difference between matter and antimatter by essentially recreating the conditions of the early Big Bang, about a picosecond after it was created.
More recently, and it wasn't mentioned in the Eureka Prize because it is so recent, I'm working on an experiment that is going to be located 1,000 metres underground in Stawell in Victoria. And we are trying to solve a completely different problem, the problem is associated to the dark matter of the universe. So we know through gravitational interactions that there is about five times more dark matter than there is ordinary standard model everyday matter that makes us up. And there's no understanding of the way that this dark matter interacts with ordinary matter. We know it has to have some other method through which it must interact. We don't know if there's an entire plethora of different particles out there. So we are locating a detector, as I said, about a kilometre underground, shielded from the sun, and we are going to be looking for these ghost particles for the next few years.
Robyn Williams: Isn't it exciting.
Phillip Urquijo: I love it.
Robyn Williams: You will be underground for the next five years, but nonetheless, were you surprised at the attention the Higgs got? It was number one on the BBC for two days, and when gravitational waves were announced here, the place went berserk. This is difficult physics and it's making a huge impact. Were you surprised?
Phillip Urquijo: I was surprised how big it was in 2012. So the announcement was actually made in Melbourne. When the discovery was essentially announced to the public, we had it broadcast to a conference we were having, we had all of the world's particle physicists there, and a few people mentioned that they left their lanyards on when they went to the shops, they were stopped just by random people in the shops to ask about the Higgs discovery. They wanted to know what it was all about.
Robyn Williams: That's what it's all about, yes. I think it's really super.
Phillip Urquijo: I think that the general interest in fundamental science actually sparks everyone's curiosity. There are so many people…they don't care about the application, and there are actually spin-offs but they just want to see answers and very difficult challenges being…
Robyn Williams: They can feel your excitement, that's what leadership and that's what Eureka is all about, fantastic.
Robyn Williams: Maree, I interviewed you, was it in 1948 or…? Winner of the 2014 Eureka Prize for outstanding mentor…
Maree Teesson: 1988 Robyn, it was 1988.
Robyn Williams: The decades pass. Was it about homeless people?
Maree Teesson: It was, it was actually about my first research job, and you were talking about e, and it was around equity and the issues of schizophrenia and mental illness and homelessness, and we walked past many of those issues as we came to the museum still today.
When you mentioned the 'e' words, that's what drives me, it was 'equity'…I also automatically thought about e-health because that's my fun area at the moment too. I got the Eureka in the area of mental health and substance use, and it still drives me today, that thousands of young Australians have problems with substance abuse, problems with mental health, and they are all alone, they actually won't talk to anyone about it. So that's my passion; how do I engage with them? And I think the e-health space, there's so much opportunity there, and how do we give them the best interventions? And that's the excellence. Many research teams in Australia, we lead the world in terms of doing some of the best treatments in the world. We publish them in the leading medical journals in mental health, but would anyone know about it? It's frustrating.
Robyn Williams: Why don't they? Come on the radio next week.
Maree Teesson: Yes, I'm willing to talk to you about it, yes. A fabulous treatment for people with trauma and mental health problems, trauma and substance use problems that are published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It's communication. I'm sure it it's no different from why you started.
Robyn Williams: Well, Lynne Malcolm, who is here, presents All in the Mind, and there are 3.5 million listeners, so we do our bit.
Maree Teesson: You do a fabulous job, an absolutely fabulous job. And of course it was in mentoring, the Eureka…
Robyn Williams: What is your approach to mentoring, how do you do it?
Maree Teesson: Our model is always to pay it forward. It's not about the mentor giving something back to the person who is meant touring them. For me it's take what you're given and then give it to the next generation. And once you do that you free the person, you free the person from feeling like they are in a shackle, to actually giving and developing.
And the other one, the other really critical thing in our team is it's very hard to keep your self-belief, especially in science when you are constantly challenging. So as a mentor, part of my job is to nurture and hold that self-belief for an individual, especially at the times when they are not feeling very confident and strong themselves, so that when they have the Eureka moments they could go forth.
Robyn Williams: Do you get bleak moments yourself in the work?
