Paul Barclay, Genevieve Bell, Rod Lamberts, Geoff McNamara and Michelle Simmons, 10 October 2018
STEPHANIE BULL: For those of you who don't know me, my name is Stephanie Bull and I'm the Deputy Director here at the National Museum of Australia. Our Director Dr Matthew Trinca unfortunately can't be here tonight. He sends his apologies and also extends his welcome to you.
So I'd like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal, Ngunawal and Ngambri people who are the traditional custodians on this land on which we are meeting and pay respect to their elders both past and present. I extend this respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in attendance today.
Thanks for being here tonight for this important discussion, which will explore the history of Australian invention and innovation and discuss what will challenge and inspire Australian innovators of the future. As regulars to the museum will know, this panel is part of our headline Defining Moments in Australian history project which was launched in 2014 and aims to stimulate discussion about events that have shaped our national culture and identity.
Indeed tonight's panel is themed around size and innovation moments which feature on our online defining moments list. This list started with an original 100 key moments developed by a panel of eminent historians. We have since asked Australians to nominate their own defining moments and almost another 300 moments have been added to the list as a result. The current defining moments list includes a diverse range of moments. Indigenous ingenuity over 65,000 years continues to inspire us and the list honours innovation some 20,000 years ago with the earliest evidence of a boomerang which in skilled hands can hunt prey up to 100 metres away. Also included is the 1996 CSIRO patent of technology which led to the development of Wi-Fi as we know it today. The list incorporates the awarding of the 1945 Nobel Prize for the development of penicillin which was of course discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming and made medically useful in the 1940s by a team of Oxford scientists led by Australian Howard Florey and German refugee Ernst Chain.
And the list also features the 1903 distribution of the so-called Federation wheat, developed by William Farrah to be resistant to black stem rust and drought. These are all on our website and I encourage you to have a look and please add more if you think we've missed any.
A big thanks to our esteemed panellists tonight. Australian of the Year and quantum physicist, Professor Michelle Simmons. Cultural anthropologist, technologist and futurist from the Australian National University, Professor Genevieve Bell. Dr Rod Lamberts, Deputy Director of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science. Also from the ANU. And the wonderful Geoff McNamara AM, a teacher from Melrose High here in Canberra. His innovative and passionate commitment won him the 2014 Prime Minister's Award for Science Teaching. And finally a big welcome to our friend and ABC Radio National presenter Paul Barclay, a Walkley Award winning journalist, broadcaster from the Big Ideas Program. Paul is now going to introduce our panellists in more detail and I'll leave it with you Paul thanks.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay. Thank you very much. Stephanie I won't go into much more detail about the panellists long CV list. We'll be here all night. But welcome tonight, it's a great pleasure to be here once again. This discussion we're about to have is being recorded for my radio program Big Ideas on RN and on podcast. It can be heard every night Monday to Thursday at 8pm and downloaded onto your pod.
What has good old Australian ingenuity added to the world? Well you just heard some examples there from Stephanie. There's also the Ute, and The Hills Hoist as well. But the black box flight recorder, the bionic ear, spray-on skin, penicillin. Google Maps had its genesis here and if we go right back, as you heard, the boomerang and Indigenous fire stick farming — all not bad for a country that's often derided as being basically a quarry and a farm. And when we're talking about farming there's the merino sheep and as you heard Federation wheat as well. RN and the National Museum has been shining a light on the defining moments and I suppose also defining themes of Australian history. We've looked at post-war immigration, sport, the contribution of women and young Australians to our history, individual moments like the ‘67 referendum and the Mabo ruling, the apology the gold rushes and the arrival of the contraceptive pill. Just to name a few and tonight it's the turn of Australian innovation and invention.
Are we really the clever country that we say we are? What future scientific and technological breakthroughs does Australia have up its sleeve? How equipped are we to continue to innovate and break new ground? I think you've already been introduced to our panel of guests but please put your hands together for them.
What I'm going to do first of all is ask each of our panellists if they have a favourite Australian invention or innovation of the past, or perhaps a favourite scientist or technologist who's responsible for it. And Genevieve you're the first cab off the rank. Would you like to nominate one?
GENEVIEVE BELL: Can I do two just to be cheeky. So favourite innovator is, actually so it's funny listening to the list of defining historical moments because I think most of them on our currency. So I want to take the $50 bill and turn it over and on the flip side you will find David Unaipon a Ngarrindjeri man from South Australia who has an entire portfolio of innovations and inventions and is the first Indigenous person to patent his ideas and also to tell a whole series of the stories of his culture in English. And so we remember him on our currency and he has a name I wish we had in currency. And then my favourite Australian invention, it's actually in honour of my grandfather who told me about this when I was a little girl and I didn't know what it was called. I had to find it more recently. So in 1938 in Sydney at the ABC they invented something called synthetic broadcasting which is how you took the cricket feed that was coming in on the teletype and the telegraph and the phone lines and converted it into radio. And it's why grandstand sounds the way it does is that we had to make space to fill in waiting for the overs to come along the broadcast and so they used a pencil and a coconut to make the sound of the bat hitting the ball. And radio was made basically creating impression about a static piece of text and there's something about that for me that makes me always think about both. How is it that we make do here? How is it that we tell stories using technology and how do we use our own imagination to create something around all of that? So synthetic broadcast.
PAUL BARCLAY: Oh that's a fantastic … well done what a great innovation. Elephant Stamp as Phillip Adams would say for that one, terrific. Rod?
ROD LAMBERTS: Well I can only follow that by giving two honourable mentions and then my favourite science guy. It's a guy by coincidence. So my honourable mentions are for the electric drill because I love Bunnings and I love hardware, and so your electric drill. The Cask, the goon, because you know I don't mind a wine …
GENEVIEVE BELL: Well and combined with a Hills Hoist thus all [inaudible] games ever …
ROD LAMBERTS: Nothing got dangerous after those two. But my main scientist will be Barry Marshall for, hats off, for drinking a petri dish full of H Pylori. We have a real scientist to my left — bacteria to prove that ulcers are caused by bacteria and not “worry, curry and hurry”. And someone who's prepared to guzzle a petri dish full of bacteria in the name of science gets my vote straight away.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes, won a Nobel Prize too didn't he?
ROD LAMBERTS: That's what you got to do. Yeah you got to eat some horrible things to win a Nobel.
PAUL BARCLAY: Michelle?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So I found it really hard because one of the things I've looked at is how terrific Australians are at adapting technology and taking something that exists and putting a spin on it. And so if you go back to the Aborigines with the boomerang. So they took a stick but they bent it and they made it a returning boomerang and they used spin and gyroscopic motion. So they used scientific ideas to make that boomerang come back. So you go right back then — in Europe they've got evidence that they use sticks, over here they've bent the sticks they got it to come back. That's pretty amazing. But then if you keep going in time you've got other things. You’ve got Vegemite, you know Marmite for those that come from England I know. Marmite was slightly ahead of the game but Vegemite is much better. So you've got you've got an Australian chemist that comes in, and it's changed the recipe, and come up Vegemite.
