With higher education undergoing profound change – reflecting among other things how to meet global challenges from environmental degradation and food security to new technologies and emerging diseases – La Trobe University Chancellor, Adrienne E Clarke AC, has called for urgent action to boost Australia’s scientific understanding and awareness.
Professor Clarke’s comments came while delivering the University’s Science, Technology and Engineering Dean’s Public Lecture titled ‘Science and its role in solving global problems’ at the University’s Bendigo campus.
The former CSIRO Chairman says this needs to apply to the education of professionals like lawyers, regulators and bankers as well as farmers and manufacturers. ‘It is particularly important for politicians and their advisors who make the decisions, on behalf of society, regarding the use of technology,’ Professor Clarke said.
‘We also need the social scientists, the psychologists, the people who study the behaviour of humans and human societies and how governments work to understand the scientific advances.’
Two of the most important drivers of global change, she said, were population growth and the rate of discovery in science and technology. The ‘explosion of knowledge’ has been extraordinary.
We have moved in one lifetime from ‘a world in which there were no antibiotics, television or international air travel’ to a scientific and technological age which will see an estimated doubling of knowledge every 15-20 years – and another two billion people on earth within the next 35 years.
‘This has many consequences and presents many really tough challenges,’ Professor Clarke said.
Discovery and application
‘The solution to many of these large-scale problems will be through science and technology, both discovery and application, and it will take years of persistent work.
‘We will see continuations of the basic disciplines such as mathematics, physics, biology, geology but we now have whole new disciplines emerging at their interfaces – for example molecular genetics, bioinformatics, environmental management, and neurobiology.
‘We cannot predict what will emerge from the emerging new knowledge. We should do our best to understand how to use it wisely.
Professor Clarke said that in recognising the critical importance of science to future societies, La Trobe University has developed a focus on ‘teaching the teachers’ of science.
‘This goal of teaching exciting innovative science and maths teachers is now urgent. Australia’s numeracy skills at school level (15 year olds) have declined in the international rankings to the 11th place. China, Finland and South Korea are well ahead of us.’
Leadership in biochemistry
Apart from La Trobe’s focus on science and technology education, she said the University was also a scientific leader in Australia in biochemistry.
‘La Trobe Biochemistry was the only school in Australia to be given a top five ranking (“Outstanding performance, well above world standard”) in the recent ERA (excellence in research assessment) by the Commonwealth government.’
A world-class $94 million La Trobe Institute of Molecular Science building will be opened later this year.
Professor Clarke also provided personal insights into how important new plant biotechnology has been developed in Australia to enhance global food supplies.
Working with colleague Professor Marilyn Anderson, La Trobe University and the University of Melbourne, this endeavour led to the formation of a company called Hexima Ltd – and the development of molecules to control fungal diseases of crop plants.
These diseases globally cause annual losses of more than 10 per cent of key food crops.
‘From humble beginnings and chance discoveries, the company now employs 40 people, has ten graduate students and is located both at La Trobe and Melbourne universities and in a city office,’ Professor Clarke concluded.
Professor Clarke’s five tips for up and coming innovative researchers:
1: Ask a good question. It should be answerable with the tools of the time, have a big impact if answered and it should not be in a very crowded ‘me too’ field.
2: Understand other fields. This can be an invaluable adjunct to being an expert in your own field.
3: Have imagination when looking at data. See what it could mean and form a testable hypothesis.
4: Be flexible. When developing new technology the original product goal is often modified as technology, markets and opportunities change.
5: Take risks. ‘Best in class’ science and good friends are characteristics of successful innovative companies.