Episode 10: In conversation with Alan Finkel, Chief Scientist of Australia

Andi Horvath: Hello. We have a special bonus episode of the Secret Life of STEM for you. It's Dr Andi Horvath here. The producers, a group of year 10 students, and I were able to secure an exclusive interview with the Chief Scientist of Australia.  Yup, the top science person in Australia: the person who advises the Prime Minister and other Ministers on STEM and innovation. Professor, introduce yourself.

Alan Finkel: Andi, my name is Alan Finkel and I've got probably the coolest title in the county.

Andi: Here is the Chief Scientist of Australia in conversation. He shares his STEMories and awesome wisdom. Okay professor, are you ready to answer the questions that some students have prepared for you? Here's the first one.

Speaker 3: How competitive is the research environment for you guys?

Alan Finkel: The research environment for active researchers in universities and medical research institutes and publicly funded research agencies is competitive. A lot of the funding comes from a process where you have to apply for a grant and only, unfortunately but it's realistic and it's around the world same case, only a small percentage of those grants get funded. But that doesn't mean that people are just thrown out to the street to wither because they didn't get the grant, because most scientists who are research scientists at universities are involved in teams, a number of intersecting grants, and if one doesn't work out this year it might work out the next year.

There is a considerable amount of funding that comes from the universities themselves that is decided based on priorities and opportunities for the universities rather than straight competition. So, it's highly competitive but it's exciting and it's challenging and it's a system that does deliver the goods.

Andi Horvath: Next question.

Speaker 4: Is it hard to find a job in research?

Alan Finkel: Look, research is competitive, as I was just saying. So the good jobs go to the best people, but there's research and research. So a lot of research is done as we all think of in universities and medical research institutes and agencies. But a lot of research is done in companies, and there are many, many opportunities for people who are trained in science and in engineering beyond research.

There is a naïve belief I think perhaps in the minds of career counselors and parents that if you study science the career pathway is research. If you study science, the career pathway might be working as a practicing scientist in a company, it might be working in a policy environment in the federal government or a state government. It's just very naïve to think that the pathway that follows from a science degree has to be research, and if you're not doing research you're a failure.

Speaker 5: Would you think that in your workplace, the role of men and women is seen as being equal?

Alan Finkel: That's a difficult one. I think that certainly where I work, which is in the Australian Federal Government it's a very gender friendly environment. In fact, the majority of people in the department where my office is housed, Department of Industry, are female. The biggest challenges in sophisticated workplaces are the unconscious biases. That's probably the main thing that we have to address.

Speaker 6: What's your favorite part, and least favorite part of your job?

Alan Finkel: I only have favorite parts. It's just a question of how do I order the favorite parts. I love being asked to do something original that I've never done before, I love being asked to do things that are high impact, I love dealing with problems. Some people wither if they're given 10 problems in a day. I just see that as 10 opportunities to make a difference.

Speaker 7: What are some ways the science and education community are encouraging women in STEM?

Alan Finkel: There are a lot of activities going on to encourage women in STEM. Of course there's the issue of women who are practicing scientists, professional engineers getting out into schools and presenting to students. A lot of magazines and newspapers quite rightly are trying to feature careers of successful women to be role models. There are a lot of extracurricular activities. If I can run a little advertisement through my office, we developed a product called the Star Portal which is a science that puts the developers of extracurricular activities in touch with parents, teachers, and students.

If you search, you can make girls a criterion for your search and find activities that have been focused on things that would be of interest to girls.

Speaker 8: What kind of struggles and discrimination have you faced getting to where you are now? What made you keep going with your career path?

Alan Finkel: I don't think I faced any discrimination, and I say that not lightly because I've thought about it, because you read about or see other people who have faced discrimination. I've been very fortunate. To the contrary, what's always been the case for me is opportunity has come to me. But opportunity doesn't come just by luck. Opportunity comes because all the time, throughout my career, whatever I've been doing I've tried to do it as well as possible. That means you end up bumping into people who recognize that and as you get to different stages in your career, something comes up. An offer comes up because of what you have been doing.

Andi Horvath: They're asking the hard questions, aren't they?

Alan Finkel: They are.

Andi Horvath: Next question.

Speaker 9: Was what you envisioned in high school as your dream career end up anywhere near what you do now?

Alan Finkel: The answer is yes and no. I never ... I guess when I was in high school I always thought that I was going to be a doctor. In year 12 when I actually got to the critical point of having to put in order first, second, third what I wanted to do, I realized that I was more interested in the technology of the human body and the biology rather than the practice of medicine, which is difficult. It's dealing with sick people and all those other things.