Then you go forwards and I like things that get better and better as you go. Then you start to look at plastic money. So plastic money came out. Dave Solomon, CSIRO, came out with plastic money. It's all over the world. It basically found a way to stop forgery. And again it used science and the science says you can't take a photograph of a plastic note and then replicate it, because depending on how you take the photograph and how you hold it, it changes the way the note appears.
Keep going forwards. I've only got one or two more. Keep going forwards. Then you've got Graham Clark with the bionic ear. I mean that's just phenomenal. Taking people that are deaf, can't hear suddenly they can hear again. But it's the story behind it is how he had to fight to get the funding. How he had a lot of people that thought you couldn't do it. A lot of medics said it's too dangerous to do operations on children, he had to fight all kinds of politics along the way to get there. And come forward to modern day, you’ve got Atlassian. So a software company is out there now, 10 billion dollar company, come out of a university with two graduates, and their philosophy is you know everyone has to work in a team. It's very egalitarian. You know there's no boss telling you what to do. So the philosophy behind the company and how they got it going. All of those three things are uniquely Australian. That’s what I love about them.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think we'll come back to that theme about fighting for funding for innovation too, a little later on.
Geoff. What gets your gong?
GEOFF McNAMARA: The problem with going last is everybody's cleaned up before you unfortunately.
Look I thought long and hard about this question and decided that I can't really name any scientist who is my favourite. Now the reason for that is that I'm given time I'm working with between one or 200 scientists in different ways. And I thought if I name one that's going to get everybody else upset. There was an event a number of years ago, was 2014 in fact, and I found myself in a rather large hall surrounded by some pretty eminent scientists and I managed to nab the two who are my favourites, and got them side by side and took a photograph, and as they were taking the photograph I said, ‘My two favourite scientists don't tell the others’. But the reason that I can't specify any one scientist out of all the ones that I work with is because they're all so extraordinary and their contribution to my kids, the time that they take out to work with the kids, the expertise that they offer, it will never be written up in the history books, it will never be patented. They won't win Nobel prizes for it but as a teacher I think it's probably the most valuable thing anybody could ever do and that is give something to a young person. And so for all the scientists that I work with I think they're all absolutely brilliant.
PAUL BARCLAY: Fantastic. Great answer Geoff. And I'm really glad that we brought up Indigenous invention because I think that sometimes we give our First Nations people short shrift when it comes to innovation.
There are some absolutely astonishing innovations and Michelle, you were telling me about one of them. Sorry, Genevieve you were telling me about one of them. The Indigenous fish weirs. Tell us about the Indigenous fish weirs.
GENEVIEVE BELL: So for those of you who've been up near Brewarrina in the Murray-Darling Basin Delta up off near Barwon there are a series of fish weirs there that are about 40,000 years old. So there's 12 set of stone circles that are designed to raise and lower the water levels in the river system so that what you can do is actually move fish out of the river, flowing into these — we all built these kids right, remember when you use stone to move the water around and effectively build these and then add a stone at the very end. What it does is stops the water, it stops the fish, lets you pull the fish out.
That technique is common in lots of places around the world but the ones at Brewarrina are dated back 40,000 years which makes them the oldest human made intervention in the environment that's still extant. There's plenty of evidence to suggest that they were being used within the contemporary period. So you know certainly before Western civilization Western colonisation of Australia. But what it also suggests is that while we sometimes look at individual iconic objects, the Boomerang, the woomera, the spear, there is in fact much clearer evidence in multiple places in Australia of Indigenous people deliberately intervening in the environment to create different circumstances, and that's how technology and innovation always starts right. How humans can use the built environment and other techniques to change what the world would do otherwise, and so there you know the earliest extant technical system on the planet.
PAUL BARCLAY: Rod do you think we fully appreciate the extent of innovation that existed in Australia before the white fellows arrived during the period when Indigenous people were here?
ROD LAMBERTS: We? No. In general no. No I don't think it's well publicised, honestly I mean putting on a $50 bill, I'm not like Genevieve I don't have a lot of those in my wallet, but if I did I'd pay more attention.
GENEVIEVE BELL: I just have the one to prove that point.
ROD LAMBERTS: It’s your lucky $50 bill.
No I don't think we give it a lot of credence or attention but also I think what constitutes a development and innovation or scientific practice is kind of blurry. You know the idea that you might innovate, come up with a technology, that does something useful is often not considered to be something scientific, you know, because it doesn't necessarily follow certain methods etc. So I think we missed that as well, because it's not characterised or framed as science, part of the reason it disappears.
We're getting better, but we could be a lot better.
PAUL BARCLAY: We've just heard a lot of examples of innovation throughout history in Australia. Do you think that it's fair to say that Australia, overall throughout its history, has been a nation of innovation and invention, would you call Australia when you think of Australia as an innovative nation.
ROD LAMBERTS: I'll be honest I don't like the word innovation anymore. I think it's lost all meaning but that's because I think it's been hijacked. But look. Yeah but how do you compare it? You mean more than other countries?
PAUL BARCLAY: Is it a defining feature of much of Australia and Australian culture and when you think of Australia, do you think of Australia being a nation of inventors?
ROD LAMBERTS: I probably do but I have I have a bias position, where I sit I'm surrounded by that kind of thing. I think people mostly characterise us still as sporting, relaxed, swimmers …
GENEVIEVE BELL: Yes, cause I would have said the fact that, the kind of presence of a shared, the longing for a shared, the notion of a place where stuff is because you never know when you're going to need it to do something. The kind of Australian attitude, maybe it's not invention or innovation, but to the notion of tinkering, bush mechanics, to the idea of having a go. All of that suggests a kind of culture that says … To Michelle's point right. There were moments where you had to make do, because there was no other thing you could have done. And I think that is kind of a cultural thread that runs through Australia.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I actually I think it's fundamental to Australians, so if you think about it, you know the landscape was harsh. It's geographically remote from the rest of the world. So you know the Indigenous Australians had to figure out how to survive, and then anyone that has come to live here in the future still has the same kind of constraints. You know you're a long way from everywhere. The world is rapidly changing. The funding is probably less overall because there's a smaller population. So you have to adapt. So I think Australians are expert at adapting technologies, you know agricultural mining software whatever it is adapting and making the best of what they've got and giving it a go. I think it's ingrained in us.
PAUL BARCLAY: In a previous conversation I was talking to George Megalogenis about something different and he thinks that Australians are very hard on themselves and hard on us as a nation that we don't celebrate our achievements and consequently we don't think much of ourselves with this little country at the bottom end of the world.
And I'm interested in how the rest of the world perceives us. Now Michelle, I understand you'd actually just been to a very high-powered summit on quantum computing at the White House where you've been chatting with the big tech companies and administration officials from the White House. So perhaps you're in a good position to answer this. How is Australia is seen outside of Australia by people, are we seen as an innovative clever country?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes absolutely. I think one of the things that I see is that internationally people that hire Australians they feel that they've got a good deal say all over the world. If someone says you're going to Australian coming they think, ‘Good’. You know, they know that that is a very positive thing. I think some of the things that we take for granted certainly in our research environment. So the fact that we have research schemes over here in terms of fellowships and centres of excellence and collaborative schemes. They are the envy of the world. I see this everywhere I go people trying to replicate what we've got, and what that means is you know we're a country that is used to collaborating with each other, giving hard projects ago and people see us internationally for that. So I think the funniest thing is, I've always seen internationally people think we're terrific, but locally we have that doubt. And so I travel a lot so I get to see, and get that positive feedback the whole time and I guess one of the things, certainly for younger people, is I want you to be aware, people think good things of Australians overseas, and actually there are good things happening here, and a lot of cases, ahead of the rest of the world. So it would be good to get that perspective into their minds at an early age.
