The Interview: Karen Andrews

James Riley
Editorial Director

Assistant Minister for Science Karen Andrews says there should be a discussion in Australia about nuclear power in relation to the nation’s energy requirements for the future.

A couple of months ago this would have been considered a radical position – and a brave statement indeed to come from a junior portfolio minister, regardless of which side of politics it came from.

But an “open and sensible discussion” about nuclear energy is a position Ms Andrews openly advocates – to a reporter, no less. Welcome to the new normal.

Friend of Science: Karen Andrews welcomed to the ministry by the GG*

Karen Andrews is a mechanical engineer by training, and was already the Parliamentary Secretary for Science under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, before being named Assistant Minister in the same portfolio in the first ministry of Malcolm Turnbull.

She has been co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Science for several years, and was delighted this week to share the stage with the Mr Turnbull and Industry Minister Christopher Pyne to name Dr Alan Finkel as the nation’s next Chief Scientist.

The Prime Minister has been talking about science as being at the heart of this government’s industry and innovation plans since he took the job two months ago. We have yet to see how this translates as new policy.

But with the appointment of a very commercially-oriented Chief Scientist in Dr Finkel, and the promise of a new innovation and science agenda to be announced by the end of the year, great change is in the air.

Ms Andrews makes the point that broader innovation policy is not just about startups, that the government takes a “holistic” economy-wide view of innovation and science issues.

But clearly commercialisation is at the centre of much of the thinking. That is, improving the commercial performance of the Australia’s already excellent research and development capabilities. spoke to Ms Andrews the day after the announcement of the next Chief Scientist, and we started by asking her about the relevance of Dr Finkel’s Silicon Valley experience.

The new Chief Scientist Alan Finkel is clearly well suited in all sorts of ways, but it is commercial experience – his Silicon Valley experience – that really stands out. Is that the primary reason he was appointed?

Karen Andrews: I think that you’ve got to look at all of the issues that we face in science at the moment, and then we’d look to the type of person that we needed to be in the role of Chief Scientist in Australia.

In the case of Dr Finkel, he has got excellent academic credentials, and high-level research skills. But he has also demonstrated the application of those skills as well. He provides a very good holistic package in terms of what we are looking for from our science community, which is certainly high-level technical skills, [but also] the ability to translate those ideas.

The recruitment process was certainly a very open one, and we had some very high quality candidates. But at the end of the day, we were looking for someone who could support the basic and applied research that Australia needs, and [who could] commercialise that research.

Was this the personal choice of the Prime Minister? How did that selection process work?

Karen Andrews: I wasn’t involved in the intricacies of the selection process, so I can’t give you much about the process, but I can say that Alan Finkel certainly had wide support for his appointment to the role.

Certainly the Prime Minister is delighted that he is our new Chief Scientist, and so is the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne. As am I.

Dr Finkel does look like a man who suits the times. I think it is fair to say that the current Chief Scientist has done a stellar job in many, many different ways, but probably held the commercial side of research with a little disdain. This new bloke seems to be the antithesis of Ian Chubb in that respect, and certainly he seems a new breed of Chief Scientist.

Karen Andrews: Ian Chubb is very highly regarded in the scientific community, and certainly brought great strength to the role of Chief Scientist, particularly the work that he did with STEM education, in science technology, engineering and maths.

[Prof Chubb] has been a very strong and persistent advocate for a series of governments to do can to increase our stem skill uptake. We need to look back on the time Ian Chubb has been in the role and say that would be one of the great achievements that he has made.

In terms of commercialisation, that is certainly where this government is focusing for the future, and Alan Finkel, the incoming Chief Scientist, will certainly take that baton and run with it.

Now, the Office of the Chief Scientist obviously advises in a whole range of areas. When we are talking about commercialisation, will he be engaged more with off shore activities, with establishing collaborations with international institutions?

Karen Andrews: One of the things that Australia has to do is to establish strong international linkages, particularly with other researchers, so international collaboration are a part of that. But linkages with multinational large businesses are important as well.

With the experience that Alan Finkel has, he is certainly going to be a key part of that in the future. It’s not going to be his only role, but it’s certainly one that he could bring add a lot of value.

We also do have a number of ministers who are actively engaged already in that space, and I think that what you will see over the coming months and years is that people from Australia will be engaged in the task and the role of international collaboration.

