Things are moving fast – and faster

27th July 2016

Geoff Garrett AO (1)

Written by Dr Geoff Garrett AO FTSE, Chief Scientist of Queensland.

SCIENCE VISION

Winston Churchill: “The further backward you can look, the further forward you can see”.

Steve Jobs: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards”.

The Human Genome Project, completed in 2003, took 13 years and cost $2.7 billion. Now? Maybe a couple of days and a few thousand bucks.

The world’s current fastest supercomputer (China’s Tianhe-2) runs at 33.86 petaflops – that’s 33,860 trillion calculations every second!

And Google strategist Ray Kurzweil – who in 1990 predicted that computers would beat the best human chess players “by the year 2000” (IBM’s Deep Blue defeated World Champion Garry Kasparov in May 1997) – reckons, based on current data and current technological trends, that by 2050 we’ll have a supercomputer exceeding the processing power of all human beings on Earth. And costing $1000 …

Some years back, I was privileged to be part of a gathering with Nobel-Prize-winning and former Bell Labs physicist Arno Penzias who, when asked about the future of science over the next 50 years, said: “It’s all about computers. And biology. Biology with computers. Roast beef from air and water and oil at will.”

These days, the one thing we can be pretty sure of is that much exciting science and innovation is happening at the interfaces. And often ‘strange’ stuff, at that.

Milov

“ The 21st century … will be typified by synergy, the cross-fertilisation between three fields: the quantum revolution, the computer revolution and the biomolecular revolution.” – PROFESSOR MICHIO KAKU

If you want to take a bet, take one on what will come out of Professor Paul Davies (distinguished astrophysicist from Macquarie University) having headed off to one of the new US Cancer Institutes to work on oncology.

Astrophysics? Oncology?

As far as science going forward is concerned, as distinguished physicist and author Professor Michio Kaku has said: “The 21st century, unlike the previous ones, will be typified by synergy, the cross-fertilisation between three fields: the quantum revolution, the computer revolution and the biomolecular revolution. The cross-pollination between these three revolutions will be vastly accelerated and will enrich the development of science, giving us unprecedented power to manipulate matter, life and intelligence. In fact, it will be difficult to be a research scientist in the future without having some working knowledge of all these three areas.”

Exciting times indeed – artificial intelligence, robotics, the ‘internet of things’, big data, next generation genomics, etc.

But let’s step back a bit, taking Winston Churchill’s advice: “The further backward you can look, the further forward you can see”. Correspondingly, Steve Jobs put it wisely: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards …”.

NIKE TIME?

In November 2000, just two months before I arrived in Australia to head up CSIRO, the then Commonwealth Chief Scientist, Professor Robin Batterham AO FREng FAA FTSE, and his team released the Chance for Change report. It stated at the outset: “Innovation is the driver of every modern economy – it is the key to competitiveness, employment growth and social wellbeing. The cycle of innovation must be fed by new ideas and basic knowledge which are capable of being transferred and accepted by end-users.”

Fifteen years on, at the end of last year, we get delivered the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) – and with a billion dollars of new (?) money on the table. (What Samsung spend on R&D in three weeks, by the way.)

As my good friend Mark Dodgson (UQ Business School Professor of Innovation and Technology Management) observes, much of the same policy analysis and prescription behind NISA can be found in Paul Keating’s 1995 Innovation Statement. Talk about déjà vu ….

And surely we are also ‘reviewed out’ – maybe more than 100 reports on innovation of all sorts, from government/industry associations/consultancies over the past decade or so. For example, as Tony Peacock, CEO of the CRC Association (rightly) bemoans, 11 reviews/impact studies in the 25 years CRCs have been running.

Surely time to take Nike’s advice and ‘Just Do It!’.

PARTNER OR PERISH?

How long have we been talking about the need for much better collaboration? Yet we continue to languish at the very bottom of the OECD League Table of collaboration between our nation’s innovation-active firms and our universities and research institutes.

One of my favourite little books is Robert Fulghum’s All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. This includes lessons such as ‘play fair’, ‘don’t hit people’, ‘put things back where you found them’. And germane to our environmental responsibilities to our planet – ‘clean up your own mess’. (And a special favourite amongst my academic friends ‘take a little nap every afternoon’.)

And Fulghum reminds us of back then, when our teacher might have taken us on a visit to the fire station or the chocolate factory, and would say “Hold hands and stick together. There’s a lot of heavy traffic out there.” Indeed there is …

There are strong signs that the future belongs to the boundary-crosser and skilled collaborator, so we’d better get good at this. Harvard’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter has elegantly coined a spacefaring analogy, akin to astronauts, by introducing the concept of ‘collabronauts’, who are “… good at making connections, both human and intellectual. They are constantly on the look-out for new ways to benefit from combining forces with partners. They venture into unfamiliar territory, make deals, and return with knowledge that transforms their home base. They bring organisations closer together, introduce people and build relationships among groups that can initially seem like aliens to one another. They manage rumours, mount peace-keeping missions and solve problems. They convince their colleagues to forget old rules and try something new, something that comes with having partners.”

Lots of IQ, coupled with bags of EQ (emotional quotient). All business is people business.

BEWARE ‘LOST IN TRANSLATION’

There is a major gap between what we know and what we actually apply. Basically it’s a crying shame that there is so much great stuff around, in journals, on shelves and in heads, which is not getting utilised or built upon.

Sir Muir Gray, former Director of the UK’s NHS National Knowledge Service and NHS Chief Knowledge Officer, has said: “The application of what we know already will have a bigger impact on health and disease than any drug or technology likely to be introduced in the next decade.”