PAUL BARCLAY: Genevieve, you spent a lot of the last, I don't know, 10 – 20 years of your life living overseas and working within the tech scene, overseas. What sense do you get about how Australia is seen from the kind of upper echelons of the technology scene?
GENEVIEVE BELL: Well some of it would echo what Michelle says right. There is a kind of a sense that if you get Australians, good a little bit disruptive, but hardworking. That was always the narrative that was sort of circled around the valley, it was interesting. I think there is, depending on where you are, very different threads about what comes out of Australia right. So we're talking a lot here about innovation as though that was solely the precept of science and the reality is that Australia is actually driven a lot of innovations in other sectors. So we're seen as being leading in things like the digital humanities. So how do you bring together high performance computing data analytics and the social sciences? Australia is seen as being a centre that's been doing that ahead of everyone else. If you look at the ways we have historically funded and supported the arts, certainly in movie production and television making, we're seen as having generated technologies that actually moved from here to elsewhere, so what's interesting is the science piece is one of it, but I think it's important to remember that in fact we have cultures of transformation and lots of other places in the sector which are seen as being powerful, and in fact I'd say the same about ideas. Well let's not remember the only thing we export isn't just technical systems.
But you know let's go back and think about, well you know Muriel Matters, early Australian suffragette woman who helped get the vote for women in South Australia in the 80s 90s which meant that all women in Australia got the vote in 1900 because you couldn't take rights away at Federation that existed before it. Once she’d gotten the vote here, she took herself off with a whole bunch of other suffragettes and off they went to England, and harassed the English, into getting the vote for women. So we didn't just export technologies, we have taken ideas too, and I think there's a piece that says remembering that the ideas moved too, not just science but social ideas. Ideas about the arts, ideas about the humanities. We've exported those things too, and are in fact remembered and known for that as well.
PAUL BARCLAY: Compulsory Voting. Now there’s an idea.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Never been able to explain that to Americans. They usually explain to me that compulsory voting is a terrible terrible terrible thing and it violates their individual civil rights.
ROD LAMBERTS: Well they’ve proven and haven't they. I mean it's all worked out for them.
PAUL BARCLAY: Oh we could we could talk about this all night. I'm sure of it.
ROD LAMBERTS: Can I add to that, the disruptive effect is something — I mean I think I just became the voice of Australians who go, ‘We're not that good, actually we're bit crap’, but the disruptive effect is something I see a lot, and I get reflected back to me from friends and colleagues overseas. The one thing they know is if an Australian or certain Australians walk into a room, things might get rattled a bit, and usually they mean that positively, nine times out of 10, and I think that's something that we do export to the rest of the world, is kind of kicking stuff around, and basically challenging hierarchies that sort of thing, more than many that I've seen.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes. So Geoff you get to see the scientists of the future because you teach them. I'm curious, one of your defining characteristics I think, is your is your passion for science. It certainly comes through. I wonder whether Australia is passionate enough about science and how students see science, do they see it as an important dare I say it as a cool thing to study in Australia?
GEOFF MCNAMARA: Do Australians think highly enough of science? I don't think so, I don't think that's possible in fact. But schools are a good cross-section of society. So if you look at the attitudes in schools you get a reasonably good idea of the attitudes of society more broadly. I think it's fair to say that in most schools science is growing in popularity but we've got a long way to go. Schools are very much dominated by sport and by the arts. In the school that I'm at of course, and the number of schools around the country, things are changing. But I think the other aspect of science, I mean I don't like the idea of science being popular the way that pop stars are popular or whatever. I think what I'd rather see students developing a work ethic and that work ethic needs to be led by curiosity about the world and about the universe that they're in. This is going to sound very philosophical but too often I've heard people talk about, ‘What's the relevance of the education that the kids are getting?’ To which I would respond, ‘Well, what's wrong with learning for the sake of learning? What's wrong with learning about the origin of the universe?’ It's never going to feed anybody, it’s not going to make anybody any money, but it's the reason why we bother to stay alive in the first place, things like that, it's a cultural activity. So I think what we need to do is to continue to increase the curiosity of the people. And that starts with the kids and maintain it — kids start out curious somehow they get it beaten out of them along the way. I was talking to Michelle earlier and she was pointing that out exactly with primary school kids. They want to know everything. What I'm trying to do through my work and with my wonderful students and all of the scientists I work with is trying to make sure that flying doesn't go out. But at the same time instil in the students problem solving ability which leads to innovation and a work ethic, more than anything else I think.
PAUL BARCLAY: Michelle?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes look I have to say that my favourite day this year is when we opened our labs up and we had 200 school children come in, from primary school through to secondary school, and we had all our PhD students and staff doing experiments with them, showing them how to do things, and just the open hearted way that they were curious and they wanted to understand. Questions flying left, right and centre. It was just fantastic and I remembered, this is our future, and it's wide open and it's waiting for people to help. I very much agree with Geoff about getting scientists out there working with schoolchildren right down to that primary school age, exposing them to what kind of research is out there across the field, it doesn't have to be science, can be engineering, math, whatever it is, exposing them to what the future is, and they love it, they will give for and I think we underestimate their passion at that age.
PAUL BARCLAY: You know there was a time Michelle, when it seemed that you needed to be a sporting hero to be named Australian of the Year but the last two years this honour has gone to yourself, a physicist, and in 2017 the year before, to Alan Mackay-Sim, a biomedical scientist and leader in stem-cell research. Think that's telling us something about changing attitudes toward science in Australia?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes. I think it is. I mean I honestly don't know how it happened, but the one thing I see again, internationally when I travel, people are always amazed, ‘Hey Australians have put a quantum physicist as Australian of the Year?’ They think it's amazing and lots of other countries are now starting to say, ‘Hey, maybe we should do something like this’. So you know again Australia gets the attention for doing things in a very unique way, you know, and internationally people are like, ‘So really it's a physicist.’ The Americans couldn't believe it. Honestly.
PAUL BARCLAY: Were you surprised Rod, that a physicist got appointed Australian of the Year?
ROD LAMBERTS: No offense Michelle, but yeah. It does seem unlikely but to be fair our sporting teams are doing pretty bad job lately. I’m a Wallabies fan so it's not going well. We just got smashed in the cricket I believe as well, so I think what you're doing is great but there could be a correlation here. Probably not. Probably not.
PAUL BARCLAY: Is it emblematic though of a changing attitude, I mean a move away from the famous anti-intellectualism I suppose that the Australians have been characterised maybe unfairly in the past.
