As a child I never imagined I would become a scientist. Nor could my school teachers! I have dyslexia, which made those early school years difficult. And my messy handwriting regularly got me into trouble.
But my experiences as a child gave me a knack for problem-solving, figuring out how to work my way around my dyslexia at school, coming at solutions from a different angle. Science was a sweet spot for me. I found it exhilarating.
For my PhD, I worked on a semiconductor material called indium nitride, and made some simple light-detecting diodes. I discovered that indium nitride was responsive to the right spectrum for creating white light. That might sound a bit obscure, but it’s this ability for nitrides to operate in the white light frequency range that is the basis of LEDs.
I knew my research was a potential game-changer. But back then, commercialisation wasn’t the mindset. The job of a scientist was to publish a paper – this was the end point. And there was no concept of passing the baton to someone else. So I published the findings, got my PhD and moved on.
Fortunately, a Japanese team worked out how to create an LED with nitrides. That Japanese team won a Nobel Prize for the invention. And LEDs, of course, are now the world’s major form of lighting.
With the benefit of hindsight, you might describe that as a brutal lesson in lost opportunities. But it has been a valuable lesson.
There is no shortage of excellent research in Australia. But let’s be frank: our research is not being translated into new products and innovations nearly as often as it could be. Australian ideas and industries are being lost offshore.
How do we strengthen the connections between scientists, researchers and innovators with industry and policymakers? How do we ensure the science community makes the biggest contribution it can?
We have to learn how to pass the baton.
I’ve often found when I’m faced with a difficult question that it helps to go for a run. I don’t jog to bring about that light-bulb moment. But I find that when I got back to the lab or my office, I know the next step to take.
Remember the men’s 4 x 100 metre relay at the Rio Olympics in 2016, when the Jamaican team led by Usain Bolt won gold? A great race, but the Japanese team took everyone by surprise that day when they won silver, and their runners weren’t household names. They achieved their place on the dais by a meticulous focus on the baton exchange. The Japanese team adopted a new technique for passing the baton – they used an “up-sweep” exchange, instead of the usual “down-sweep”. They also paid attention to the precise place where the outgoing runner should start his run, down to the centimetre. And the unachievable became achievable.
I like the way the Japanese tackled the problem – the lateral thinking. And that focus on that interface between members of the team helps me think about where we need to improve our performance in Australia.
We have quality research, industrial capability, institutional and regulatory strength. There’s no shortage of effort or investment, expertise, or peak organisations. There’s certainly no shortage of expert reports! We have all the components. What we need to do is pass the baton more efficiently. We need to make sure the system links up at these interfaces.
Science is where we start. But science cannot do it alone.
Discovery happens in small teams. But innovation and impact needs bigger teams. I’ve come to this role of Australia’s Chief Scientist from the CSIRO, where most recently I focused on linking the work of researchers, start-ups and industry. We commercialised and partnered on a whole series of new technologies and products: the Green Whistle emergency analgesic now used across the world; a sunscreen based on the natural sun protection used by corals on the Great Barrier Reef; a stent to treat heart conditions now sold throughout Asia – to name a few. All these experiences were about knitting together different components of the research and commercialisation system.
We know how to do this. Think back to in March 2020 when Australia found itself on a steep upward curve in cases of COVID-19, from 26 cases at the beginning of the month to more than 4500 at the end. But it was also March last year when the Doherty Institute in Melbourne announced that it had mapped the immune response to the virus. A world-first, and an important step towards a vaccine. Science was already moving fast.
Here we are just over a year later. Vaccines have been developed in a quarter of the time of the previous fastest vaccine development. The pandemic has shown us that what we thought to be impossible becomes possible if we have the building blocks in place and if we work together. We have passed the baton smoothly from researchers to pharmaceutical companies and to medical manufacturers. Governments have moved quickly and invested significantly.
In short, COVID-19 has been an international disaster story and a scientific success story.
History tells us that science works best when there is a sense of urgency. A crisis such as wartime or a pandemic. Or a competitive deadline. Now it’s time to bring those lessons to the challenges that come next: climate change, energy and food security, to name a few.
These are challenges, but they are also opportunities for science.
Dr Cathy Foley is Australia’s Chief Scientist. This article is adapted from her inaugural National Press Club Address, in March. The full speech is available here.