Article—Science and engineering faculties–from Federation to today and beyond

The following article was written by Professor Brian D O Anderson AO PresAA FRS FTSE, President, Australian Academy of Science. It was published on the Academy's website on 16 August 2001. An edited version was printed in Campus Review, September 12-18, 2001.

January 1, 1901 and a young Australia boasted four universities – Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Tasmania – all of which offered courses in science. During the year of Federation our fifth university, Queensland, was established, continuing the tradition of including science in its curriculum. Our newly formed nation was focused on developing roads, rail and building infrastructure, and already experiencing the impact of science and technology-based industry as telephone and electricity services expanded.

It was to be expected in those early years that researchers in our fledgling universities would look to Britain for recognition and acknowledgement. The establishment of the Rhodes scholarship in 1904 took some of our brightest graduates to England, many never to return. Not until after the Second World War would scientists working in Australia see themselves more in an Australian, rather than a British, context. And with the introduction of the PhD degree in the late 1940s, our own universities could at last supply a skilled scientific workforce.

The establishment of other publicly and privately funded scientific institutions outside the universities added to the critical mass of the science and engineering base in Australia. The most notable of these was the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). After its establishment in 1926 and restructure to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in 1949, the organisation played a significant role in diversifying the areas of scientific research in Australia, and provided career opportunities for our university graduates.

The establishment of the Australian National University (ANU) in 1946 as a research-only institution, and the injection of Commonwealth funds that allowed a significant development of university research schools in the 1960s, further enhanced the capability of scientific research in this country.

The myxomatosis story, that began with experiments by CSIR in the 1930s and unfolded during the subsequent decades, was an early example of what could be achieved by scientific collaboration between institutions. The virology expertise provided by scientists at the ANU, working in collaboration with the CSIRO, resulted in a story that has become a well-known part of Australian scientific history.

The last decade has seen a proliferation in the diversity of opportunity for young graduates across a wide range of areas encompassing pure, applied and strategic research. This has largely come about through the establishment in 1990 of the Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) Program. CRCs play an important role in the Australian innovation system, bringing together researchers and research users from universities, the public sector and business.

Australian scientific research and development has historically been confined largely to public institutions. Notwithstanding initiatives such as CRCs, this remains the case today, with business investment in research and development ('BIRD') at a plateau. With the increasing acknowledgement that it is unrealistic to expect the public purse to provide fully the required increase in R&D funding, the role of business has become even more crucial. Close monitoring of 'BIRD' will be required to determine whether the new settings for tax incentives are working. If not, it will be vital to revise the settings as a matter of urgency.

If we reflect on the influence that Australian science and engineering faculties have had on Australia and the world we find an enormous contribution, not only at the practical level in terms of research outcomes, but also at the level of the Australian psyche. We have a record of producing outstanding graduates who make outstanding contributions. From world-class engineering feats such as the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme in our own land, to scientific achievements that changed the course of history such as the development of penicillin by an expatriate graduate, we are confident that we can hold our own on the world stage.

Australians remain inventive researchers, skilled at delivering impressive achievements on what are, by international standards, modest budgets. The science and engineering faculties in our universities may be doing it tough economically, but they continue to produce graduates who make significant contributions by all conventional measures at the international level. We have had to come to terms with political and commercial influences and work in a world of complex and often competing demands.

The explosion in information and the technology that underpins it has had as significant an impact on science and engineering in Australia as any other single factor. The sequencing of the human genome and the rapid expansion of the internet makes today's world of science and engineering research one that our colleagues in the universities at Federation would scarcely recognise.

The selection criteria for a modern-day scientific researcher appears daunting – until we realise that we are producing people with just such a skill set. Not only must today's researcher excel at the bench; they must also be excellent written and oral communicators, able to deliver riveting presentations using cutting-edge audio-visual technology. They must be able to develop an international reputation, build networks, work effectively in teams as well as individually, and raise the funds to sustain their research.

From the very early days, Australians demonstrated the inventiveness and initiative that remained the hallmark of our scientific and engineering endeavour throughout the first 100 years of Federation. The Australian Academy of Science is uniquely positioned to appreciate the richness and diversity of the research occurring in Australia as we enter our second 100 years as a nation. In 2001, the Academy elected 17 new Fellows, working in some 13 different fields of research from organometallic chemistry and human disease through to materials engineering and coral reef ecology. These eminent researchers were drawn from 13 different institutions. Criteria for election to fellowship are rigorous, and those who are successful have made major contributions to their field of work and have an international reputation borne out in publications and invitations to conferences as plenary speakers.

We continue to applaud the talent and dedication of Australia's scientific researchers, those who were the pioneers through to today's brightest. We must in closing though, commend the institutions, in particular the universities, that have supported and enabled them to achieve all that has been achieved. In Benjamin Disraeli's words, 'Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation.'

Footnote: The Academy's bicentennial publication titled Australian Science in the Making provides an interesting and informative account of Australian science's first 200 years.

© 2017 Australian Academy of Science