For this chief, science is both work and play

Meet the Chiefs is an occasional series by Petra Stock. She previously covered the role of Chief Metrologist.

Professor Bronwyn Fox loves science so much, she even takes it on holidays.

Recent vacation highlights include a trip to the world materials forum (to understand the challenges around critical minerals), another time it was a site visit to a quantum computer.

“I was thinking about starting up a science-based tourism business,” the CSIRO chief scientist jokes.

“Learning and sharing” are the values that drive her, evidenced by a career spent chasing intellectual curiosity from chemistry, to materials engineering, to robotics and automation, and beyond. 

As chief scientist at Australia’s national research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation – better known to the public by its acronym CSIRO – Fox’s remit is vast.

The institution, which employs more than 6,300 people at 49 sites across the country (and 2 globally), focuses its scientific research and technology development into six key challenges: health and wellbeing, food security and quality, secure Australia and region, resilient and valuable environments, sustainable energy and resources, and future industries.

Her passion and interest in “everything”, as she puts it, is crucially important for her role as chief scientist. While the organisation’s CEO Dr Doug Hilton grapples with organisational challenges, Fox’s role is focused on championing the ‘science’ underway, and measuring the impact of CSIRO’s research and development.   

Whatever we do now is going to be really important in 20 years’ time.

Prof Bronwyn Fox

That’s no small task. Scientists, engineers and researchers at the CSIRO work on everything from quantum computing; the energy transition; ‘circularity’ of batteries manufacturing and recycling; to how humans can collaborate with artificial intelligence, food security, space exploration and the targeted delivery of drugs. 

The chief scientist has 4 key areas of responsibility: ethics and integrity, accountability and metrics, strategic focus and developing the next generation of budding researchers.

Fox is currently focused on refreshing the organisation’s future science and technology plan, first released in 2019. 

It’s a process informed by her first year in the role, when she spent time visiting many of CSIRO’s companies and spin-offs.  

“I’d find a quiet scientist in the back of the room, and ask them when they started to work on the technology. And they’d always say ‘20 years ago.’ So it made me start thinking, whatever we do now is going to be really important in 20 years’ time, so how do we make those decisions?”

The update is designed to focus on the next big ideas, challenges and opportunities on the horizon – synthesising what CSIRO’s best minds and global experts think about the direction of science in the future, 20 years down the track. 

I’m just really so passionate about encouraging anyone to take on a career in science. It’s so rich and rewarding.

Prof Bronwyn Fox

And Fox is already thinking about where those future scientists and engineers might come from.

Her face lights up when she describes current initiatives building the CSIRO’s capacity around Indigenous science and engagement, which includes practical measures like increasing the number of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander employees and applying a co-design approach for research.

“We’re now really, consciously putting that into place with the way we partner more broadly, across universities and across industry,” she says.

“The other really joyful thing that we did was recruit 200 early and mid-career scientists under our ‘Impossible without you’ campaign.”

Building the next generation of scientists has particular meaning for Fox.

For her, taking on the role of chief scientist at the nation’s science agency in 2022, meant returning to the organisation where she started her professional career as a chemistry graduate some 3 decades earlier.

Speaking to Cosmos in the café courtyard at CSIRO’s sprawling Clayton campus, Fox gestures to one of the buildings. “My first job after uni was in a lab just over there.”

“I’m just really so passionate about encouraging anyone to take on a career in science. It’s so rich and rewarding […] it’s about finding creative solutions, and solving big problems, that are seemingly impossible”.

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