Big Science’s Big Ideas: The Case for Blue-Sky Science

March 15, 2022

Translational research is seen as the end-point, but innovation, impact and income come as much — if not more — from fundamental science at Australian universities.

Image: Professor Richard Robson, University of Melbourne, pioneered a new field of chemistry. Supplied.

Translational research is seen as the end-point, but innovation, impact and income come as much — if not more — from fundamental science at Australian universities.

Good science, at its core, is a marriage of imagination and application; the synthesis of a wild idea and a mind rigorous enough to prove it. The Australian scientific landscape is replete with original and world-changing innovations: the Cochlear implant, cutting-edge immunotherapy, spray-on skin, the ultrasound, the pacemaker. 

We have scientists making world-first breakthroughs in quantum computing, agricultural innovations to combat climate change, inventions that will shape the very nature of the ‘new space race’, and game-changing discoveries in nanofabrication and genetics.

Despite punching above our weight in terms of creative discovery, our research community has for many decades shouldered the critique that we are all brains and no bank. As such, commercialisation has become a critical focus of the contemporary Australian research community, as well as the policy of successive Federal and State governments to varying degrees of success. 

Most recently, the Morrison government made the decision to pressure the Australian Research Council to restrict the majority — a whopping 70% — of its grant funding to six key manufacturing priorities. These include space, defence, recycling and clean energy, medical products, food and beverage, and resource and mining tech. 

Translating innovation into viable commercial endeavours is important, but there is also a strong case to be made for the long-term, often unpredictable value of fundamental, ‘blue-sky’ research. While investment in fundamental research is consistently a much smaller percentage of research budgets, it underpins the most revolutionary — and often most lucrative — outcomes. 

While OECD countries devote just 22% of their research budgets to basic research, one study found that approximately 80% of medicines, for example, could trace their origins to “one or several basic discoveries”.

“Whether you’re in the social sciences or natural sciences, chemistry, physics or whatever, it’s nearly impossible to predict the impact of research when you do it,” says Professor Pall Thordarson, Director of the University of New South Wales RNA Institute and president-elect of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute. 

“Something that might look completely obscure turns out sometimes to be the research that has the biggest pay-off .”

Today’s science, tomorrow’s tech

It is that ambiguous pay-off  that presents such a problem when it comes to funding. Not only are science’s outcomes, by their very nature, uncertain, but they routinely take 20 or more years to materialise.

“It’s part of a continuum,” says Prof Calum Drummond, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Research and Innovation at RMIT University. “It’s important to do fundamental research, to front-load the pipeline for societal benefit.

“In terms of the translation, you’re not always going to get immediate translation, but you may advance a body of knowledge and, ultimately, someone else might be able to use that advance or build on it to create new technologies, new products, new processes, down the line.”

Building potential

In 1974, University of Melbourne Professor Richard Robson began building models. They were large, complex constructions made from coloured wooden balls and rods designed for undergraduate chemistry students, to illustrate the composition and bonds that form crystalline structures. Little could he know that his attempts to demonstrate inorganic particle composition would be the progenitor of an entire new branch of scientific discovery that underpins one of the most exciting commercial innovation prospects in contemporary Australian science.

Unless you’re a chemist, you may not have heard of MOFs. The acronym stands for “metal organic frameworks”: nanofabricated inorganic/organic hybrids with very high surface area ratios that give them some special and extremely useful properties. Today, MOFs are being used in everything from next-generation fuel research to targeted drug delivery and high-performance batteries. 

Australian startup Airthena uses MOFs to draw CO2 from the air for industrial use. Researchers from RMIT are using MOFs to create next-generation gas masks. At Monash University they are using MOFs to convert seawater into potable drinking water using nothing but the power of the sun. None of this would have been possible without Robson’s original exploration of the potential of mapping, designing and redesigning crystalline structures.

Training for emerging skills

Dr Daniel Mansfi eld is a senior lecturer in the mathematics department at UNSW. After five years of blue-sky research into a hunch about some ancient stone tablets, he discovered evidence that the Babylonians used what we today think of as Pythagorean geometry in their land surveying — 1000 years before Pythagoras was even born.

Aside from the potential future usefulness of new ways of conceptualising maths, Mansfield argues there is strong educational value in discovery for its own sake.

“To me, the value of doing this kind of research is not that I can get a patent out of it. It’s because that stuff  is awesome for inspiring the next generation of mathematicians,” he says. 

“How are you going to inspire a roomful of 500 students or now, these days, a Zoom class of 500 students?” he says. “How are you going to get them to tune in and actually listen to what you’re saying?”

And it’s those inspired minds who will be the ones feeding our research pipeline.

The dollar sign

University of Sydney graduate and former research fellow, Dr Ilana Feain, is an astrophysicist and commercialisation specialist with more than one startup under her belt. She says a passion for science underpins all her commercial experience and success.

“Thinking back to my PhD, all I wanted to do was understand how galaxies formed, how stars formed, the interaction of black hole energy,” she says. “That got me out of bed in the mornings and nothing else mattered.”

Her drive to understand the fundamental principles of the universe eventually led her to commercial ventures as varied as medical imaging and satellite communication technology.

“We were able to do that off  the back of some patents and innovations that would not have occurred had I not had that university background in astronomy imaging,” she says.

Feain was part of the group that spun off the startup Quasar. Their ambitious mission is to reimagine a technology originally designed for astronomy and space observation to produce satellite ground station facilities. This will play a huge role in managing the massive volume of satellites joining our sky to satisfy our seemingly endless appetites for data.

“Quasar is a perfect example of innovation and pure research for the sake of radio astronomy and understanding how galaxies form in the universe being translated into solving what is essentially a massive telecommunications bottleneck in satellite downlinks,” says Feain.

“Obviously, boundary conditions in place are important. But blue-sky research underpins almost everything.”

Writer: Rachael Bolton

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