Joint Press Conference: Announcement of appointment of Dr Alan Finkel AO as next Chief Scientist

October 27, 2015



I'm here with Christopher Pyne, the Minister for Innovation, Industry and Science and Karen Andrews, the Assistant Minister for Science and the next Chief Scientist of Australia, Dr Alan Finkel.

But firstly, before I say a bit about Alan, I want to thank Professor Ian Chubb for his 5 years of service as Australia's Chief Scientist, which comes to an end at the end of this calendar year. He's been a remarkably effective advocate for science, passionate, informed and has certainly raised the general awareness of the importance of science in Australia.

Right at the outset let me say too that science and in particular science as part of innovation is at the very heart of this Government's policy.

If we are to remain a high-wage, generous social welfare net economy in the years to come, if we are to remain prosperous, seizing the enormous opportunities that are available to Australians, now more than ever, we need to be more innovative, more technologically sophisticated, more scientifically alert and aware and adept and we need to be able to combine science with industry in an innovative way that enables us to stay ahead of the curve, always ahead of the curve.  Technologically sophisticated, scientifically advanced, innovative, clever, imaginative.

Now, Alan Finkel is remarkably qualified for this. Alan is a distinguished and successful academic engineer and neuroscientist. He has been a very successful businessman, entrepreneur. He has applied the knowledge that he learned at university, he's applied that knowledge to do extremely well. He's been very successful.

He has been a formidable communicator about science to the whole of the community, in particular through his speaking and of course through the magazine Cosmos that he founded and which is edited by his wife Elizabeth.  The Finkel’s are a remarkable pair in terms of the way they are able to make science and technology accessible to all Australians. The Brown'

And of course, one of the things that we are weakest at in Australia, a thing that I know Christopher and Karen are very focussed on addressing as we work on our innovation policies. One of the things we are weakest at is the level of collaboration between Australian universities and primary research centres and industry. We don't do that as well as other countries and perhaps Alan may touch on that.

But of course Alan absolutely understands that, he’s done it himself in his own career and of course he is still and will remain until he takes up the new role, he is still the chancellor of Monash University. So he really understands the Australian university system.

So I'm delighted that Alan has taken up this offer to become the Chief Scientist. I think he is absolutely the right person for this role. He absolutely fits the spirit of the times in which we live. A scientist and an entrepreneur, an innovator, a communicator.

Christopher, do you want to add anything?


Thank you, Malcolm. I think you have covered it pretty well. The only thing couple of things that I would add is to add to your comments about Iain Chubb. Iain Chubb has been five years the Chief Scientist, we extended his term for 12 months. He has set up our innovation agenda and our science agenda very successfully which we hope to announce before the end of this year so that Ian Chubb will be part of that.

It will fall to Alan Finkel as the new Chief Scientist to help implement that innovation and science agenda.

I am particularly excited about Alan being the new Chief Scientist because he fits precisely into the Government's priority, or its cutting edge in this area which is to link business and science.

We are number six in the world in terms of the OECD in the quality of our research. We're number 33 in the OECD out of 33 countries in the commercialisation of our research.

And Alan Finkel is a living together of how to commercialise research, how to have the interface between business and universities, to make the sciences very real for people so we have demonstrably appointed him as a signal to the sector that we want science and business to be very much focussed together in this country to create jobs, to create growth and to make breakthroughs that assist in the human development.

So I'm very pleased to see Alan taking the role.


Karen do you want to add something?


Yes, Alan Finkel is certainly a very impressive individual. He has high level skills in science and engineering, but very importantly he has demonstrated the ability to apply those skills in a practical and meaningful way into the future.

What we do know is that Australia has outstanding skills in science and engineering but where we have fallen short in the past is in the communication of those high level skills.

Alan Finkel will make sure that we put science and engineering right at the centre of our policies and we will be able to demonstrate quite clearly not only to Australia but to the rest of the world that we are global leaders in the science field .

It has been a pleasure to work with Alan to date and I look forward to working even more closely with him in the


Well thank you, from one great engineer to another. Alan, tell us all about yourself.


Prime Minister, I have to thank you for your kind words and Minister and Assistant Minister.  I absolutely look forward to the opportunity to take the role of providing advice to your Government.

I think that it's a critical moment for Australia. We have a leadership team that sees the importance, understands the role that science and technology and the application of that science and technology can deliver to the prosperity and productivity of our country.

