That tale of lost opportunity should be a valuable lesson for Australia that illustrates not just the country’s level of world-class research, but also a warning that research must be translated into new innovation and products so that bold ideas and industries are not lost to overseas competitors.
“[Science] is an important tool for policymakers as they look for solutions and for industry as it looks to increase competitiveness,” Dr Foley said.
“The question for me is how to strengthen the connections – connecting the work of scientists, researchers and innovators, with industry and policymakers.”
Dr Foley said the world of science and innovation was undergoing a profound transformation as artificial intelligence and quantum computing played increasingly important and speedy roles in the process of knowledge creation.
Automation and AI were reducing the time it took to trial new medicines from more than a decade to just months, she said, noting that one drug used to treat COVID-19 was discovered and then modelled using a deep learning algorithm.
“Once it stacked up virtually, this COVID therapy was able to go straight into trials and then to market. All in a matter of months.”
Quantum computing, in which Australia is a world leader, was already finding applications in 5G mobile phones. But its potential is almost unimaginable.
“IBM and Google have already built small 50 or 60 quantum bit computers,” Dr Foley said.
“Once we get to 300 qbits, we’re told a quantum computer will be able to process more pieces of information that the number of particles in the universe.”
Dr Foley also pointed to the importance of digital and scientific literacy in children, diversity of the scientific workforce and open source access to research as critical factors in accelerating Australia’s scientific impact.
Dr Foley – and Australia – might have lost one opportunity when her PhD research was used to create the LED. But her commercialisation track record was redeemed some years later. Working at the CSIRO she was involved in the work of start-up Baraja, which makes components for driverless vehicles and which grew from two men in a garage to more than 100 staff in just two years.
And her work on a superconducting sensor that can detect and map deposits of silver, gold and nickel very deep underground has “been used in the discovery of billions of dollars of ore bodies here and overseas”.
“All these experiences were about knitting together different components of the research and commercialisation system. As Australia’s Chief Scientist, I’m now in a position to do something similar on a national scale.”
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