ROD LAMBERTS: Look there are there are indicators of that. I've done national surveys for the last couple of years on Australians attitudes and beliefs etc. about science. Repeatedly, the first one was actually eight years ago now, and repeatedly, people tell me via their surveys that they like science more than sport, science news more than sport, science news more than entertainment etc. etc. etc. and I admit to being cynical about that, but I keep getting that result. So that suggests to me, you know what is it, the numbers don't lie. Well they might, but we don't have to get into that. I don't make the numbers lie and that's what they're telling us. So there is there is an indication at least over the last eight years, quite strongly that that's what's going on, there is that there is a preference. So maybe it isn't just about how will the Wallabies are doing.
PAUL BARCLAY: How good are we at claiming our achievements, Genevieve? I mean I mentioned Google Maps originating in Australia. I mean here is an innovation that's kind of changed our lives really. We don't have to think about where we're going anymore. We just press the button on our mobile phone in the car, but I wonder how many people know that it even originated in Australia, or generally the innovation that exists in Australia.
GENEVIEVE BELL: I'm always surprised when you rattle off the back catalogue, of you know, CSIRO and Australian inventions more broadly, when people look you and go, ‘No, really?’ ‘No, really that was us.’ So I mean I think it's two things right, one we don't do a good job of talking about those things. But again I think that's true across the board right, we claim credit very selectively and we aren't good at telling ourselves stories about where we come from and what matters, let alone wanting to claim those internationally. And then I do think there is a piece of — we haven't talked about it too much — but the cultural cringe that lets us imagine that anything that's been invented in the technical sense must've come out of Silicon Valley. And of course that's not true. It's not just coming out of Australia it's coming out of you know, Israel, India, Chile, Brazil, there's lots of places where innovative stuff is happening. So we're not the only ones who aren't doing a particularly good job of saying, ‘Hey that was us’. But I think it's sometimes easier to imagine it was done somewhere else.
PAUL BARCLAY: I mean we've got two — you know don't blush — but two, at least level, people on the panel in the scientific world internationally. The two female members of the panel, I was referring to right. Both of you could work anywhere in the world and have. I'm curious about why you are both currently now in Australia, choosing to work here, and Michele in your field, I mean we're talking about a field of scientific endeavour at the moment where there is a huge amount of international intent focused on quantum computing, and you're doing it out of Australia. What made you come to Australia?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: It was a very targeted decision to be honest. I grew up in the UK — a very hierarchical structure if you're young and you want to do something new, is quite difficult in that system to break through. If you go to the US which is where a lot of people like to think everything's happening, it's very very competitive and so you're really fighting from the get-go both with all the people across the country but also in your own department. And so one of the things I loved about Australia was it was collaborative, and competitive. When I came over here, my whole career has been building teams, working with lots of people, taking on hard projects that other people thought were not possible. So giving it a go really adapting to what we're good at over here, picking people across the country that want to work together, and then basically you know being able to do things other people thought were not possible by being collaborative and pushing it. There's just this unique culture here, and I feel now that is very beneficial, because you know to build a quantum computer there’s lots of different disciplines that have to work together for a sustained period of time, against the odds. Lots of technical challenges, and it's only going to work if you can keep that together, and that's what Australians are fantastic at. So I joke about it being highly collaborative and highly competitive at the same time.
PAUL BARCLAY: So Genevieve, you've come back for a specific mission, which we will talk about in a moment, but nonetheless you've come from working at Intel Corporation that invented the microchip that changed the world as we know it, and your job there was really to help understand how the world would be changed by that chip, and that's why they employed an anthropologist to do that, a whole other story all of itself. But here you find yourself back in Australia — what made you come back here and what are you noticing upon your return? You're a famous disruptor coming back to Australia continuing to disrupt. Tell us about that.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Oh discuss. Yes, ok.
So I mean you pick the right word. You know I could have had a job anywhere but I've been lucky enough in my life to not necessarily want jobs but to want missions. So I wanted something that felt, I mean to Michelle's point — impossible. That felt really hard. You know I had gotten to a point in my career where I could make those kind of choices. Truthfully Intel's chief legal counsel thinks this is my mid-life crisis. He believes I've come home that way and it would just be easier if I would buy a car and get a younger partner. He thinks that would be quicker — doesn't believe that I actually want to build something at scale. So I mean I came back because Brian Schmidt and Eleanor Huntington at the Australian National University gave me a challenge that I couldn't resist. What have I found since I came back?
Well I have to say I've had a really different experience than Michelle's. I mean I think that's partly an anthropologist sitting inside a community of engineers. I think it's coming in at a different point in my career. There are ways where I find the Australia I left nearly 30 years ago, is almost gone. I remember an Australia that was incredibly willing to lean into doing difficult things. And that was about a kind of, ‘Oh we’ll just have a go, what’s the worst thing that can happen. It's not going to blow up, it'll probably be fine.’ And I find it to be incredibly risk averse and incredibly frightened of new ideas and different ways of doing things, with a kind of conservative arc of going, ‘Well, no one else is doing that. Ooh, ooh, that feels a bit difficult or I don't think we should do that.’ And I've been lucky that I've got people that I'm partnered with, and champions at the university, that are creating room for me to push on it, but it feels surprisingly challenging to ask questions about the status quo and that doesn't feel like the Australia I left.
PAUL BARCLAY: Are you commenting on a cultural attitude or are you commenting on institutional or even funding constraints.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Listen I think those are all the same thing. I think you know, there are ways in which, and you were alluding to it too Rod. We've become risk averse at a financial level. So we don't want to take certain kinds of risks. It is certainly the case — I was just listening to Adrian Turner from Data61 yesterday, reflecting on the data about funding for R&D in Australia, so industry funding R&D has diminished in Australia. Government funding of R&D has diminished in Australia so research and development, so the amount of money Australia is willing to spend in thinking big ideas about the future is on the decline, across the board. We are underspending compared to both comparable countries and the countries that we like to benchmark ourselves against, so I know that if we looked at where the money went, there's less of it going to new ideas. So that's a worry. It's certainly the case that lots of institutions are conservative, and I understand some of that right. That's about, we got through the global financial crisis and we didn't have it as rough as everywhere else so let's not rock the boat too much, and then yeah I think some of it is cultural. I think it's kind of a weird tall poppy syndrome metastasized sideways.
PAUL BARCLAY: I'm sure both Rod and Michelle want to have a go at that. Michelle, to you.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: You know look I think it's fascinating. I've been lucky that I've worked in the research sector for the last two decades and there I see that collaborative ‘give it a go’ attitude. Now that we've set up a company and it's you know competing against the world, all of that has started to come in. And so all the fear and the cringe. And we're not good enough. I'm starting to see it and I've seen that over the last couple of years since we've got the company going, so there is that risk aversion. You know at the research level, from funded research for the Australian Research Council, it's not been there. So we've created these great pools of talent ready to go to the commercial world, and it's at the commercial world that that fear sets in, and that's quite fascinating. You know one of things this year, I really want that to change because Australia's got this massive pool of talent. Huge potential. And if we hold back just to the point where it matters, that's bad.
