Australian Science Minister Karen Andrews (centre) and Australian Chief Scientist Allan Finkel pose for photographs with the winners of the Prime Minister's Prizes for Science winners at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, October 17, 2018. Professor Kurt Lambeck was today awarded the $250,000 Prime Minister's Prize for Science. (AAP Image/Lukas Coch)

Prime Minister's Prize for Science Awards

Speech
17 Oct 2018
Canberra,ACT
Prime Minister
E&OE

Photo: AAP Image/Lukas Coch

PRIME MINISTER: Well thank you very much Fred for your introduction and what a marvellous evening looking out here. All these great minds, all dressed up to the nines, you look fantastic. It’s great to have you here, I’m pleased to see you getting a night out.

[Laughter]

Closeted away all day doing experiments, on the computers working through all the amazing things that you do, going into your own minds and coming out the other side, this is what fascinates me about science. You know, the person who most fascinated me about science was Captain Cook. Now, you might go: “Why Captain Cook?” Well, yes he was an amazing navigator and his voyages and discoveries are legendary, but when you read Cook’s journals and you read about him, you discover that he was actually a scientist. And that’s what he should be remembered for more than anything else; an inquiring mind, a mind that wanted to understand, a mind that wanted to pass on that knowledge, a mind that wanted to explore the boundaries. I don’t know if you know this, but James T Kirk from Star Trek was actually -

[Laughter]

I’m not kidding, Gene Roddenberry confirmed this - was modelled on James Cook. To go where no one had been before, that’s what you do. As scientist you go where we haven’t been before, you dare to imagine the things that others haven’t.

I have no doubt that as you do that, you think it might be there, you suspect it might be. You turn it into a theory, then you follow the rulebook, but it all begins with something you believe. Something you think is possible. And if you look at all the great minds over time, those in Australia, those down through the generations around the world, that is that I think has always really encapsured, the great magic of science, if you like. It starts with belief, it starts with passion.

The people in this room are pressing forward in ways that are making our country stronger. Making our society stronger. You’re keeping people healthier, stronger, safer. You’re making an extraordinary difference to the daily lives not only of Australians but people all around the world.

Now, it’s true I actually have a science degree –

[Applause]

It’s true. But I hate to disappoint you; it’s in Applied Science, Social Sciences and Economic Geography. But that said –

[Applause]

BSc Hons is what I used to put on the card many, many years ago and I’ve always felt like I should have changed it to something else because I never really thought of it in the same way as those of you here. But look, I was passionate and I was interested and I did believe and I did want to learn and did want to know. You know, today in Australia, our people are our best asset, that’s been true for a long time.  We’re accepting, we adapt, we’re not very hierarchical in this country and we are inquisitive. And if we want to keep up the huge pace and scale of change in technology and industry that we’re seeing and in our society, we need people who know how to lead us there. There’s people in the room tonight as you’ve gathered together, who exemplify that.

We are in a new fourth revolution, industrial revolution. A revolution that reflects breakthroughs in every field of endeavour. In your daily work in genetics, in artificial intelligence and robotics, nanotechnology, 3 –D printing – this is all the sexy stuff -

[Laughter]

Biotechnology. But in so many other areas which is not so much, that doesn’t often get the headlines but is equally important and people are equally passionate about. We used to think of our assets as being just those in the ground and it was many years ago at the start of the gold rush that it was pretty straightforward to get to surface gold. All you needed was a pick and a shovel, a panning dish and then you could sift with a cradle. It was hard work but it was relatively simple. But with those sorts of tools, you couldn’t get to the good stuff buried deeper down, the stuff that was covered by the basalt in the old creek beds or the gold-bearing quartz in the cracks and the crevasses. That was much harder to get at and very lucrative too. To get that, you had to go below the surface and you had to go below the surface of your own imagination as well, because you needed technology and you needed skills. In Ballarat, they realised this, that they were lacking in the know-how. So they decided to do something about it, as Australians always have. So they set up the Ballarat School of Mines in 1870 and upon opening the school, its first President declared the “era of the cradle and the tin dish was over”, and it was “time for the calculating and inventive brain and cultivated intelligence to play their part.” That’s what he said. Those words ring as true today as they were said then. The new school trained people in science, maths, engineering, geology, mineralogy, chemistry and metallurgy. Many years later, one of the principals of that Ballarat School of Mines was someone called Charles Fenner. Now if that name seems familiar to you, it’s because he was the father of the late Frank Fenner, in whose name we honour the annual prize for Life Scientist of the Year, that we’re presenting later this evening. I want to acknowledge Frank’s daughter Marilyn Fenner who is in the audience tonight, no doubt you’ve heard the stories Marilyn. Today’s gold rush though is a technological one as well. Just like then, it’s massive and just as we did back then we need to sharpen our knowledge if we’re going to take advantage and not miss this huge moment in our history. We’ll need knowledge of science and our knowledge of maths, because maths is the language of science, it is. We’ve got a maths teacher out there.

