SCIENCE AT THE SHINE DOME, 2006
4 May 2006
Dr Jim Peacock FAA
President, Australian Academy of Science
Distinguished guests and Fellows. My name is Jim Peacock. As President of the Academy I welcome you to the fifty-second anniversary of the formal ceremonies of the Australian Academy of Science.
Tomorrow, Friday 5 May 2006, marks the end of my four-year term as President of the Academy of Science. It is the custom for Presidents, when they come to the end of their terms to use this, the final Presidential Address, to give the government of the day some strong advice on science policy; a parting shot across the bows, as it were.
So I thought that rather than spend this morning's address telling politicians what to do, it might be more useful to reflect on what we, as an Academy of eminent Australian scientists, can do to contribute to the socioeconomic and environmental well-being of this nation. In order to better understand those areas where the Academy truly can make a difference, I'll recount some of the Academy's activities during the past four years of my Presidency. I'll highlight some of those things we've done well and identify a couple of areas where I think we might do better.
As the fourteenth President of the Academy, I've had the opportunity to build upon the formidable foundations put in place by my predecessors, some of whom are here today including Lloyd Evans, David Curtis, David Craig and Gus Nossal.
Brian Anderson, who handed me the President's gavel in 2002, is unable to be with us but sends his best wishes. Now I know why Brian is looking so pleased in this photo! So what has it been like to be President of the Academy? Has it been easy? No, it has not. Has it been rewarding? Yes, very much so.
The Presidency involves a continuing commitment to the ideals of the Academy and a great deal of work I can't hide that but the role is a very important one for the Academy of Science because it brings with it many ex officio positions, including membership of the Prime Minister's Science Engineering and Innovation Council, PMSEIC. As the President you have many national responsibilities, particularly in the area of communicating science based positions relevant to policy at the federal and even at the state level, and in presenting issues for public discussion. One such issue put forward by ourselves and the technical science academy recently was the discussion of the place of nuclear power in the global effort to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. The government is currently considering the approach that John Zillman and I made to the Prime Minister. And the Prime Minister, at the time, responded positively to the suggestion that this is something that we need to look at, put the facts right and perhaps then engage in extensive discussion in the country. So the matter is still under consideration at the moment.
The position of President of the Academy has been most gratifying for me personally. I've had the opportunity to engage with, the top scientists from many different disciplines and from many different research institutions and I pay tribute to those scientists who have, through the diversity of their views and skill sets, contributed significantly to the broader education of me, William James Peacock. I could not have had better training for the position of Chief Scientist of Australia that I've taken up recently. You, my colleagues, have given me the best chance I think to do well in that position.
Well, what have we achieved?
Our initiative in introducing science into literacy education for primary school children has been extraordinarily successful, both in improving the quality of science teaching and in engaging school children in understanding that science underpins their everyday lives. The Academy and the federal Department of Education, Science and Training are working together to progress this initiative known as PrimaryConnections. The program has attracted substantial Federal Government funding and following successful trials in some 50 odd schools across Australia in 2005, in public, independent and catholic schools, the program has also captured the imagination of State Governments who are helping us to realise our ambition of eventual implementation in 8,000 schools across the nation.
At the high school level, we have maintained a continuing commitment to the distinguished, secondary school science resource, Nova, our website that has now had more than ten million visits. The main sponsor of Nova is the Commonwealth Bank Foundation, but individual science topics attract individual sponsors, such that Nova is now being incorporated into the communications strategy of many organisations, ranging from the NRMA Road Safety Trust to Federal Government Departments to ARC Research Networks. By far the most popular of the more than 80 Nova topics is the one on Epstein Barr Virus, that I understand comes up when teeny-boppers Google the word kissing.
Also at the high school level, the Academy has embarked on the first stage of a collaborative national project called Science by Doing. So we are attempting to establish a continuum from primary school where PrimaryConnections is working into to the secondary school. This is an enterprising program that aims to engage junior secondary students in science through independent investigation. We are currently at the scoping stage and will soon be presenting the full proposal for the trialling phase to the Federal Government. The project is in partnership with DEST and CSIRO Education.
In relation to our efforts in science education, I want to recognise and thank John McKenzie, the Secretary for Education and Public Awareness, who has been unwavering in his commitment to these science education initiatives and who is coming this week to the end of his four-year term as an Officer of the Academy. John will be handing over to Julie Campbell who is already engaged in Academy business as the co-Chair of an international review of inquiry-based science education, sponsored by the InterAcademy Panel, the IAP, which brings together all the major science academies of the world. And we're playing quite a significant role.
The Academy is yet to engage in provision of educational initiatives for undergraduate teaching at universities, but already a number of opportunities are presenting.
These include future activities such as hosting and publishing a series of public lectures on Darwinian evolution which we hope to do quite soon hosting and publishing a series of public lectures on physics, from Australia's Federation Fellows and catalysing ideas for the development of a high quality course in Clinical Genetics for Australia's, now 18, medical schools. I think this entry of the Academy into university undergraduate education will be another important step in improving the quality, excitement and engagement of children right through their education process.