So I chose to do engineering but then my life converged again because after I did my PhD in engineering, I actually got involved in neuroscience and did my post-doctoral research work in neuroscience. Then I spent the bulk of my working career making sophisticated scientific equipment for people who were researching how the brain works. So I took my electrical engineering, my original love of medicine and biology and in a sense, found a nice combination of both of them.

Andi Horvath: A lot of answers seem to emerge from interdisciplinary, multi-cross-transdisciplinary research. Because they cross-inspire. Would you agree?

Alan Finkel: Absolutely. I think that all the big breakthroughs for many, many years now and going forward come from trans or multi-disciplinary approaches. But can I take the opportunity of just saying to you Andi, and to the listener, stop and think. There's a difference between tackling a big, multi-disciplinary project with discipline-specific experts compared to trying to do the same with multi-disciplinary people. I actually believe that you need deeply knowledgeable specialists and then bring them together to make a team to solve those complex projects rather than having a bunch of multi-disciplinary people.

When I ran my company in Silicon Valley in America, we would typically put a team together and we might have a PhD in optical physics because we were doing something to do with microscopy. Working with mechanical engineers and firmware engineers and software interface engineers and mathematicians to do the analysis. So, 10 specialists are far better than 10 intelligent generalists.

Speaker 10: What subjects did you study at school and university?

Alan Finkel: My education was fairly traditional. Goes back more than five years. I ... in upper secondary I did physics, chemistry, pure mathematics, applied mathematics, English, and a language. Then, I actually picked up economics as well.

What I was effectively doing with that understanding was concentrating on core subjects and then doing a couple of electives. That's what I think that people should be doing today. You need to be doing core subjects that will prepare you for university. What are the core subjects? Well, if you're interested in STEM, the number one core subject is mathematics. English is really important, and one of the lab-based sciences like physics, chemistry, biology would be great too.

Once you've got them, okay, do something such as phys-ed or a language or photography. Electives are wonderful, they inspire you, but electives are not in any way necessary for university or even particularly helpful for university. Universities, it's their job to teach disciplines like law and business and computer science and engineering. It's your job to get yourself into that university course with the appropriate core subjects that will make you flourish. You don't want to scrape through, you want to flourish which means you need to really have a good grasp on mathematics. Mathematics comes under different names in the different states of Australia but fundamentally they're mapped to what I would call introductory, intermediate, and advanced. You need to be doing intermediate mathematics which is the level that brings in calculus if you're thinking about doing engineering or science or medicine or economics. You can't do economics unless you have good mathematics background.

Andi Horvath: Okay professor, just three more questions. Are you up for it?

Alan Finkel: I am.

Speaker 11: How do you balance work and daily life?

Alan Finkel: Well, that's a tough one because I enjoy my work so much that I spend a lot of hours. My wife and I, we like to do bush walking, we have a sailboat and we like to go sailing. But I'll tell you one of the most important things. When I'm in a meeting at work, I don't check my phone. When I'm having dinner with family or friends, I don't check my phone. I think that makes me better off and better balanced than the people who do 40 hours of work and spend a lot of time deliberately socializing and doing sports and other activities but can't let go those connections that are interrupting them all the time.

Speaker 12: What are your tips for networking with people in STEM?

Alan Finkel: I don't have anything that would be unique to STEM. Networking is a social skill that you would be learning at school. Networking means reaching out. If you don't reach out, you don't network, you don't make contacts. So if you're specifically interested in networking in STEM, go to public lectures. The Royal Society of Victoria, ANZAS, they organize public lectures, so do many, many universities. It's quite inspiring to go there.

Then, hang around. Speak to the lecturer. Everybody who gives a public presentation enjoys interacting with the audience after the talk. Be part of it.

Speaker 13: Is it easier for STEM graduates to find a job in the future?

Alan Finkel: I think there will be lots of jobs in the future and there will be many jobs for people who graduate from Arts or from STEM. There will be significant amount of STEM graduates. So if that is your interest do it, study it well and you'll get a great job.

Andi Horvath:Now, professor, you're in charge of the big picture of science in Australia. Why is STEM a good thing to study or to keep an eye on when you leave school?