PAUL BARCLAY: I mean you're doing something in this company that's inconceivably difficult isn't it? I mean you're doing something roughly the equivalent of putting someone on the moon in the 1960s. Would that be a fair analogy? And bringing them back safely.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So look it is difficult. There are lots of teams across the world that are trying to do it. And you know fundamentally, if you can control the world at the smallest things at the [inaudible] you could build a new type of computer. This is theoretically out there but no one's actually done it yet. So it is a high challenge that everyone's out there trying to do. So yes, it is very difficult but you know all the things that Australian inventions have done to date, you know the hearing aid with Graham Clark, he had to go through all kinds of challenges, politically, raising money, everything to be able to get to the point we got there. And so those challenges exist no matter what you're doing if you want to push something to the edge. Having the culture to take the risk and get out there and make it happen, that's something that I didn't expect people to hold back on. I thought that kind of research ability to take a risk was going to go all the way through to the commercial world but I'm now realising that doesn't happen yet.
PAUL BARCLAY: Rod would you like to give us some thoughts on that? How the risk aversion that exist within Australia —what the culture does to people who think big and who necessarily need significant amounts of money to invest in the R&D in these areas.
ROD LAMBERTS: I think the rhetoric is strong. Oh yes we want to see big audacious bold and hairy ideas. We want to see people take risk. We want to see you imagine big, take leaps blah blah blah. The rhetoric is huge. I hear that a lot. The reality of it is people forget that behind saying yes to risk is half of it, for example, will fail. It will fall over and you can't say yes to risk without saying yes to stuff’s going to fall over and I find that infuriating watching it, particularly from the sidelines. I also think our attitude to the way we fund from our generic agencies is very much tailored to the government's research priorities this year, this five years, this decade x y and z, and you see researchers very rationally, contorting themselves to make sure their research agendas fit these goals rather than the things that their research actually leads them to.
We also know the way the way funding is allocated from the government perspective, is necessarily complicated, but what is it, 14 per cent of Australian Research Council grants get up or something like this? And 70 to 80 per cent, something outrageous, are considered fundable. And so this isn't just you know bad attitude from governments or funding agencies. It's complicated.
PAUL BARCLAY: And the other thing is that science is about challenging the status quo. It's about disruption. Sometimes what you find requires a response from government that's difficult. Sometimes you find out some inconvenient truths that.. [inaudible]. So that in turn means of course that science becomes both politicised and divisive within the community doesn't it?
GENEVIEVE BELL: Let's remember that's not just science. I mean I know it's really tempting to think that science equals innovation equals defining ideas, but you know things that are funded by Australian research government money also funds the social sciences the arts and the Humanities where disruptive ideas also come.
PAUL BARCLAY: We could be having some argument about the arts I suppose couldn't we.
GENEVIEVE BELL: We could. We could be having it about economists and demographers who produce data that challenges our models about how funding should be distributed, about how education money should work. I mean, I know it's tempting because many scientists, also distinguish one right there, to talk all about stem and the sciences. But let's remember that you know in terms of how Australia shape the world with ideas they haven't all been science ideas.
PAUL BARCLAY: True but if we are to move forward and continue the rate of innovation that we've spoken about in the past …
GENEVIEVE BELL: If all we do is fund the science as we will not be innovative.
PAUL BARCLAY: True. I suppose I'm talking about — we seem to have almost highlighted a cultural handbrake or a cultural constraint on innovation at the moment that perhaps didn't exist at the past, and we'd like to think that the next 150 years is as innovative as the previous 150. I'm just wondering how much of a barrier, potentially, this cultural set of attitudes that is quite possibly risk averse — how much of a problem that is.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I mean I have an experience that I've had over the last few years, and it's science sorry Genevieve …
GENEVIEVE BELL: Science is fine …
MICHELLE SIMMONS: …In the area that I’m in we recognize that ultimately if we're going to be successful, not only do we have to break down the barriers between different disciplines, but we have to break down the barriers between schools, universities, industry and government, and actually Australia is again perfectly poised to be a leader in this space. And so at the moment we've created a company where we have co-investment from all of those except schools. And what we're trying to do is say you know, long term future we've got to get everyone working together and recognize that they're not fighting each other. And I think you know because of the size of the country, because we can actually get access to our politicians in the way that people the US couldn't, then it is possible to create new schemes, new ways of doing things that will be again, uniquely Australian. Already people are starting to look at how we've done this, and how did we make it happen over here. Again it's not it's not a scientific method it’s just a methodology about how do you take the best of Australian culture and make something good for the future in a way that works.
PAUL BARCLAY: Geoff, let me bring you back in. The other constraint that's pointed to a lot is the insufficient number of young Australians prepared to study STEM subjects: science, technology, engineering, and math. You're a teacher you're at the pointy end of this. Why do you think students balk at studying these subjects? It's been suggested that they balk at it because it's seen as too hard. Is that true and if that is true how do we get around that?
GEOFF MCNAMARA: Well before I answer that question, which is which is a good one and an important one, I would like to reinforce what Michelle just said about breaking down the barriers between academia and the school sector. That is absolutely key and a large part of my job these days when I recruit new scientists and engineers and mathematicians to work with the kids, one of the first things I’ve got to do is convince them that they're the same species they're just younger. They're used to working with 18 plus. And I think for a lot of academics, they don't become interesting until the third year of university. But these high school kids are capable of so much if we connect them with the brilliant minds that we have in the tertiary sector, and that's true right across the country. So we need to break that down.
Sorry can you rephrase …
PAUL BARCLAY: It was really about this STEM crisis. And how we deal with it.
GEOFF MCNAMARA: Well it's not only perceived as being hard, it is hard. Science and mathematics done properly is hard work.
And one of the things that we need to do — I don't really understand or even approve of the word inspire. I think a better word, in getting kids into science and engineering and so on, is to empower them. To show them that they can do this. It's hard work. The rewards are not going to be instantaneous. A lot of it is tedious. I mean I'm not telling these scientists anything, but this is what the kids have got to learn. But the long-term rewards of having a deeper understanding of something about the universe is something that is just irreplaceable by any other activity that we do as people.
But the other thing that I would emphasise just in case it doesn't come up again is, you know we talk about innovation in Australia, we talk about having to get more people taking risks in the tertiary sector in business and all that sort of thing. If we don't invest much more in the kids in schools, particularly the high schools, I know the primary schools are important but the high schools are where we're going to feed them into Year 11 and 12 which is where they decide what degree they're going to do. If we don't invest more in supporting those brilliant kids who are making a decision of which way to go in life we're not going to have anybody to employ in the STEM sector in years to come.
So it doesn't start at the universities it starts in the early high school years.
PAUL BARCLAY: Just give your science mentors program a bit of a plug here because it's attempting to address some of the issues that you've just raised.
GEOFF MCNAMARA: Science mentors is a program where I partner practising researchers from essentially any branch of science or engineering that you could imagine, with students who have indicated an interest in that particular field, and what I do is partner a student with a practising researcher who then mentors, if you like apprentices, the student over a six to eight month period in a project that appeals to the student. The student will conduct their own investigation, they'll gather their own data, they will analyse it, and they will learn how to write the formal, fully referenced, fully refereed report on their findings. And despite the fact that it is so much work, and up until recently most of it has been done in addition to those students existing school curriculum —so it's done on top of their assessed work, the students keep coming back for more. And the number of students I've got involved is increasing and I think that says a lot about the potential of our kids, that they can do things but they've got to be shown that they can do it. That's what we've got at the school I am at the moment, but I don't think that it's unique. What we've got now is 10 years of these projects, which now number over 100, 10 years of projects and the kids can look at what's been done before by people their own age when they did the project and think, ‘Yeah I'll give that a shot too’.