Maree Teesson: You know, getting the Eureka award was a really big moment for me, it was amazing. It was doubly amazing because my staff wrote the application while I was lying in a hospital bed having been the recipient of some of the best early intervention care in the country for breast cancer, and they sat and wrote the application for me. So the Eureka moment was we do need early intervention, we need prevention, we need the best medical research in the world.
Robyn Williams: Thank you.
Terry Speed, maths, stats…if you have wom the Prime Minister's Science Prize as well is the Eureka prize, and you work at the WEHI with medical people who are generally dealing in pharmaceuticals and, okay, epidemiology, but usually with patients. Is there a kind of stand-off between what you do and the everyday medical people, or are you working as one?
Terry Speed: I think we are working as one, but perhaps not all everyday medical people are dealing with genomics, DNA, proteins and amino acids. Footballers perhaps, but doctors on the whole are doing less of this. So my specialty is data, and the genomic data, the data on DNA and all these other molecules has exploded in the last 20 years.
And so coming from someone who was interested in medical science but lacked the bedside manner, not too good looking down microscopes, I was always disappointed in dissection because it never looked like the picture in the book. So I thought I would go to…
Robyn Williams: I know what you mean.
Terry Speed: I went to something like mathematics where all triangles are perfect and so on. So my disappointment with reality led me to mathematics. But later on the medical profession caught up, so I just stuck around for a while and eventually they needed people like me. So there's not a disconnect, but we are not yet at the point where every patient walks in the door, you take a blood sample, do a genome sequence and then base your treatment on that. But that's somehow, maybe at least in the first world and perhaps later, certainly in some parts of the Third World with infectious diseases, that's where we are going.
Robyn Williams: How many people are there like you in Australia?
Terry Speed: Well, there's more than there are jobs, let me tell you. There's lots of young people very excited about this area, getting trained and looking for jobs. The trouble is funding people like me. It's okay for some old guy who's got a good track record, they'll give you a grant and a fellowship, but the young people coming up, they don't quite fit the medical mould at the moment. You know, they don't publish papers in Scienceor Natureor Cell, all this masculine alpha-male outlets, so it's actually quite difficult. There's no shortage of young people wanting to do this, there's a shortage of slots to employ them, and that's one thing that I'm working on.
Robyn Williams: Okay, a piece of advice, we mentioned Trevor just now and of course…your daughter? Working in this very field, of genes and numbers and seeing a revolution in the field. All of this is changing so fast, and in about 10 years' time we won't believe the way in which the work that you do will have come, spread right round, and also made things much more efficient, incredibly more focused and getting results.
So how do you give advice to young people like that about how to stick in there and make it work as a professional? What do we have to do?
Terry Speed: Well, I don't actually think our situation is fundamentally different from science in general. I mean, there's loads of young people…we've probably got about a 14% or 15% success rate in grant applications to the NH&MRC, most of them are wet lab biologists, so they are really facing the same problem, it's just that perhaps their role is recognised a bit better. But I think the advice is that if it excites you, you stick with it…
Robyn Williams: Persevere.
Terry Speed: Persevere. Of course not everybody is really going to make it. You might do a post doc and then find the next step is closed off. So you also have to be flexible because…
Robyn Williams: Or, like Phillip, go overseas.
Terry Speed: Well, go overseas, yes, but I'm thinking of people that might have gone overseas and come back. I don't know really what the solution is to this but I feel young people have to keep pursuing their goal but also be flexible so that if, for example, dare I say it, an opportunity in science communication comes up and you suddenly find, gee, that's not a bad job, and maybe the hours are better and maybe there is more reliable…
Robyn Williams: They're not.
Terry Speed: Well anyway, you know what I mean. There are a lot of exciting jobs in science, and so it's also important not to be fixated on exactly that alpha-male ladder that is suggested to us is the only thing worthwhile, because it's not.
Robyn Williams: But persevere. Well, Rebecca Johnson…Johnson is a great name, Johnston here, Johnson over there. And you run the Australian Museum Research Institute.
And this museum is a centre for the public to come in for all sorts of interactions, not least citizen science which Kim McKay mentioned. How do you see, Rebecca, this museum as a centre for those sorts of things we've been hearing about and the future?