I would like to also pay my tribute to Professor Ian Chubb. I think he has been a wonderful advocate for science. He has opened up the debate in this country. He has worked with the Government to develop the national science priorities and to embrace them and, through his office, he has put out articles and studies that have provided an evidence base that shows us where we stand in the world community and where our opportunities lie.

The final thing I would like to say is to take up from where you were speaking, Prime Minister, on the issue of translation of that research.

In my career, when I was doing my PhD I was doing fundamental research, I was studying how communication between brain cells works. I never anticipated a business career but then I saw an opportunity to build on the skills that I'd developed there, combined with my electrical engineering, to develop a new type of instrument for that research and I took it over the fence and I went commercial starting a company.

So for many, many years I worked developing instrumentation for scientists and that was successful.

Since then I have seen the importance of this translation from the pure to the applied across the fence into the commercial world as being see to success in other countries and there are wonderful pockets of success in this country as well.

As President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering I have been working with my colleagues to put together a proposal to for ways to actually measure and value the engagement between industries and publicly funded researchers so that those and it's not all, but those researchers who do want to do that won't be constrained from engaging with industry.


Well done. Thank you, Alan, very much. So, we have some questions?


Alan Finkel, how Australians - how seriously should Australians take the news that processed meats is as bad as asbestos and tobacco?


I’m not an expert, I did see the study and you can see a lot of contrary points as well and through that study I believe, I don't know the numbers, but of hundreds and hundreds of environmental chemicals and food stuffs that were looked at, only one was not regard as carcinogenic. So moderation is probably the best approach.


Can we establish, you mentioned that Professor Chubb will be involved in the Innovation Statement? I was interested in Dr Finkel's view of what is actually required to make us an innovative nation and what the role of Government should be in it.


Look, I think the Government has a significant role to play but so does private industry, so do individuals. I am not currently Chief Scientist and Professor Chubb is. But I think that it's a virtuous partnership that we have to undertake. There is a role for government in helping what is often referred to as the Valley of Death. Private funding is required for that but it's a very difficult challenge where we research delivering research outcomes and we do that very well in Australia. We have fabulous companies that can pick up proven technology and commercialise them but how do you get from a research outcome to a prove technology and that is hard.


Commercialisation.  Just to explain what Alan means by the Valley of Death, it's, just so we're clear about this, people may not understand.  What you are talking about - who was the economist that first - I can't remember, there's someone, it's a metaphor for what happens is a technology gets funded, it gets started but then there is a long, long slog before it gets to commercialisation and actually gets to meaningful customers and getting through that is what is called the Valley of Death, it's actually the Valley of No Cash Flow is and of course a lot of enterprise s fall by the wayside.

So that is where Government support can be, as is the case now, and the case in the future can be supportive.

Perhaps I could ask you, Alan, you have got global experience. Which country do you think do the innovation piece best and why?


Well, clearly -


I am Just Always Trying to Help.

It's Wonderful – It's Wonderful Having [Inaudible] not a member of the union anymore so don’t walk out


It’s wonderful having a Prime Minister who has actually bridged the Valley of Death and the head of the CSIRO has bridged the Valley of Death and an incoming Chief Scientist who has done that as well.

In terms of countries where there is assistance to get across that bridge, I like to think of Silicon Valley as a country because it's unique ecosystem and there is no single message to take from there. It is a complex interaction.

True innovation does require a complex set of approaches. There is no simple solution. Then, - and that's just developed naturally through the interaction between Stanford University and even UCSF. It is just phenomenal what has happened there. Then you have the very deliberate approach taken by countries like Singapore and South Korea where they said we will transform our country from early stage to absolutely sophisticated. And that is collaboration between Government, science, industry, all the partners.


There's a lot of cultural change I think is important. Anyway they all want to - they want to ask the questions so. Mr Uhlmann?


First of all, it was King David who first mentioned the Valley of Death but moving on from there. The valley of death as some see it now is climate change, Dr Finkel. How do you see coal fitting into Australia's exports of coal? There are people calling for no more coal mines and, Prime Minister, do you think you that you should go along with that call?


Do you want to go first?


My vision is for a country, society, a world where we don't use any coal, oil natural gas because we have zero emissions electricity in huge abundance and we use that for transport, for heating and all the things we ordinarily use electricity.