When we talk about Dr Finkel’s experience in Silicon Valley, he’s obviously commercialised his own products, raised his own money, he’s run his own company, and ultimately created his own wealth through that whole process. So when you talk about looking at a greater focus on commercialisation, he’s still the Chief Scientist, so to what point will he have input into broader commercial issues – like more general skills issues, or even VC funding shortfalls?

Karen Andrews: He certainly does have an opportunity to provide input into that, but can I also say, we also have some other very senior science people who have similar experiences to Alan Finkel.

One that springs to mind would be Larry Marshall, the CEO of CSIRO, who many experiences in Silicon Valley and is well across the issues of financing a startup and who also has got a very strong research background.

I am hoping – and very confident – that the CSIRO is going to take a lead role when looking at the commercialisation of scientific research.

It is interesting also that Adrian Turner from Data61 obviously has a lengthy Silicon Valley pedigree.

Karen Andrews: Yes, and I think that’s great. We have to make sure we’re doing into the future is not relying on one individual or one organisation, because collectively we can achieve so much more if we are all working together and drawing on a range of expertise and experiences.

So I’m looking forward to dealing more closely, certainly with Alan Finkel but also Larry Marshall and others.

Ok so let’s talk about the leadership change. Certainly there’s been a different focus, and I guess as you were already the [Parliamentary Secretary] for Science [under Prime Minister Tony Abbott], so what’s changed for you, and the portfolio?

Karen Andrews: What has happened is there’s been a boost in confidence by Australians in general, but particularly by the science community and that’s very positive news for us. What we need to do is maintain that level of confidence, and translate that into some outcomes and actions in science.

Well suddenly there are all sorts of debates now on the table that perhaps weren’t there before, including potentially the end of coal and a discussion about nuclear power in this country …

Karen Andrews: I have co-chaired the Parliamentary Friends of Science for several years now, and we have a very open discussion in parliament. In this term of parliament in the early days, about 18 months to two years ago, we actually had some experts in nuclear energy to come in and talk to us to inform us on these issues we are facing.

If we’re actually looking at our energy requirements into the future, and particularly as the incoming Chief Scientist suggests, we’re looking at zero emission technology, then there needs to be a discussion about nuclear power.

The result of that might be that Australia might decide that it may – or may not – wish to be in that [nuclear] space, but we need to have an open and sensible discussion about it.

Does it help to be an engineer in this role?

Karen Andrews: Absolutely it does! I think engineers are trained to think in a particular way, and I’m very keen to make sure the decisions we are making are evidence-based, and I do like to follow a process and procedure. I think that level of rigour is certainly helpful in the role of Assistant Minister, and certainly helps me engage directly with scientists and engineers.

On this innovation statement that is expected before the end of the year, everyone is keen to put some meat on the bones of what’s been talked about since the leadership change. What sorts of things can we expect, and what sorts of things has the science portfolio put into this statement?

Karen Andrews: I can’t go into detail about what’s been proposed, but there’s certainly a lot of work that’s already gone into it and we’re in the process of refining some of those views at this point in time.

But it is intended to be an innovation and a science agenda, and I think it’s important that we all recognise out of that process that innovation doesn’t just come from startups, it comes from a wide range of things.

And we need make sure that we are supporting the work that is already being done in our small and medium enterprises, that there is on-going support provided to them to keep up the great work.

In terms of the agenda, I have very high hopes that [the innovation statement] will clearly define the path that Australia is going to take, and provide some leadership and direction to our science community around the areas that are priorities to our government.

Is there anything you want to add to this interview – your area of interest or something we have not talked about?

Karen Andrews: All I would add to that is that Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths is a priority for this government. What we don’t know is exactly what the job of the future will be, but what we do know is that a high percentage of those jobs will require those skills.

It’s important that we are developing a stem skills pipeline, and that may well need to start as early as kindergarten and progress all the way into tertiary education.

There is one other thing. Israel today has announced that it will be offering entrepreneur visas, startup visas. If you want to go and set up a business in Israel, you can do it on an entrepreneur visa programme. Is that something that would be considered by this government?

Karen Andrews: I think we have to keep as many options open as we can as we go through this process of determining what the future is going to be for us here in Australia.

Do we need a special category of visas or are the current categories of visas sufficient for people wanting to come to Australia?

There certainly are various classifications of visas that we could look at, but I also want to make sure we are concentrating our efforts to those already in Australia to develop their own businesses.

*Photo Credit: Getty 

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