Rebecca Johnson: Thanks Robyn. First I felt like a needed to apologise to all the people I put on the invite list for tonight. I didn't realise that I would be on the panel, I thought I would be enjoying this panel along with the rest of you in the audience. However, I am incredibly proud to be representing the Australian Museum here tonight and the Australian Museum Research Institute, not least because we run the Eureka Prizes, organised by these two wonderful ladies over here, Vanessa and Kristin, and recognising the most incredible people that we have just heard from on the panel, and I think that that's also a really great example of the role of the Australian Museum.
People perhaps don't know that we are the second oldest scientific institution in the country. I'm quite passionate about the concept that we are actually a slightly under-recognised partner in many ways. In fact we have probably contributed to the research of many people in the room, and they didn't really think that it might have been the case when they first started their project, so it's not uncommon for someone to get to the end of their PhD and come to us and say, oh, I've been working on this worm for the last three years and we think it's pretty important, what is it? And we have that expertise here at the Australian Museum, and we have an incredible collection. We've been doing that kind of science for a really long time and we are incredibly proud of the science that we do.
But we also have the very important role of connecting the schoolchildren and the people that perhaps haven't even started school yet with science research and then what might happen after, even if they don't become scientists, traditional academics, which is perhaps not the only career path in science these days, they hopefully will have a recognition of the importance of science and definitely an appreciation of science. And I think that's possibly the most important role that we can play in society.
Robyn Williams: How does citizen science fit in now it's been established here?
Rebecca Johnson: Citizen science is very exciting because I believe that it has gone past science engagement, which is a really great use of citizen science, to get people enthusiastic about going and measuring things just because they are doing some kind of science is great, but citizen science is now where those data are being used in real projects that are being run by scientists, and those data suddenly open up collections that are not possible without the involvement of those people that are prepared to do it at X time point or at X location or a combination of both. So there are some really, really exciting evolutions of citizen science because they really are generated by scientists now, and that's certainly something that I've observed only in the last couple of years. It's almost becoming something that is perhaps even an essential part of many scientific projects. How do you involve the public in your science because they actually really want to be involved, and it's very much beyond science engagement.
Robyn Williams: Yes, I once went to a conference in America where they had 700 different fields of citizen science represented from cancer through to the collection of bellybutton fluff to see what fungi grow in your torso. Most extraordinary. But how are you going to cope with all those thousands of people wanting to stay in touch? Presumably the new technology comes into its own there?
Rebecca Johnson: Certainly new technology is a complete game changer. Suddenly you can GPS track things like never before. People can get instant gratification. But I think that is a really important aspect, is that people feel like what they are contributing is actually making a difference.
And so I think as scientist it's very important for us to ensure if we are engaging in these projects that there is a feedback loop, that this is what happened this year and this is what your data are contributing to and these are the outcomes. And it might not be instant. No, it's not CSI, but you are making a difference and it's up to us to ensure that we are feeding back to people that are contributing.
Robyn Williams: What do you think of that Emma? You presumably know that in marine science the involvement of the public has been crucial in tracking the way creatures are moving, plants are moving in the ocean as well, and that kind of relationship between real scientists doing genuine work and the public taking the stuff seriously.
Emma Johnston: The more eyes the better really because for me…I mean, ocean scientists, the ocean is so vast. Just the coast of Australia is phenomenally long. How long is a piece of string? In fact people argue about how long the coast of Australia is. But we can't look at it all, we can't observe it all, and the more people we have, the more eyes we have, the better. So what it's all about is setting up systems where we can use the information that's coming in, where we can engage people really productively in doing science so they are learning, they're getting feedback, they're getting ownership over their environment and understanding of their environment, but also that the data coming in is useful. And technology is helping us here, GoPros, opening up marine environments in a huge way.
Just this week obviously there is a massive disturbing bleaching event going on globally but it has also just hit the Great Barrier Reef, and a lot of the work that's going on there is through technological advances. These are photographs that have been taken from helicopters. This is not the old days where we used to stick a scuba diver in and they used to swim 50 metres along and it would take an hour and they'd have to get up and they'd have the bends.