But you can't get there overnight.

So what we need to do is optimise the technology so that with we can cost effectively introduce alternatives. The best way to get rid of coal is to introduce alternatives that deliver value at a reasonable price rather than just arbitrarily turning it off.


Let me just answer your question. Coal is a very important part, a very large part, the largest single part of the global energy mix and likely to remain that way for a very long time. So that is not my forecast but the International Energy Agency’s forecast and many others. So coal is a very important part of the agenda, the energy agenda.

You have to remember that energy poverty is one of the big limits on global development in terms of achieving all of the development goals, alleviating hunger and promoting prosperity right around the world - energy is an absolute critical ingredient. So coal is going to play a big part in that.

Having said that, the pace of technological development in the renewable space has been extraordinary. The pace of improvement in the efficiency of solar panels has been quite remarkable and of course the now what we're starting to see is affordable storage, which has always been the problem with intermittent renewables.  That is to say things like wind and solar only generate power when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. So the improvement in batteries is a big game changer.

This energy field is very disruptive, very disrupted, it's incredibly exciting, and it's important to have all of your options open. One of the great things we have in Australia is we have access to many sources of energy and they will be exploited based on their comparative economic viability.


Is nuclear one of those alternatives and is it viable in this country without a carbon price? And Prime Minister, you have been very open about keeping your policy options on the table. Is nuclear one of those?


As I was saying before, thank you, Prime Minister, as I was saying before it's critically important that we reduce our emissions. The best way to do that is with zero emission electricity generation.

What is out there? Solar is fantastic, especially if as the Prime Minister said, we can solve the problems of storage and there are effective moves happening in batteries, in pumped hydroelectric storage.

So if we can massively increase the volume and lower price point of storage, then solar becomes marvellously viable, as does wind.

But if we want to increase by a factor of four or five the total amount of electricity that we generate in order to replace oil for transport and gas for heating and coal in the first place, it's a big challenge. I think that it's not unreasonable to look at all viable alternatives.

Nuclear energy is a zero emissions energy. It comes with issues. Including the fact we don't yet have the infrastructure, the training, all the things that would enable it to be a viable industry. So it's something that should be absolutely considered for a low emissions or a zero emissions future, if that is what we are looking for. But it is not the only way forward. With enough storage, we could do it in this country with solar and wind.


Prime Minister?


I think - people talk about different forms of energy and often, and some people talk about it in an ideological way, as though one type of coal is better or worse than wind which is better or worse than solar which is better or worse than nuclear power.

These are all things. They don't have any moral characteristics. They are things. They have certain physical characteristics and financial characteristics.

Coal, depending on where it is, can be cheap but has higher emissions. Nuclear energy has low emissions but is hugely expensive to construct and has a number of obviously very big environmental problems associated with it or challenges associated with it. And so on down the list.

The appropriate - the way to deal with this is to be, I think, to be thoroughly rational about it and to say the object is to make sure we have access to all of the energy we need at the cheapest possible price because energy is a major input. So we have to be cost effective. And be able to use whatever energy mix is appropriate.

Let me give you an example about solar. Solar panels and batteries in an Australian household context, at the moment, are probably not most in most cases competitive with the price of grid delivered power. Just accept my assumption there. However, if you are in a remote community, or if you are in a community in a developing country where there is no electricity grid, and the alternative is generating power by burning diesel, then solar panels and some batteries, if the efficiency of the panels is improved and the price of and efficiency of batteries has come down, could actually be and very often is much more cost-effective.

So it is horses for courses, and I think it is important to take the ideology out just approach it in a very clear eyed, coolheaded, rational way and that is the way to do it.


Do you agree then - two questions, if I may, do you agree then on the idea of a moratorium on coal, which is an idea around today? And on the broader subject of innovation and science, you are now planning a major statement on innovation and science, but we had one from the Abbott Government a year ago. Are you rewriting what Tony Abbott did a year ago on competitiveness agenda and innovation? Are there any parts of that policy that is barely 12 months old that need to be rewritten?


I’ll answer the first bit. No I don't agree with idea of a moratorium on exploiting coal. With great respect to the people who advocated it, it would make not the blindest bit of difference to global emissions.