Alan Finkel: There's a lot of confusion. First of all, simple answer is it's important because so much of what we do today and going forward is driven by science and technology without a doubt.

ut there's a huge confusion out there about the role of STEM in the workforce and the percentage of people that have to be STEM experts. It's important to distinguish between being digitally literate and a STEM expert. And the reality is, going into the workforce today and increasingly so, nearly everybody has to be digitally literate. At least 90% of jobs will require a clear understanding of how to use computers, how to in the future instruct AI, how to be a competent person living in the 21st century.

But you all read a lot of reports out there that says, "Oh my gosh, 70% of the jobs in the future require STEM skills." And I don't think it's true. I think it's a confusion between digital competency and deep STEM skills. In reality, in the past and in the future, a modest percentage of people have to be trained as engineers and trained as scientists, trained as technologists. Maybe 15%, 20%. So, when you take that question in the context of the two different interpretations of STEM, then the answers will become more nuanced.

Okay, so to continue to build the future that we want, and remember, the future that young people grow up into is the future that they will build. That future has to be built across a number of different areas. The politics, the philosophy, they're all important. There is no dominance that STEM is more important than something else. They're all important. But similarly, one can't underplay the importance of deep STEM skills and building that future.

We are going into a world where we need to absolutely transform the energy that we use. We're going into a world where we're going to interact with digital technology in ways that we couldn't conceive of in the past. The digital technology on the surface of it will be smarter than us, but when you look deeper, it won't. The skills that everybody will need will be to interact with that, but we want to ... we need really deeply, deeply capable people to develop the artificial intelligence of the future, the brain machine interfaces of the future that will enable the disabled to walk again. There are just so many challenges, it's exciting.

Andi Horvath: I'm keen to ask you about your journey in science, because you chose a scientific journey. What's your earliest ... we're calling it a STEM-ory. Your earliest memory in science.

Alan Finkel: STEM-ory is a great word. Certainly my earliest overwhelming memory is a series of memories all associated with the American Space Program. I grew up as a pre teenager and a teenager in the 1960s just reveling in the series of ever-improving efforts in space.

My earliest memory, in my mind I think it was hearing the beep, beep, beep from Sputnik, but it couldn't have been because I'm sure I was only three or four years old. But when John Kennedy, the President announced the ambition of putting a man on the moon, there was a lot of radio coverage of the reasons why he made that announcement, and the main reason is they were scared of losing the space race.

They played on the radio those beep, beep, beep sounds from Sputnik again and again. So I think I remember that as my first memory, but it's probably a false memory. But certainly I followed every single launch of every single Mercury space ship. The Mercury was the series that took one astronaut at a time. I followed every single launch and mission profile of every single Gemini launch and the Gemini was the series that took two astronauts at the time, and I followed every single launch and every single mission of the Apollo program, which of course took three astronauts at a time and eventually took astronauts to the moon.

It was reported in National Geographic in splendid color, it was reported on black and white TV, it was reported in the newspapers. I couldn't get enough of it.

Andi Horvath: So you followed the Apollo missions.

Alan Finkel: I did, and then around about the same time there was the exploration on Earth of the sub-sea, call it the interspace if you'd like, Jacque Cousteau. Jacque Cousteau, this extraordinary French-origin explorer who worked with engineers to develop the first controllable, steerable, deep sea submarines. One person, two person submarines and also longterm habitats under the water.

And again, I'd get that monthly National Geographic with the splendid color pictures of the discoveries 5000, 10000 feet deep in the ocean. Just stunning.

Andi Horvath: Now, your interest in astrophysics and space continued. Tell us about that?

Alan Finkel: Look, I've always been interested in anything to do with space and the stars and formation, but I personally am not an expert in them. But about 10 years ago one of Australia's absolutely most fantastic astronomers, Professor Bryan Gaensler who I admit gave me a call and he said he wanted to ask me something. I said, "No." He said, "I haven't asked you the question yet." I said, "The answer is no." And then he described to me his vision of building a center of excellence around all sky astrophysics. Mapping the dynamic origins of the universe and the expansion and all the wonderful things across the whole of the sky and I couldn't say no and I became the founding chairman of the organisation called CAASTRO, the ARC Center for all sky astrophysics.

It was just a thrill for me. I gave what I could in terms of strategy and direction. But the benefit was more to me because I got to meet Bryan and the other extraordinary astronomers and learn about what they were doing. I don't know what it is when it comes to stars and astronomy. You look at it, there's no obvious application on Earth but everybody I know is inspired by the stars. It probably is something primordial, because of course we evolved living under the stars.