This is being able to do 600 or 1,000 km of coast and survey that within two days, and that's phenomenal. And that kind of technology…obviously not all of us can hire a helicopter but that kind of technology is more and more available to the average person and that means that we just need to engage everybody, and everyone will become scientists.
What I did want to say is really thank you for all those worm identifications, because that's what the museums do. Has anyone been into the basement? No? Just me? You have to go! So underneath here it is an amazing vault where they keep all the specimens and the scientists, and it's not that they are not allowed out, it's that they don't want to come out. And it's amazing, the scientists are down there doing the most incredible explorations of biological diversity around the globe then tap into that information that comes out of museums, and it enables us to understand the data that we are collecting, it enables citizen scientists to understand the data that they're collecting.
Robyn Williams: Can you do that in physics as well?
Phillip Urquijo: There's a couple of different ways. So, many people may have heard of the SETI@home project, this is where you look for extra-terrestrials using your home computer. You install a program, it sends the data to your computer and analyses it. So we've actually been able to do the same thing looking for the Higgs boson and also looking for other new particles. So actually…for example, one of the experiments, the ATLAS experiment at the LHC has at any one moment between 100,000 and 200,000 computers analysing the data. And around about 15,000 to 20,000 are just from people's home computers, and it turns out to be the biggest single contribution to the discovery of the Higgs in terms of the data analysis part.
Robyn Williams: Quite incredible, isn't it, because Galaxy Zoo, which Chris Lintott has helped pioneer in Oxford, was looking at the sorting of galaxies, and the interesting thing about what citizen science has been doing, they are looking more thoroughly at these slides and saying 'what's that over there', and of course the scientists haven't noticed because they haven't had the time, and they are making genuine different discoveries as well at the same time.
Phillip Urquijo: I guess in the way that it's been done for particle physics, we haven't given the home user so much flexibility in the way that they search for it. That's a very nice idea though. We will have to ask whether we can inject a little bit of randomness or systematic uncertainty from human error.
Emma Johnston: But the way that gravitational waves were detected was amazing because they set up a blind experiment, didn't they, so they had units, not just citizen scientists but astronomers all over the world set up ready to detect and to analyse the data coming in, and they set off tricks, they did blind tests they set up and everyone had to test it and say, oh no, is that a gravitational wave, maybe, maybe not. And so it was an incredible use of that network of people connected through computers.
Phillip Urquijo: Normally when we do very large scale statistical analyses we blind ourselves when we are doing a discovery, no matter what we are searching for. Usually we use simulation, knowingly use simulation. So this was a case where the people doing the data analysis didn't know that the fake signals were being pumped through, they were only told afterwards, such that at the point where they made their discovery they weren't sure whether it was just one of the fake signals just pumped into the system.
Robyn Williams: Philip, I have often wanted to ask people and maybe as we are alone we can do that, if you read the novels you can see scientists as being brutal and competitive and ruthless, but when we see you on Q&AEmma, and even with the panel, you all seem so nice, as if you're different from all the lawyers and the politicians and the other people.
Emma Johnston: You haven't read our great reviews. Nothing nice.
Robyn Williams: So you can be bitter and twisted behind the scenes.
Phillip Urquijo: You get mixed experiences. Even different environments of people, different collaborations where people know they are all fighting for the same sort of glory result at the end, they all want to take a piece of it. In the case of grants it's wanting to take a piece of money rather than the credit.
Maree Teesson: I sometimes think of my staff as being rock stars and they want to be out the front being the lead singer.
Emma Johnston: But the nice thing is, on a positive note, and I've had my fair share of nasty reviews, is that as a group of people we are all trying to build a coherent picture of the world, a coherent understanding of the world. So whilst we might fight for the little bit of funding here and there, we as a group are trying to create an understandable knowledge of the world, we do cooperate. I don't throw out the understanding that comes from physics, even though it's not useful, I use it. And I'd hope that the physicists would not ignore what I've found out about pollution impacts in Sydney Harbour because they also accept my understanding of the world, and we try to create these layered levels of understanding, and that's where the cooperation comes in, and that's why we like each other so much…as long as there is not a little pot of funding somewhere.