If Australia stopped exporting coal, the countries to which we export it would simply buy it from somewhere else. So there is absolutely quite a lot of coal around. One of the things that is not perhaps well enough understood is that China, which by recollection produces- is the largest coal producer in the world, that is certainly true, well over 3.5 billion tonnes of coal itself, is likely to become very shortly, if it has not already become a net coal exporter itself. China used to be a net coal exporter. So there is a lot of coal around.

So if Australia were to stop all of its coal export s it would not affect - it would not reduce global emissions one iota. In fact, arguably it would increase them because our coal, by and large, is cleaner than the coal in many other countries.

So with great respect to the motivations and the big hearts and the idealism of the people that advocate that, that is actually not a sensible policy , either from an economic point of view, a jobs point of view or frankly, from a global warming or global emissions point of view.

Sir Christopher?


Just briefly, David, in terms of the boost in the commercial returns from research statement that was actually Ian Macfarlane and myself , as Education Minister, and the Prime Minister a year or so ago, they're all building blocks for a much more substantial and comprehensive innovation and science agenda that we will announce by the end of the year.

They also involved a number of reviews which we have had the input from. But the innovation and science agenda will cover the entire sector from taxation, from short-term measures, to medium to long-term measures.

It will be, hopefully, a game changer terms of Australia's cultural understanding of the role science and research can play in innovation and in growing jobs and growing the economy.

So anything that's gone before will be a building block, but this will be a new, very dynamic agenda which I think will our economy from some areas that are still old thinking to new thinking. That's what makes this job particularly exciting.


Can I ask about your approach in the role as Chief Scientist - will you be prepared to publicly call out the Government where you think it's got it wrong? Is that, Prime Minister, what you want him to do and specifically on our climate targets for 2030, are they good enough?


My role is to advise the Prime Minister and the relevant Ministers. That is the way that I would hope to be operating. My intention will be to give the best possible evidence-based advice and I am absolutely confident that I will get a receptive audience.


You will. Very receptive.


In terms of climate target, it's an evolving thing. I will need time to engage on that.




The point you just made about the many of the poorest people in developing countries being offgrid and sometimes solar being cheaper, doesn't that undermine the point you made a few questions earlier about energy poverty being the big reason for the moral case for continued exports of coal and just a second question –


That’s not the case but anyway, go on.


Scientists and economists look at this sometimes the other way around and say if the world exploits all the existing reserves of coal then we will definitely way exceed 2 degrees global warming. What do you say to that argument, and Dr Finkel what do you say to it?


If I could just make the point - energy - it's not a case of either or. There are - the way you solve your energy challenge is all of the above, right?

And so there are - there are developing economies, India is a classic example, hence the interest in the big coal projects in Queensland, where there is a need for large scale grid delivered electricity to cities and industries and so forth. That is clearly a big part of Prime Minister Modi's whole industrialisation or economic invigoration agenda of India.

But, equally, there are locations where in rural areas where the - a distributed form of electricity - solar - may, will be more cost effective than what is being used at the moment which is likely to be burning diesel.

The same is true with Telecoms, I might say. There are - if you look at the development of telecommunications in developing countries, in many places wireless networks overleapt fixed line networks, in other words fixed line networks have not been built. Wireless, you know mobile phones in other words, wireless became available and that became the norm and then your fixed line networks went to areas of greater demand which needed the capacity that couldn't, as adequately, be delivered over fixed line networks.

So it is again, again, Lenore, the critical thing with all of this is to remember not to confuse the means with the end.

It's something, without wanting to strike an unduly partisan note, something the Labor Party invariably forgets.

What is the object? In telecommunications, making sure everybody has got good connectivity, good broadband or whatever? What are the means to deliver that? There are plenty of means and you use whatever is most effective.

What is the object in terms of global warming? The object is to reduce emissions. What are the mechanisms that you can use to do that? There are plenty of them - from regulatory to trading schemes and lots of different things in between. You use whatever does the job most effectively, at the time, in the market.

And the same is true clearly with energy. What do we want? We want everybody to have access to lots of energy, as much energy as they need, as cheaply as they can, particularly in markets and countries that are energy poor. What are the means we use to do that?

Whatever does the best job at the time. So take the ideology out of this and you will make much more rational policy decisions.

And on that note, we might say thank you very much.


How do you feel about the poll today?


I attribute any improvement in the polls entirely to Minister Pyne's appointment of Alan Finkel as Chief Scientist! Thank you very much.


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