PAUL BARCLAY: Yes fantastic. Look I want to talk a bit about the work that that you're doing at the moment. Perhaps I'll come to you. Genevieve. What’s the work that's brought you back to Australia? I mean we've all heard about artificial intelligence and that it's going to revolutionise the world that we live in. Undoubtedly this is true. Undoubtedly it will displace employment for example. But you've been brought back to work on this. Tell us about your work and give us an insight into how you think AI is going to influence the world of the future and what the challenges are that this poses that you're seeking to address and talk about.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Sure, so for me it's a nice example actually about why we need to bridge between traditional STEM disciplines and the rest of the academy and beyond. So if we think about the conversations we've been having about artificial intelligence recently, it's really been about what artificial intelligence looks like on traditional computer platforms — in your phone on your cell phone. You know very small scale stuff, but the reality is that technology is set to scale and move into a whole lot of other places. So the best historical analogy I can think of is that artificial intelligence is basically like the steam engine was nearly 300 years ago. So it's sitting atop a metaphoric mine in Cornwall. And at some point it's going to become a train and that will build a railway system. And so for me the question is what happens when AI goes to scale, and how do we get it there safely. Safely both you know the world and for us as human beings.
And so those become questions about saying what does it mean when we have physical things in the world that can move without humans intervening. So what we would call cyber physical systems and that sounds like a big scary term but imagine that’s autonomous vehicles, drones, robots, smart buildings, the occasional smart elevator. But you know physical stuff that can now act without a pre-written program. The challenge to that, is the like every other previous wave of the Industrial Revolution — so when those steam engines turned up and when trains happened and when electricity appeared and when computers appeared, each one of those previous waves of big new technologies required new ways of humans to think, in order to make those technologies do two things: go to scale and go to scale safely. And each one of those previous waves brought us a new way of thinking. Engineering, electrical engineering and computer science were the disciplines that emerged and practitioners turned up — people who knew how to do those things, who knew how to fix the machines, they knew how to run them, they knew how to think about all the stuff that went on around them. And effectively the kind of argument I guess we're prosecuting here is one that says, that last wave of technology, that cyber physical systems, who's going to manage them who's going to run them, who's going to help them get them safely to scale.
PAUL BARCLAY: Absolutely. I mean and then there's the kind of next gen of artificial intelligence machines that are thinking and acting autonomously, that are doing things that humans do now that are right on the edge of ethical and fighting wars for example, making decisions. And so we have to have discussions right around autonomy, pre-programming ethics into this technology.
GENEVIEVE BELL: Absolutely and all the things that go with that what are the existing regulations that already apply before we have to start thinking about building new laws? What are the ethical dilemmas that will get surfaced? Who are the people that will regulate that machinery and how? So the work I came back to do is all of that. How do we build the next branch of engineering to contend with those systems? So I know that sounds almost as demented as other claims, like almost as crazy, it's like ‘What are we going to do? I’m going to build a new branch of science.’ So that's what we're doing.
PAUL BARCLAY: And I supposed to promote a discussion, a conversation around it. Do you think there is a lot of fear around — to the extent that people think about artificial intelligence at all? Do you think there is fear about losing jobs, fear about the world of the future with robots and so forth.
GENEVIEVE BELL: I think every new technical system produces fear and that fear isn't irrational. You know every technical system that came at scale in the last hundred years changed the way we did things. It changed work, it changed businesses, it changed social relationships and every one of them had unintended consequences. And this is a promise of unintended consequences that are much harder to manage. We're talking about some technologies that won't be built here. They may not reflect our values. They may have other intentionality, they may have unintended consequences. And there's open questions about how we manage all of that.
PAUL BARCLAY: That's one big set of questions. Quantum computing poses a whole lot of other big sets of questions and also promises, if achieved, to also bring about enormous change to the world that we live in.
So my question to you Michelle is can you explain quantum computing to us before we go any further.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I can I can try and explain at least what it is and I think I want to put it in context. I guess one of the things that happens with humanity in general is as you develop new tools that are better and sharper you're able to access the world in a different way than you could before. And in the last 20 years or so, we've been able to now access the world at the level of individual atoms and beyond that, but to the point we can actually manipulate atoms and put them in place. We can manipulate single photons of light and encode information on them.
And so what the world of quantum computing is, is taking those very small scale systems and encoding information at that length scale and using the power of quantum physics. And quantum physics essentially allows you to do calculations in parallel rather than one after the other. And so it's just a different paradigm shift in how you do computing, but it means that you can do things that you just cannot do with a classical computer in any kind of reasonable timeframe. And I'll just give you one example. At a moment if you take a very powerful computer, the best computers in the world, and you try and model a 20 atom system and try and figure out what is its lowest energy level and how does it interact with another atom. It simply can't do it. There's too many variables in how that system can behave that a classical computer cannot give you the right answer. And so with a quantum computer it can actually start to look at those systems in detail and tell you what the ground states are and what kind of reactions will happen. And so there are things we don't understand how does the human body form? How do diseases get in? How do you get drugs designed so that you can tackle those specific diseases to that particular person? We just can't do that with classical computing and those are the kind of things long term that quantum is hopefully going to make a difference for.
PAUL BARCLAY: And how far down the line are we in the development of …
MICHELLE SIMMONS: The beginning, right at the beginning. So one of things we have to try and manage is people's expectations. There’s this theory out there about what a quantum computer can do. There are 50 algorithms that if we had a quantum computer they would do these tremendous things: fast database searching, genetic engineering. But at the end of the day we're still making systems that are five to 10 to 50 cubits in size. And if you look at the history of computing, you know that's right back from going from the 1940s to the 1950s. We’re at that kind of timeframe. And it wasn't really until the 70s and 80s that computing took off. So we've got a long road to go before we have functional machines that are going to change the world. The promise is there but we've got to deliver that promise.
PAUL BARCLAY: So it's been compared with the space race.
So is the race really on for the first country to develop the first quantum computer is that how it works or not really?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: No. So one of the things that's different in the race to build a quantum computer is there are many different ways to build a computer and in the Silicon industry it was a really using silicon system to make classical computing. Everyone was kind of following the same path but trying to race along the path. Here there are actually four or five different ways you could build it. And so no one knows — is it going to be Silicon system? A superconducting system? A diamond system? There's always different ways of building it that people are investing in, so the race is actually, ‘What why are you going to build it? Number one. But then how can you get the teams big enough together and last long enough through this kind of research phase to actually build something commercial. So it's going to be — the race there is cultural. How can you get the cultures to work, to build the teams that can sustain this enormous breadth of research that has to happen to actually build the next generation of computers?