As President of the Academy, I have taken it on myself to promote the careers and professional development of Australia's early-career researchers. I have unashamedly copied some initiatives from the US Academy. For example, the US Academy has a Frontiers of Science program that features top young scientists from many different disciplines. I thought it was an absolutely outstanding enterprise. So we have one now. At present, we run one Australian Frontiers of Science Symposium each year. And we aim to bring together the very best young scientists, from different disciplines, to discuss exciting advances in their fields and to establish innovative collaborations.
Another successful initiative for early-career researchers is the annual Think Tank. This year the Academy held its fourth think tank for young researchers, and on this occasion we discussed Biotechnology in the future of Australian agriculture. From each of these think tanks, the young researchers prepare a discussion report and we in the Academy secretariat, take that report forward to the various arms of government, the decision makers, that are pertinent to that particular area. The resulting report will inform public policy in this important area. The Academy seeks to nurture future generations of scientists playing a role in informing public policy. We hope we are exposing those scientists to scientific issues of national and international importance.
The Academy's commitment to early-career researchers was recognised in the recent review of the Academy. The Department of Education, Science and Training provides a modest grant-in-aid to each of the four learned academies and to the National Academies Forum. The grant-in-aid guidelines call for a review of the scheme every five years. For the 2005 review, then Minister Brendan Nelson appointed a three-person committee comprising Bruce Alberts, outgoing President of the US National Academy of Sciences, John Ralph, Chair of the Australian Foundation for Science and John Hay, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Queensland. The committee met in Canberra with the various Academies in September and reported to the Minister, who wrote back to us in December to say,
‘I was pleased by the Review's positive report of the performance of the Australian Academy of Science as well as of the Academies more generally. The Government is considering the Review's recommendations for additional funding in the context of the 2006-2007 Budget.'
The committee recommended an increase in the annual grant-in-aid saying that,
‘The main purpose of this increase is to allow the Academy of Science to continue and expand its programs for outstanding early-career scientists.'
The Academy was pleased to receive what was a very professional, thoughtful and thorough review report. It was encouraging to see that this committee saw that there some degree of importance to increase our support. Whether Treasury has responded to that recommendation will be known next Tuesday evening on Budget night.
I would like to encourage our incoming President, Kurt Lambeck, to engage with the regional groups of Fellows to continue to host the Think Tanks in different cities across Australia and to focus on regional as well as national issues of scientific import. We've been discussing various ways of maintaining contact with these outstanding young scientists that we make awards to or that participate in various activities and I think the regional groups of Fellows could play a major role. And I've already spoken to some of the Chairs of the regional groups and I really hope this comes about in an effective way.
International scientific relations continue be a significant component of the Academy's activities and they range from administration of scientific international exchange programs, to engaging with about thirty international scientific unions through, organising bilateral scientific workshops and acting as a gateway for visiting international scientific delegations. Our relations with the international scientific unions are under-pinned by the actions of the Academy's 20 national committees in various scientific disciplines. And I wish to pay tribute to the activities of those scientific committees in which both Fellows and non-Fellows from different discipline play a role.
In September, a particularly important international activity occurred, the Academy hosted the 2005 Council meeting of the Federation of Asian Scientific Academies and Societies, called FASAS, in Canberra. FASAS is an important scientific grouping probably the most important in our Region and includes the Chinese and Indian Academies of Science.
I want to thank Bruce McKellar, who is coming to the end of his term as Foreign Secretary. Bruce has given an enormous amount of time he has given to the Academy in hosting our international visitors and representing us at international scientific meetings. Bruce will hand over to Jenny Graves who gave that outstanding lecture yesterday who is already engaged in Academy business. The International Union for Science, ICSU, has established the Asia and Pacific Regional Office in Kuala Lumpur, and Jenny is a member of the Committee of the Regional Office.
In April this year, the Chinese Academy of Science hosted in Beijing an invited Symposium on election procedures for learned Academies and on the roles and responsibilities of Fellows. The three learned Academies invited to contribute to the symposium apart from Australia were those of India, the United States and the Third World Academy of Sciences. I attended, along with Bruce McKellar and our Executive Secretary, Professor Sue Serjeantson, and we found it to be a very useful symposium. Pleasingly, we found that our Academy's procedures compared well with those of others except in one very important respect. The Chinese Academy of Science, like the US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society and I believe many other Academies elects to its Fellowship scientists working anywhere in the world.
Our notion that Fellows elected to the Australian Academy of Science should be resident in Australia, I think is becoming increasingly anachronistic. The population of Australia has only recently reached 20 million, but at any given time one million Australians, many of them professional workers, are resident overseas. We all know that international links are critically important for our sciences if we are to remain competitive and world class. Similarly, we know that formal international links are important to ensure our Academy is alert to new opportunities and major international developments. Australians, even though they are working in other countries, for the most part remain enthusiastic about science in Australia. Australia has made the mistake before of being too parochial and hiding behind protectionist attitudes, and I don't think we should be doing it in this matter.
