Aiming for one hundred

Dr Alan Finkel AO

Tuesday, September 20th, 2016

Dr Alan Finkel AO

Australia's Chief Scientist

Dr Finkel commenced as Australia’s Chief Scientist in 2016. He has an extensive science background as an entrepreneur, engineer, neuroscientist, and educator.
Prior to becoming Chief Scientist, he was the Chancellor of Monash University and President of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering.
Dr Finkel was awarded his PhD in electrical engineering from Monash University and worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in neuroscience at the Australian National University.
In 1983 he founded Axon Instruments, a California-based, ASX-listed company that made precision scientific instruments. After Axon Instruments was sold in 2004, Dr Finkel became a director of the acquiring company.
In 2006, he returned to Australia and undertook a wide range of activities including co-founding Cosmos Magazine.

A few months ago, I went to a public lecture that was the best I’ve ever had the privilege to attend. The speaker was Alan Alda – Hawkeye from the popular television series M*A*S*H – now 80 years old, and thriving. And so is the subject of his talk: his love life. He just happens to be in love with science.

My dream is for a future in which we see heroes like Alan Alda, perhaps 100 years old, standing ramrod straight at the podium. They’ll speak out with a clear voice, bright eye, sharp mind, and strong heart… and that rarest of miracles, no notes. And we’ll marvel at their wit, but barely notice their age – because living in rude health to 100 will be the norm.

Am I too bold to tack 20 years onto average life expectancy? Perhaps. Yet, look at how swiftly our expectations progress. A woman born in Australia in 1900 could expect to live to 57; and a man (even excluding those killed in war) to just 54. So the average Australian born in 1900 would die before the modern Australian has quite done with their mid-life crisis.

In just four generations, we’ve added more than 25 years to the average female life, and close to 24 years for males. Even better, as our lives extend, so too has the period we expect to enjoy disability-free. Which is just as well, given the size of the superannuation balances we’ve now got to accrue to fund two or three decades of sprightly ‘retirement’.

Science advances, and societies adjust. The challenge is to do it again. And if we achieve another 20 years, it will be in large part a testament to you: the doctors, researchers, and policymakers of the future.

You will be aided by an unimaginable suite of scientific instruments and artificial intelligence programs. Some commentators will tell you that these tools will displace the flesh-and-blood doctors we rely on today. Don’t believe them. Remember what they said about the fitness industry. First television was going to kill the local gym. Then workout videos would nail the coffin. The same for FitBits and Wi-Fi enabled rowing machines. Yet, we still choose to pay a premium for gyms and personal trainers. That premium buys the things we humans require, over and above the information we could access online: discipline, insight, and motivation. Doctors who provide those keys to health will always be in demand.

For early-career researchers, the age-old challenges of forging a career still stand. Investing in the right skills. Making the right contacts. Working out where the interest, and the money, is likely to be. Managing one of those three would be impressive. Managing all of them may not be enough in the competitive environment we operate in today.

I have seen the process of applying for a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant likened to The Hunger Games. I can’t speak to the experience of the young grant applicant today, but I can read the success rates, and I understand why early-career scientists express their frustration.

As Chief Scientist, I cannot offer easy answers. I do commit to work with all research funders and providers – public and private – to maximise the opportunities for Australian medical science.

There’s an old rule of thumb that science turns money into knowledge; and innovation turns knowledge into money. I’ve found that it focuses our politicians’ minds. There is bipartisan commitment at the Commonwealth level to an innovation policy framework that fosters growth in the medical device, biotechnology, and pharmaceutical sectors. It is backed by rising investment from venture capital funds in biomedical startups; and new approaches to collaboration from Vice-Chancellors and CEOs.

But all of it always comes with a rider: great science needs great equipment and great people.

If we want to build the critical mass to attract new investment in both facilities and staff, we need to keep the quality bar set high. We can pursue sensible regulatory systems that minimise the costs, for example, of clinical trials – and we need to do so to remain competitive. At the same time, our brand in the global market is excellence and reliability; a brand with particular resonance in the Asian markets we seek to develop.

Maintaining that brand calls for clarity of vision and continuity of investment. This is the principle I will emphasise across the many lines in my 2016 to-do list.

At the top of that list is the task of mapping Australia’s research infrastructure needs for the decades ahead, including the next-generation facilities. For too long, we have drifted without a long-term bipartisan commitment to funding and operating principles for our critical scientific equipment. The price we pay for uncertainty is the loss of our best people. I am honoured to be leading this landmark review, and welcome the contribution that medical researchers have already made.

So what would be my advice to you?

First, pursue medical science because you love it. Learn your discipline deeply and don’t rely on the plethora of fact-finding tools. When you are dealing with a nervous patient you need the knowledge at your fingertips. Trust me, it’s the same with a footloose investor. And when you’re brainstorming ideas with your supervisor, or lying in bed with ideas surging through your mind, deep knowledge takes the training wheels off your imagination.

Second, keep the doors of opportunity open. If you love research, why not consider an industry role? If you love making things, why not make a product or a startup? If you love engineering systems, why not engineer a company as the CEO? If I had one wish, it’s that Australians would see all the valuable transferrable skills that come with science training, and most of all, a science PhD. Employers will only be able to see those skills if graduates recognise and cultivate them within themselves.

Third, be strong in pursuit of that precious 20-year extension to the average Australian life. We need all the advocates for evidence-based science we can get, given all the snake oil we’re ingesting today. As a society, we’ll progress no further than our shared understanding of the values science allows. Stand with Alan Alda, in the advance guard.

So, I’m aiming for 100. My grandchildren will aim for more. My great-great-grandchildren might ring in the 23rd century. I thank you today, on their behalf, and wish you well.