PAUL BARCLAY: And you have a collaborative company that you've just set up that brought together government with private sector involvement as well. I mean this sounds like an exciting initiative but it also tends to suggest that government and big corporate institutions get that this is a big deal and are prepared to kick significant amounts of money into it.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: That's right. I mean again, as I say Australia's in a phenomenal position. It's not just our field but there are other fields in Australia where this kind of collaboration is starting to happen and the rest of the world is watching. They're watching. How is it Australians are doing it? How did they manage to get government to invest in a company? How does that work? How do you get researchers working with a company when it's in a university environment? All of those questions are unique to the way Australia behaves, and they're things that I think long term, if we back it and we don't fear it, but we engage with it wholeheartedly. I think Australia will be in a fantastic position in the next decade.
PAUL BARCLAY: And you're confident that this is attainable.
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: So what, in a 10, 20 year time frame?
MICHELLE SIMMONS: So define what this is? Building a quantum computer? Yes, we're all invested in building it. So at the end of the day it's a scientific question, ‘Can it be made’. No one knows. But yet we're dedicating our lives to it, building big teams to it. So yes.
PAUL BARCLAY: And Australia is a genuine leader in this nation ...
MICHELLE SIMMONS: Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean that's what's amazing for me is that you know we go all over the world and people know that we're the leaders and we're you know touted as the leaders in Silicon, yet but still most Australians wouldn't know that. So you know it's a big it's a big play that Australia is making in this space.
PAUL BARCLAY: So Rod these are big BIG kind of research questions and with potentially big outcomes, but of course they raise moral and ethical questions, and the truism about science and technology is that it's always ahead, the science is always ahead of the response by politicians and knowledge by the public. So I suppose it comes down to this question of how much the public trusts scientists because they're inventing these new things that may have a profound effect on our life. I think you've done some examination of this question of what public levels of trust are in scientists. That's right?
ROD LAMBERTS: In scientists specifically there's a lot of stuff out there. I'm going to cause trouble again and say I don't really believe in it. I don't think it makes a lot of sense to ask people generically, ‘How much do you trust science or how much you trust scientists?’ I don’t think that question actually really makes a lot of sense. It's far too ambiguous, far too generic. All these things need context and very specific context to make sense of them.
So I don't know whether it's people trust scientist — more and more what we're seeing is whether people trust their tribe and how they identify who's in their tribe and who isn't. Yeah I mean it's very crudely put and Genevieve as an anthropologist can go, ‘Sure thing, well done first year anthropology student [inaudible]’. Thank you very much on your answer. So the issue more broadly I think is how we are recognising these people as human beings, who they identify with, whether they represent values that are meaningful to us, whether when we have communications about exactly the sort of thing Michelle's talking about. It's couched in terms that make sense to people. So I think that's more important in this — it's not about generic trusting or not of science and scientists.
PAUL BARCLAY: I suppose the reason I asked the question is that we hear a lot at the moment about ‘anti scientific thinking’ and people holding certain views that are not necessarily backed up.
ROD LAMBERTS: Well it doesn't it doesn't work that simply either. I got in trouble a few years ago when some women, I think, trashed a genetic crop. I didn't do this, it isn't why I got in trouble. A couple of scientists came out got really angry about these women who trashed genetic crops, genetic experimental crops and they were decried as being anti-science and they weren't. They were anti this thing that they particularly feared. It happen to be connected to science. But that doesn't mean they're anti science in many other things. They vaccinate their children. They're happy to eat GM or some GM foods. You know they drive cars they want to get an electric thing blah blah blah blah. You know they're not against science. They're against that particular thing. So I've had a bit of a gentle evidence-based crack at the scientists who went off about that and said, ‘Actually you've got it wrong’. And they weren't pleased. But I think this is the reality of that, to make it generic is not useful. It's not generic, you know the specifics of quantum computing, the specifics of AI, and AI is a huge term in itself, is not the way to approach this. It's about how does it change the way my toaster cooks toast, or my car drives or whatever it may be.
PAUL BARCLAY: We are having this discussion in the week with the IPCC handed down its report.
ROD LAMBERTS: Have you got a finger on the bleep button because I'm ready to go ..
PAUL BARCLAY: Ninety or so of the world's leading climate scientists basically said that we need to very quickly move out of coal fired power. And the response from the Australian Government was that they're wrong.
ROD LAMBERTS: Yep it was.
And I'll just say they're wrong. No it was it was an abominable response. And I know the ABC still needs its funding so I'll pull back from that. It was a terrible response. And again it's not about scientists. I've sat in in seminars, large conflabs in the US, Australia, wherever, where you say to people who are very conservative very coal-leaning, very traditional models of energy and so forth, and you say to them, ‘Listen your way of making money is terrible, it's causing a lot of pollution, we're all in trouble. And they say, ‘The science is crap. Climate change is crap.’ Off they go. Then you see someone whispering in their ear there, ‘What if we seed the clouds with sulphur, and then all that stuff will bounce back into space and business as usual will be fine.’ ‘Oh yeah, sweet, let's do that.’ So they're prepared to say yes to a solution to a problem they just briefly just before said doesn't exist. They're not against the science. They're against threats to their income stream, they're against threats to how they judge and value themselves et cetera et cetera.
But again as I say — I'll stop there.
PAUL BARCLAY: So Geoff, there is a great social value in having a scientifically literate community isn't there, is that part of what you are seeking to achieve. We tend to talk and think about education these days is leading to a job, leading to jobs of the future. But is your mission a broader one? Is your mission about creating a more scientifically aware and literate community?
GEOFF MCNAMARA: Absolutely. A big part of the program that I wrote for the school that I work out at the moment, is all about the nature and philosophy of science. What is science? And most people, and I think of the hundreds of scientists I’ve spoken to, even they don't really understand what science is. It's a relatively new invention. It's only about 400 years old or so it's a new way of thinking about the world a new way of achieving things.
So I wanted the kids to learn what science is from a more authentic perspective. I also wanted them to learn sceptical thinking and I say to the kids look it doesn't mean you don't believe what you hear it just means you think about it first and I think that's something that we're really lacking in Australia in general, including listening to scientists and they should listen to those 91 or so scientists from the IPCC and say ‘Are they right?’ Think about it and then come to the obvious conclusion, ‘Well of course they are’. Let's just short circuit that right now. The public needs to appreciate what scientists are and that's why I get scientists into the school not just as mentors but as speakers. I also get the students out to the university and industry and private industry as well and government labs to see what scientists do where they do it, how they do it and so on to break down any stereotypes any misconceptions they might have about scientists that they are just people who love what they do and are prepared to work very hard to achieve their goals. And when the kids see that they have a much better understanding of what science is about. So the idea that 91 climate change scientists could have some hidden agenda is just ludicrous to students that have been through my courses for instance and we need to spread that kind of mentality. And the only way to do that, because the curriculum is so very very crowded, is to stop this obsession with things like ATAR. We need to allow the students — not I mean they've got to learn sufficient information so that when they get to the universities they can cope with the degree. Sure. But it's become I think a little bit too much to assign a number to how much a student knows. Rather than instilling them with a love of learning and with a scientific literacy and with sceptical thinking you can't measure those things very well.
PAUL BARCLAY: I think we're spooling out into a whole other subject about how our education system operates.
I know that Michelle has to leave us pretty soon so I thought I'd try and squeeze in some questions from the audience before she does — love to hear a question or two from you.
There's a roving mic around and that Luke's going to get into your hand and we have a gentleman up there with a question. We've got we've got about five or 10 minutes at the most so. And questions not comments and concision is good too.
