From little ideas big advances grow
I had a humbling experience the other day. Sitting in a room of 300 scientists, I found myself captivated by the sheer brilliance and daring of a lifetime spent in quiet and determined research.
Scientific endeavour can achieve so much - most of us barely realise - but we all become the beneficiaries.
At CSIRO’s annual medal presentation awards, we heard of new polymer technologies that can be implanted into a human eye to improve vision, a bio-economic model that has the potential to revolutionise the way we manage prawn fisheries and we celebrated a career spent positioning Australia at the forefront of radio astronomy.
Each achievement was the result of long years of dedication and often single-minded perseverance and the scientists involved can claim an extraordinary legacy.
At the same time I couldn’t help but marvel how clever people can be. When we look at past winners, we see how scientific progress translates into commercial reality. At the same time, we get a glimpse into our own future.
In 2006, a CSIRO team won an award for developing a world-first scanner for “seeing” inside consolidated air cargo for contraband such as drugs and explosives.
The technology is now at the stage where there has been a joint venture with Chinese company, Nutech, to commercialise the scanner. They are also looking at developing scanners for shipping containers.
Back in 1987, a team were recognised for their invention of high security polymer banknotes which are now the basis of our currency and an export industry as well. That work has led to the recent development of printable-plastic solar cell technology to print flexible plastic solar cells with the potential to replace silicon in the next generation of collectors.
In 2000 the High Performance Wireless Local Area Network Team won an award for the construction of the world’s first high performance Local Area Network. Today there are over a billion devices world-wide using technology which flowed from that team. It may be CSIRO’s greatest commercial success. And for this the same team won this year’s Chairman’s Medal – the highest honour within CSIRO.
On a larger stage, in the last fortnight, Australian science has been a part of the biggest scientific prize of all – the Nobel Prize.
Tasmanian-born molecular biologist Dr Elizabeth Blackburn is the first Australian woman to become a Nobel Laureate.
That she was once asked what a nice girl like her was doing studying science reinforces how far we have come as a nation in our regard for science and the recognition we have of its potential to improve our lives through research and discovery.
Dr Blackburn shares with two other scientists the award for her ground-breaking research into telomeres and cell aging. For her it is the culmination of thirty years work.
Being excellent at science and successfully commercialising it in Australia is fundamental to our economic future. And at a time when the number of kids studying science is on the decline, recognising and celebrating scientific achievement is so important.
It is, of course, important for those being recognised but it is also important for the rest of us, to help us understand what has been achieved and the effort involved in that achievement.
It shows us the way forward. Science is at the heart of the progress of humanity. It is the most important manifestation of the innate curiosity of our species. Scientists are visionaries of our time.
The science and research carried out today will define the way we live our lives tomorrow.
And for that we are thankful to all those who were celebrated as CSIRO award winners last week and to every person who chooses to make science their life’s work.
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