At the end of my first year as President of the Academy, I wrote in my foreword to the Annual Report that:
At our AGM on 1 May 2003, Council will be proposing that, given the globalisation of science, it is time to recognise the contributions of some outstanding Australian scientists resident abroad. The proposition will be put that, from the year 2005, up to two expatriates on the Physical Sciences side and up to two on the Biological Sciences side might be elected by Ordinary Election to the Fellowship, in addition to the existing quota of 16 permanent residents of Australia. There are some persuasive arguments for the Academy to forge closer links with the expatriate scientific community.
We did discuss the issue of extending Fellowship to Australian scientists resident abroad at the 2003 Annual General Meeting. We discussed the matter again at the 2004 AGM, then once again, at the 2005 AGM. Finally the matter went to a postal ballot, in the knowledge that changes can only be made to the Bye-Laws if three-quarters of those voting are in agreement with the proposition for adoption.
The first disappointment was that only half the Fellowship returned their ballot papers, on this, a matter of great importance to the Academy. And I think this is deplorable apathy. The second disappointment to me was the outcome of the ballot itself. We had 199 people vote, and we needed 150 to agree with the proposal but only 128 did and so the proposition was lost.
Now, it is a great Australian tradition to vote no in referenda, so I would like to offer some advice to Council, to look for changing the Bye-Laws so that we might consider that two-thirds of those voting, rather than three-quarters, would need to agree with any proposition for it to be adopted.
Not many organisations need 75 per cent of the vote, although Peter Holmes a Court and Russell Crowe became owners of the South Sydney RFL Club, the Rabbitohs, in March with 75.8 per cent of the vote. Crowe, I think, must have given the most impassioned performance of his life to get that mandate; it proved an impossible task for me.
The Australian public is largely supportive of the scientific enterprise. It is the responsibility of the Academy of Science and of Australian scientists more broadly to continue to earn that public respect and trust. There is no place in Australia for the hysteria seen in the United Kingdom regarding childhood vaccination, no place for the European fear of GM maize as animal feed and no place for the ultra-conservative US war on global change science.
We in the Academy will continue to deserve that public support as long as our efforts in research and development are at the highest international level and continue to enhance, as I suggested before, the socioeconomic and environmental well-being of Australia and the planet.
There are four foundation planks in the platform needed to build a successful science and technology based future for Australia. First, we must have excellent science education for our children. This must extend right through the primary, secondary and tertiary levels. We need to excite and engage our young people. We need to provide them with the skills to seek out the essential facts around any topic: Facts that they can then use to make decisions on matters of importance in our society. Not all children will follow a career in science but all should be scientifically literate.
We must have a quality research and development (R&D) system well-supported and well-respected. Researchers must expect to be able to talk about their work to the public. To explain what they are doing, what their objectives are and why they feel justified in their choice of research topics. We must be able in this way to discuss the relevance of our research to the well-being of Australia and more widely.
In the third plank, we must make sure that we knowingly play a role in the international business of science. We need to be aware of where we fit in the global research enterprise and ensure that we're always striving to operate at the peak of the international benchmarks of quality.
The fourth plank is perhaps the hardest to build into this platform. We need to be able to communicate the facts of our discoveries and to participate in the process involved in their delivery into practice. The delivery may concern the development of important public policy; it may concern the translation of the discovery into a profitable commercial enterprise; it may concern the adoption of the discovery into the mechanisms used by various agencies responsible for the care of our environment; or it may concern the impact of the discovery on the improvement of our personal health with either preventative or therapeutic procedures.
I have already touched upon what the Academy is doing to try and improve science education, the first plank. Our efforts are directed at assisting teachers as well as students to perform at a high level. And I think that's really critical.
The second plank is really our core business the quality R&D system and we continue to work in many different ways to try and ensure the highest quality of the Australian R&D effort. We also play a large and significant role in the plank concerning the activity between Australian science and international science.
And with regard to that difficult fourth plank, I think we've lifted our game a bit recently, particularly in providing quality factual material pertinent to policy development across the different agencies of government. But it is in this field that we must strive to do more. We have the raw material to do it. The Academy's 400 Fellows represent quite a large sample of the most knowledgeable people in the scientific disciplines and we are in contact with other first class scientists through Academy activities. Whether we are young or old, living in Australia or overseas, each of us has an obligation to contribute in this way. We can all do more concerning the wider implications of our own particular knowledge.
I recently saw a quote from a poem by a man called Richard Hodgetts, and he said,
‘It doesn't matter whether you are lion or a gazelle, when the sun comes up you'd better be running'.
And that's the message I leave with you today.