Andi Horvath: I love it that you fanboy all the astronomers. And I think you're right. Looking out into the cosmos is something that sort of speaks to our identity. Now, continuing the space theme, you actually were involved with a magazine called Cosmos.

Alan Finkel: Indeed. Cosmos was a magazine that I co-founded with my wife Elizabeth with Wilson De Silva and Kylie Ahern back in 2004 and it's still going. It's a magazine for popular science, the splendor of science. It provides a visual and beautifully written panorama of what's happening in science. It was our collective intention to, at a robust, intellectual level, but accessible to the general population, deliver science and science stories. And I think it's done that very, very well.

Cosmos still continues. My involvement and my wife's involvement finished last year when we transferred the ownership of Cosmos magazine to the Royal Institution of Australia. And they're keeping it going and investing it effectively as their society magazine.

Andi Horvath: Professor Alan Finkel, as chief scientist of Australia, what question do people ask you a lot?

Alan Finkel: "Can we get some more money for research?"

Andi Horvath: How do you tackle that question?

Alan Finkel: It's difficult. Of course, science has a very legitimate need for more and more research and I do the best that I can as Australia's chief scientist to in my advisory role with government to point out to government what science is delivering. From the point of view of government, they want to invest in things that to them, and to the constituency, deliver value.

So scientists, whether they're doing pure science that has no obvious value or very, very clear technological science that has an obvious value, in all cases have to show the short, medium, and long term benefits to society.

Andi Horvath: We're in an era of start-ups and entrepreneurship. Surely that supplements how we have a better society?

Alan Finkel: There's no doubt that the start-up companies are contributing to the opportunities in Australia. We're seeing a fairly vibrant fin-tech and medical tech start-up community in Australia and through venture capital, through private company, private investment, through some government support we're seeing that continue.

It's not at the level of an Israel or a Silicon Valley, and I would certainly hope to see us doing better and better, but we are doing significantly better in these high tech start-up areas than we were doing, say, 10 years ago. I don't think people have credited that yet, but that doesn't mean we're where we should be. We still have to keep cleverly investing to get the best bang for the buck and put more bucks into the system.

But an important thing that I'm always at pains to help people to appreciate is that innovation is not the prerogative of small, start-up companies. Innovation needs to be and is often present everywhere.

Andi Horvath: This is a bit of a curly, philosophical question, but what question should we be asking the chief scientist or perhaps asking ourselves?

Alan Finkel: Well, the challenge as I see it is always to have a deep belief that there is always a better way. There's always a better way. If you believe that, you'll find it. If you don't think about that you'll never find it. You'll never bumble into it. If you can see the future, you can achieve the future. But if you just think that things are always going to continue as they are, they're not going to change.

So the question to ask a scientist, or the chief scientist, is how can we do this better?

Andi Horvath: Beautiful. Professor Alan Finkel, I want you to perhaps respond to the question, what advice would you give your year 10 self?

Alan Finkel: Well, what people often advise young people is follow your passion. I used to think that was a cliché, but there is something in it. What I've concluded after working with a lot of young people and discussing the issues of education is that really, it doesn't matter all that much what you study as long as you study it really well and develop deep discipline, expertise. You're more likely to study something well if you're passionate about it.

So just the aphorism “follow your passion”, that's too empty. But if you follow that statement up and say, "That means whatever that topic is that you are interested in, study it conscientiously. Do it well”. When you're studying that subject, apply those so-called 21st century skills of critical thinking, collaborative work, cooperation, resilience, et cetera, to that study that you're doing. But make sure that you do at least one thing really well. It will give you the confidence, it will give you the practice at doing things well, and once you've done that you can just keep doing it again and again and again as the opportunities arise.

Andi Horvath: Sound advice. Professor, I'm pushing the soapbox over here, what is your message ... how do I phrase that question, sorry. Excellent, thank you. What's your message from the chief scientist as a closing comment that addresses a scientist and even non-scientists of the future?

Alan Finkel: Not everything is possible, but everything else is achievable.

Andi Horvath: Professor Alan Finkel, chief scientist of Australia, thank you.

Alan Finkel: My pleasure, Andi.

Andi: Thanks to Professor Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist of Australia, who took time out of his busy schedule to speak to us about his story and share his wisdom.

The Secret Life of STEM was made possible by the University of Melbourne.

I’m Dr Andi Horvath one of the producers.

Thanks also go to our producer Buffy Gorilla, the editor Silvi Vann Wall, and additional production support by Chris Hatzis and Arch Cutherberston.