QUESTION: Thank you. Talking about the resistance and dare I say politicisation of innovation my mind is drawn to the big battery in South Australia and the reaction to its actual success. Can we turn that corner to where people actually want to support that kind of innovation and the big go?
PAUL BARCLAY: That's the big battery and the response to it.
ROD LAMBERTS: So that would be me? You’ve got to make it worth their while. I'm sorry to put it so instrumentally and worth their while doesn't necessarily mean money. I think there's a mistake in assuming all people who are against, are against for the same reasons and all people who are pro, are pro for the same reasons. So it takes a bit of sophistication a little bit of research into audiences. I'm a communications guy. We talk about audiences all the time. I don't see it as a one size fits all approach but you've got to try and find out what pushes people's buttons on that — and also be wary of the kinds of tribes who are representing that story. So if it's a very sort of left agenda or can be characterised as a left agenda view which I think it is, right agenda people are not going to buy in and they're just arbitrarily going to turn off. It's terrible but true.
PAUL BARCLAY: There was a lack of understanding though about what the purpose of that battery was. It seems to me it wasn't there, and so people were criticizing it because of the fact that it generated a relatively small amount of power but it was never intended to generate a large amount of power according to my understanding it was just intended to be there at particular moments of the energy transition.
ROD LAMBERTS: So that rings a bell.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay yes. I will say no more about that, I’m already out of my depth.
Another question from the audience?
QUESTION: A question for Geoff if I may. Picking up on Genevieve's point of the intersection points between other disciplines and fields, and the science fields. I'm wondering whether you are building into the work that you are doing or even just observing organically the students bringing other kinds of disciplines whether they're arts or the humanities or so on into the work that they do with you or they're taking the work that they do with you into other parts of their learning and creating those intersection points for themselves, with other students that aren't necessarily part of your programs?
GEOFF MCNAMARA: Look I know what you're talking about there and you know that there is a school of thought, no pun intended, where you include arts with STEM to make STEAM but as one engineer that I was speaking to once he said well if you do that there's not a lot left. So in my particular program, no, there's not a lot. And that's simply because I've already got my plateful trying to get science and engineering up and running and mathematics. In years to come sure. I'm sure there are other programs around. There's one program at my school that tends to do that a little bit more but it's not quite so focused on the science. From my perspective, and I do consider myself a veteran teacher now after 31 years in front of classes, the emphasis has to be on boosting the science, and we'll take care of what you're describing perhaps after we've got that under control, but at the moment we just don't have sufficient science literacy.
It is improving and I think it's better than a lot of countries in the world but we've still got a long way to go.
PAUL BARCLAY: Michelle
MICHELLE SIMMONS: I thought I might just add something to that. I think one of the things that I'm a fundamental believer in, is that schools, you've got to get the deep learning in the subject choice of the teachers where they're expert, so they're passionate about it. They've been trained in it and they can bring that knowledge to the child. But I think at the same time nowadays you know jobs are changing so quickly that students need all kinds of skills and so somehow this is something I think parents and the community can help with in terms of highlighting to students that you know, you don't just pick a subject and that's your career for the rest of your life, but you want to pick up all kinds of skills whether it's you know design or you know ballet or music whatever it is and those things can be done alongside the school. I think it's kind of a danger to enforce schools to do everything. The community's got to get in there and help and say this is fundamental that a teacher teaches the subject they know well and does it passionately, and you know the rest of us can help with all those other skills to bring that along.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay. Quick final question and then we'll have to wrap it up. Okay.
QUESTION: Hi. A question for the full panel.
If we look at the scientific method it's obviously about looking back at old assumptions retesting re proving and often overturning what we thought was true. For people who don't have the luck of being in Geoff's classes and learning some of that themselves, how do we help build public trust in a field that keeps telling us that it's been wrong before?
PAUL BARCLAY: Good question.
ROD LAMBERTS: Name another field that's out in public that hasn't been wrong before as well as a good start. There you go.
Wrong by definition.
Again I feel like the mistake is looking for simple solutions to these complex problems of you know how do we generically fix this issue.
I think we have to sort of attack it issue by issue, subject by subject, news cycle by news cycle.
Yeah. I don't think necessarily making people literate about science is the is the perfect way forward it certainly helps but it's not the only way to go because I mean we make shortcut decisions all the time. We're not all going to become doctors. We're not all going to become mechanics. I go to a doctor I think, ‘You seem pretty reasonable. I like what you're saying and the way you're saying it. So you tell me what to do about my health I'll do it.’ I go to mechanic and I go, ‘Just take the keys and take my money and I hope my car works.’ And I think that it's more about that, I mean I'm harping on, I'm turning into Tony Abbott with my three word slogans, but it's like understanding the context of it all and talking more about that, not about the specific details because if you walk up to people and say, ‘Do you want to know why this is a good idea? Let me explain the scientific method to you’, I think we all know what happens after that.
GENEVIEVE BELL: I'm sorry?
PAUL BARCLAY: But it's still it's healthy to question isn't it?
GENEVIEVE BELL: Listen I think you've heard running through all of our answers yet. Michelle, Geoff, Rod and I. The notion that part of what all of our various disciplines have given us is a way to do what is sometimes called critical thinking or sceptical thinking. From my neck of the woods it's how do you go from an orientation to of solving problems to being able to frame or generate questions? And I think an ability to generate questions is in fact how scientific breakthroughs get made. And for me in some ways it's about how do you tell the difference between, was science wrong or was it a paradigm shift. You know I hate to bring up Kuhn and Popper because it just makes me sound insane again. But there is something that says part of the notion of science is as more information accumulates it is possible to come to a different conclusion. We built different scientific instruments, those instruments let us see the world differently. The harder piece usually is not about the changing of the mind but about making room for people to hear that there's a different possibility and I think part of for me what critical thinking or sceptical thinking is good for is, how do you make enough room to imagine that there are different pathways forward and different ways of getting to answers. And you know I will always argue that you need to have multiple points of view in the room and multiple disciplines and those disciplines need to be expansive, and it's not just the work of the community, it's the work of all of us to ensure that conversations have as many different human beings as able to be in that conversation, and it means that there's a responsibility for all of us to make room for those people.
PAUL BARCLAY: Okay we may wrap it at that point.
Thank you very much for coming along. But most importantly please put your hands together for our wonderful panel of experts. And thank you of course to the National Museum of Australia for hosting this event and inviting me along once again to moderate. It's been a great pleasure.
STEPHANIE BULL: Thank you. And thanks to the panellists it's been an amazingly interesting and stimulating debate. So this panel will be broadcast on ABC RN’s Big Ideas in the coming weeks. I wanted to thank our panellists and also everyone both within the museum and outside the museum which is who I've helped to make this happen tonight. I'd like to thank our sponsors Capital Wines and to the National Australia Day Council for their support. And if you enjoyed tonight's debate please join us here again on December 5th where we'll hold another panel with ABC Radio National presenter Richard Fidler, for a panel around our current fabulous exhibition Rome: City and Empire. So thank you. And now we will be serving drinks in the Gandel Atrium so please join us.
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Date published: 14 August 2019