This challenge also applies in the policy space. Former Australian Public Service head, Dr Peter Shergold AC, wrote (2011) in the Australian Literary Review of the void between policy practitioners and policy academics … and quoting (and agreeing with) his successor, Terry Moran AC: “Academic work was often ‘lost in translation’ because it was inaccessible, indigestible and obscure. Too often it was unresponsive to the immediate needs of governments. By the time research was published it was out of date.” Ouch.

We must accelerate the process from discovery – continuing (of course) to stimulate the excitement and support for working at the leading edge – through to delivery, and the rapid transfer/diffusion of technology between research and the market.

We must ensure that we just don’t do great science but that it gets taken up, rapidly and effectively, creating jobs, wealth and improvement in quality of life.

‘TWO TO TANGO’

We put a lot of heat on our universities and research institutions to collaborate better. But in the past financial year $19.7 billion was claimed by business in Australia as R&D, as part of the R&D Tax Concession system currently under review. Yet detailed analysis has revealed that only 2.6 per cent of this ($505 million) went to our universities and research institutions.

This begs the question – in terms of who’s dancing with whom – who’s doing the other 97 per cent? Especially, as we know, in recent times the big corporates have been outsourcing their R&D.

Definitional issues, no doubt, play a part. But it needs clarification.

My former CSIRO Chair, Catherine Livingstone AC FAA FTSE, notably lamented “if only Australia knew what Australia knows”. ‘Lights under bushels’ is indeed a challenge. One of the delights – and corresponding concerns – of my job is that, most days, when I’m out and about, I find myself thinking: “Wow! I didn’t know we were doing that stuff!”

We need business, government and the community to be ‘greedy gobblers’ of research outcomes and technology solutions. This, in turn, requires the science and research community to be (much) better relationship builders and communicators around where we spend our time, and (mostly) taxpayers’ dollars.

‘THE SMART STATE’

So what’s happening in Queensland, now and for the years ahead?

I’m an unapologetic fan of former Premier Peter Beattie and the whole Smart State initiative – vision, coupled with serious investment, over more than a decade – a great foundation on which we are building, irrespective of which side of government you come down on.

The recent $180 million Advance Queensland initiative has two key elements: talent – you don’t turn that on and off like the proverbial light switch – and (much) better translation.

We have major Partnership programs, linked to our well-defined Science and Research Priorities, with at least two research institutions ‘holding hands’, and with an end-user partner(s) with serious skin in the game. And in these, as well as in all our new Fellowship programs, the researchers involved have to spend at least half of their time ‘in the business’ – building relationships, solving problems in real time and working hard to minimise the lost-in-translation stuff.

A whole new cadre of industry-savvy researchers is what we’re after – and a cadre that is also much better at communicating what they are doing, and why, supported by a funded and focused ‘science engagement’ strategy.

And far from resistance around this ‘residency’ requirement, anticipated by some, we observed a 34 per cent increase in applications.

In driving the translation and commercialisation agendas, we have put in place a suite of exciting programs stimulating startups and entrepreneurship and small business – the engines of jobs growth – with a strong commitment by government to unleash procurement as a driver of innovation, with much closer relationships and opportunities for small business in Queensland.

We have a clear understanding that STEM education is pivotal to our future – underpinning 75 per cent of new jobs, we’re told – and know Australia is getting behind the pack, particularly the leaders of the international pack.

There’s a major gap between what we know and what we actually apply … it’s a crying shame that there is so much great stuff around, in journals, on shelves and in heads, which is not getting utilised or built upon.

Recent months have shown a serious momentum shift. The ‘buzz’ is palpable. Things are happening.

We’ve had the hugely successful World Science Festival Brisbane in March – the first time ever out of New York – with more than 120,000 people involved over a four-day smorgasbord of science and technology, brilliantly orchestrated by Professor Suzanne Miller and her Queensland Museum team.

We’ve also had the inspiring April Innovation and Investment Summit – with a social media reach of more than 18 million and thousands of people in live-streaming – and its ‘sister’ Startup Festival, with hundreds of local entrepreneurs rubbing shoulders with national and international gurus.

If pushed to provide a single highlight (among many) of my tenure as Queensland Chief Scientist, it would be time spent with six, seven and eight-year-olds.

I’m there nominally to inspire them. The reverse always happens. They’re creative, enthusiastic, questioning … they can do anything.

But as big people – as Alexander Milov’s sculpture ‘Love’ suggests – a lot of the time we have our backs to each other. We’re competing. Not communicating. Not collaborating. But our ‘inner child’ wants to connect – to hold hands, to break out, to question, to create.

Piece of cake, eh?

Dr Geoff Garrett AO FTSE is a Cambridge-educated metallurgist who spent 13 years as an academic. He has been Queensland Chief Scientist for the past five years. Prior to this he led, as Chief Executive, two of the world’s major national science agencies – CSIRO in Australia (2001–08) and CSIR in South Africa (1995 to 2000). A former South African ‘Boss of the Year’ (1998) and ‘Engineer of the Year’ (1999), he received the Centenary Medal for service to Australian society through science. In June 2008 he was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO).

We would like to thank ATSE for giving permission to republish this article.

 

Don’t miss out on your opportunity to join the conversation in Brisbane on the 18/19 October 2016 at our conference “Supporting Biomedical Innovations: Getting Innovations on the Right Track”

Dr Geoff Garrett AO FTSE will chair a panel discussion “Making collaborations work”

“Proudly supported by the Queensland Government’s Advance Queensland initiative”

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