Phillip Urquijo: There's another way that we've had citizens involved directly in science and it concerns our underground lab in Stawell, it turns out that this was a linkage between not only the mining company that runs it but the local council. The local council were the ones that really pushed it. They wanted to have a lab in their town and they are the ones who went to Canberra and went to the parliament in Victoria to lobby for direct funding. So they pushed it. And it was due to their efforts that the lab actually got off the ground. Just pushing from the university side is not the way to build something of the scale that we need.
Robyn Williams: So how do you get the people involved? Terry? Rebecca? How?
Terry Speed: I think the examples that I know about in my field tends to be competitions. The prize is to be, as it were, the best citizen. There is a little company called Kaggle, which is not quite so little these days, started in Melbourne a few years ago and is now functioning in the Bay Area, San Francisco, where people essentially send their data to the company and then the company organises analyses by anyone who wants to participate. You can download the data and get your analysis and send it in, and they are all compared and winners are announced and sometimes quite lucrative prizes. So it's a kind of competitive citizen science. You don't have to be in a university or an institute, you just need a computer.
Robyn Williams: You can get on with it yourself privately? As an individual?
Terry Speed: Yes, people do, individuals do extraordinarily well or form little teams. Students can outperform their professors and so on. So it's always good.
Rebecca Johnson: Aside from citizen science, which is an obvious way of getting involved, I think what is something that we do quite well, we are trying very hard to do at the Australian Museum is help people understand that what we do may be working on a specimen from 150 years ago but it's actually making a difference today.
So we might to be drawing upon a specimen that was collected in the 1850s and it might assist us with an identification of something that was found in Sydney Harbour and it might help us understand if that's a cosmopolitan species, if it's potentially something that's native that hasn't been described before or not a recognised for a long time, and it's very important for people to understand that science is very relevant and a place like the museum is very relevant, and also perhaps through that understanding they can make different choices. So things like understanding that fish labelling perhaps could be improved significantly and help us make better choices about what we eat.
We use our collection to identify specimens in the illegal wildlife trade, for example. People don't even realise that the illegal wildlife trade is a multibillion-dollar illegal industry, and so you might actually be involved in the science but if you understand that that science is done at places like the museum and other scientific institutions, then you might then make a better choice that when you are overseas in Indonesia and you see a snake in a bottle of whiskey, it might look kind of cool but perhaps you don't want to buy that because firstly it would be intercepted when you come back to Australia because it's illegal. Secondly, you buy that, you pay someone for that produce, they will go and put another snake in a bottle and potentially put another individual from that species at risk.
So there are lots of ways that we can make a difference, and I think it perhaps comes back to how we communicate our science. It's very multidisciplinary, it's very collaborative. There's so many touch points of overlap between everyone on the panel tonight and it's wonderful that it's recognised through something like the Eureka Prizes.
Emma Johnston: I just want to say also that the Eureka prizes are part of getting people engaged because it makes it so exciting and it builds the prominence and we'll get to dress up, which is important. Because every idea that we have, every Eureka moment, and I increasingly have Eureka moments as I get older and I forget that I've thought of something before and I remember it again, every one of those moments, if it's a good idea it's going to move from innovative to conventional very quickly, and if we don't celebrate them now, then everyone will say of course we know about XYZ, of course we've got mobile phones. But the point is at the point of invention, at the point of creation, it's so exciting, and we can get people involved in that excitement if we just let people know about it and we know about them, and that's why the Eureka Prizes I think are so important.
Maree Teesson: It is a team sport, science, and it's not just the scientists having to be the team, it's also the communicators who work with us. So obviously yourself Robyn, the types of roles that you've got and at my institution at UNSW, we've got fabulous support people, I can see one, Paul Ashworth, at the back. We wouldn't survive without them.
Robyn Williams: Deb Smith over there.
Maree Teesson: Yes, Deb Smith. We wouldn't survive without them working with us and teaching us how to be better communicators.
Robyn Williams: Indeed. Finally, what would you like to see happen next? I think there's an election coming up and the pollies are going to do various things, even if they don't move the…
Maree Teesson: Investment in innovation.
