1. Universities develop the capacity of new generations to engage in it.
The next generation of graduates are the ones who will push the boundaries of science in Australia. It’s a cohort whose numbers rose to a seven-year high of 47,000 in 2021, the STEM equity monitor shows, while a report from Victoria University found the cumulative total of PhDs in Australia touched 185,000 in 2021.
These graduates and postdocs have already made their mark on the world. Industry internships from the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute (AMSI) allow the likes of University of Wollongong’s Carrie Wilkinson to better understand how regional properties face bushfire threats in a changing climate, as part of research done in partnership with the NSW Government. Grads like Carrie form part of the 141 ARC Discovery Early Career Research Awards for STEM projects in 2022. This culture of innovation develops by actively throwing together students with academic and industry mentors, who can provide insight into how new ideas fit into their chosen field.
2. Academics exchange ideas and support the exploration of those ideas with industry, community and one another.
Without the exploratory nature of science, whole industries wouldn’t exist. For example, electromagnetic theory led to X-rays and Albert Einstein’s description of the photoelectric effect was the basis for quantum theory — and lasers. Today, human genome mapping and molecular biology have completely changed how we understand disease and agriculture.
Academics also engage with citizen scientists on projects, such as the RMIT-UNSW urban microclimate project in 2018-19. The Threatened Species Recovery Hub, between 2014 and 2021, was a collaboration between people from the Larrakia Nation around Darwin and dozens of scientists from universities around Australia. These partnerships are the result of decades of work by universities to create open communication and networks, so scientists can share their own expertise with businesses and communities located in Australia.
3. University science has ideas and techniques accessible to those looking for solutions to problems.
Australian universities are the primordial soup where commercialised IP based on science is cultured, but they’re also the stewards of the science whose effects might not be felt — not immediately, at least. For example, university researchers have been pushing quantum science forward since the 1980s but it was only in 2017 that UNSW was able to turn some of that knowledge into Australia’s first quantum computing company, Silicon Quantum Computing. Universities support those early ideas with equipment, laboratories, telescopes, microscopes, mass spectrometers, biological containment facilities, clean rooms and funding. But these institutions also hold channels open, allowing those ideas to be used to solve problems communities face, such as in environmental science or industry.
4. Science is a custodianship of knowledge that evolves in a nonlinear fashion.
Serendipity plays a part in scientific breakthroughs; for example, 2011 Science Minister’s Prize for Life Scientist of the Year winner Min Chen wasn’t looking for a new kind of chlorophyll when she found it. But it came after years of hard work and collaborations with others. Universities’ role as junctions where ideas are exchanged and explored, and scientists network with others nationally and internationally, creates the opportunity for seemingly serendipitous moments to happen more regularly. It is as important as providing the microscopes and labs also needed to make breakthroughs happen.
Written by: Rachel Williamson
First published in Australian University Science. Issue 10 2023