[Laughter]

I was asked a question recently, who was one of the most formative people in my time at school and in my upbringing. Now if you look at me you’d probably think it was his rugby coach or someone like that. It wasn’t actually, it was my maths teacher, a guy called Mark Reed. He was also our year master and he instilled a passion in his students for how what he was teaching connected to broader life. He was also a mad punter, which I think explained his keen interest in maths. Nonetheless he took what he was passionate about – horse-racing and maths – and it made him an amazing teacher. We did a lot of work on probability theory.

[Laughter]

We actually did. Now, I’ve lost my place. Our STEM education though, on a more serious note, in science, technology engineering and maths, we did used to lead the world in this area. It’s been about 12 years now that we’ve been slipping back into the middle of the pack. It’s something we need to continue to do things about. But not just governments, all of us. I want to ask you something; do you think intermediate level maths should be a prerequisite for studying engineering at uni? You’d think so. I would think so. But do you know in this country, more than 40 per cent of unis will let you into engineering degrees without it? Only 14 per cent of universities require at least intermediate level maths for entry into a Bachelor of Science and only 13 per cent for entry into a Bachelor of Commerce.

I think that sort of says: “No, don’t worry, you’ll be right, just Google it.” Well that’s - I don’t Google the Budget, I can tell you that. Now, some may disagree.

[Laughter]

But I’ll disagree with you, mine adds up. There has been some positive change, notably from the University of Sydney, where they’re working to raise that bar again and good on you to the University of Sydney. It’s just a start, there’s a way to go and as Vice Chancellors come to see me, asking me their usual questions – I don’t have to give you a guess about what it is, though it does relate to budgets, - I’m going to ask them what are your prerequisites for science and engineering courses when it comes to maths? Is it any wonder that there’s been a sharp decline in the number of Year 12 students choosing advanced maths subjects, when that’s the message they’re getting? Why would you bother putting yourself though all that mental challenge of difficult subjects, getting Bs and Cs instead of As, when all the signs point to it not being necessary? Universities and schools need to send that message about maths and science, to young people. It’s particularly important for female students, who according to the statistics are currently much less likely to participate in the more advanced maths and science subjects. As a father of two daughters, I can only encourage them to take a different view. I encourage my daughters and everyone else’s daughters to consider these areas for them. So, we do need to change that. We do need to reassert the importance of science and maths because that is essential if we’re to have the pipeline of students that we require.

You know, I was up in Boeing earlier this year and Boeing – I don’t know if you’ve ever been there and seen the sort of production line that goes into putting the Dreamliners and all of these things together. It’s an absolutely amazing thing to behold. Boeing’s presence in the United States is known, but the second largest presence that Boeing has outside of the United States is actually here in Australia. It’s down in Fishermans Bend. I asked them then, as the Treasurer, keen to see how we can continue to ensure a strong place and a future for manufacturing in Australia. I said: “Tell me, why? I don’t want to talk you out of it, I want to talk you into it, but why? What was the basis of your decision?” And they said: “Because the people who are there are smart.” They don’t have the luxury in a huge production line like that, with a supply chain that goes around the world, to be working with people who don’t know what they’re doing. The future of manufacturing in Australia today isn’t about companies coming to chase cheap labour around South East Asia and the Pacific, that’s not its future, they’ve worked that out too. The ability to get it right every single time is what matters today. That’s where the value is added and that’s where I’m excited about the future of manufacturing in Australia; because the gold mine that sits inside the noodles of Australians is what is going to ensure that Australia has a manufacturing industry that value-adds right into the future. But for that to happen, we need you. We need you breaking that ground. We need you out there like Jimmy Kirk, or Jimmy Cook, or Janie Cook, whichever you like. But we need you out there discovering those new frontiers, breaking open the ground, being the inquiring mind, having the passion whether you’re teacher infusing that passion like good old Mark Reed did when I was much younger and let them see the potential and the excitement and the opportunity.

I’ll finish with this and it’s a tribute to the great champions who work at the CSIRO. One of its former leaders the late Sir Malcolm McIntosh – and tonight we’ll have an award in his name presented to the Physical Scientist of the Year and I want to acknowledge Lady Margaret McIntosh and members of the McIntosh family here also tonight. Not long after Malcolm took up the top job at the CSIRO, he spoke with a science magazine about the importance of getting good science out of the laboratory and into the industry and community. He said this.

“It simply isn’t possible to live sensibly in this society without having some understanding of science. If we’re to progress the society and keep the standards of living of Australians high, then it has to be more than that. It has to be an active participation in science. It’s not actually you do with a big bang, but to inculcate a scientific community is a very long process. It doesn’t start with people like you and me making speeches, you’ll be pleased to know, it starts at school”.

I couldn’t agree more. Now Karen Andrews the Minister for Science, Industry and Technology, I couldn’t have been more pleased to appoint her to that role in my Cabinet. She’s a scientist and she’s a female scientist.

[Applause]

She’s an engineer, she has sat where you are, she worked in industry, she’s someone who absolutely gets it and she’s a great asset in my Cabinet. Both of us are looking forward to working with you in all of your fields of endeavour and giving you whatever encouragement we can to go out and make the difference you do on a daily basis.

I want to wish all the award recipients tonight congratulations and I want to thank you very much for the opportunity to be here with you this evening, an honourary scientist of sorts.

[Applause]