Robyn Williams: Yes, museum to back of Bourke. But what would you like to see happen? Apart from doubling the grants?
Phillip Urquijo: Well, actually at least bringing some of them back to the levels that they were not so long ago.
So there's one program, the Future Fellowship program, that's what I came back to Australia on, and they cut that back by a factor of three this year. There used to be 150 of these fellowships per year across all disciplines, supported by the ARC, now it's down to 50.
Rebecca Johnson: Back up to 100, but yes. So it went 150, 50, 100.
Robyn Williams: So when you fall across a Minister, lobby like crazy.
Phillip Urquijo: And plus it's usually not…it's only ever confirmed, say, one or two years in advance but never a very long-term plan. So it's very common to not find long-term plans in science funding. Part of it perhaps is because some fields themselves don't produce long-term plans, they don't present together to tell the government this is what we want to do as a field for the next 10 years. I don't see it very much in Australia, I've seen it in other places, in Germany, Canada, Japan, in the US, they always have these long-term plans, they always have to…they bring these to the politicians and then they put together the appropriate program. No one has really done this properly as far as I can tell.
Robyn Williams: No. The president of this museum, Catherine Livingstone who chairs the Business Council of Australia said so many times, certainly in this building, you don't have stop-start funding of science, you've got to be consistent, you've got to have not at the level of 2% like the lowest of the OECD countries but maybe up near 4.2% like Israel and a couple of other countries. What do you think Terry?
Terry Speed: Yes, I think that would be fantastic. Stability would be a good start, then maybe a slow increase. What we are getting is instability is associated with a steady decline at the moment which is not a great base for encouraging innovation and all these other wonderful things. I mean, you look at the innovation report and you say, well, most of the money is going to come not this year, not next year but two years hence and three years hence. Who knows what the budget is going to be like and what government is going to be in. We should be able to do better than that.
Robyn Williams: Especially as science helps make the country more efficient and save you millions. Thank you very much panel, very kind indeed, well done.
Kim McKay: Thank you so much Robyn, and to Philip, Emma, Maree, Terry and Rebecca. What a great group of people, and all so diverse, and it makes you feel not very smart…well, certainly for me. But boy oh boy, it's great listening to you all and to hear about what you're doing. What I love is that you all put yourselves out there.
Of course entries for the Eureka Prizes are still open for another month, so you've got four weeks to get your act together if you haven't entered already and spread the word through your networks and colleagues because you could end up like one of these magnificent people here who have been able to leveraged their Eureka Prizes. They close at 7pm Eastern Standard Time on Friday, 6 May.
There are 16 prizes this year, so 16 great opportunities to win, with $160,000 up for grabs in prizemoney. And I just do want to again thank our wonderful sponsors who support these awards, incredibly important, and also the collaborations that we get to have here right across the board, whether it's with private industry or indeed other government departments.
I want you to please enjoy the hospitality of the Australian Museum tonight. Go and see Trailblazers outside if you get a chance or come back. We've celebrated science in that exhibition as part of exploration. Tim Flannery of course is featured in there, Gerard Krefft is in there and some other scientists who've really paved the way in Australia with our understanding of this continent. So please enjoy Trailblazers as well this evening or come back or come back and see the virtual reality experience. Lots happening here, and thank you all so much for supporting the Eureka Prizes. Enjoy.
“We have the very important role of connecting school children and people that have perhaps not even started school yet with science research and then what might happen after. Even if they don’t become scientists or academics, which is perhaps not the only career path in science these days, they hopefully will have a recognition of the importance of science and definitely an appreciation of science. I think that is possibly the most important role we can play in society.”
- Dr Rebecca Johnson
Our panelists for the evening were: Dr Phillip Urquijo, University of Melbourne; Professor Emma Johnston, UNSW; Professor Maree Teesson, UNSW; Professor Terry Speed, Walter and Eliza Institute for Medical Research; and Dr Rebecca Johnson, Director of the Australian Museum Research Institute.
The Australian Museum Eureka Prizes reward excellence in the fields of research, innovation, leadership, science communication and school science.
Recorded on 4 March 2016.