Bond with chemistry

May 21, 2004

Australia is backing science with cash and support. The UK should take note, says Andrew Holmes

Before the introduction of PhD degrees in Australia, most Australians received their doctoral training in the UK. By the late 1960s they were taking doctorates at home and gaining experience overseas as postdoctoral fellows.

I came to London to do a PhD, but expected to return to Australia for a postdoctoral fellowship and, with luck, an industrial position in the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. However, after completing a postdoctoral position in Switzerland, I was offered an assistant lectureship at Cambridge University, and I have been there ever since.

In the intervening years, a large number of multinational firms have closed their research and development facilities in Australia and job opportunities have become restricted largely to academia and government.

But since 2001 there has been a sea change in attitude towards opportunities for technology transfer at national and government level.

A three-year A$2.9 billion (£1.12 billion) programme, "Backing Australia's Ability", was introduced, and generous Federation fellowships were offered to recruit and retain Australians, and to attract outstanding foreign nationals.

In a second tranche of funding ("Backing Australia's Ability - Building our Future Through Science and Innovation"), Brendan Nelson, the Education Minister, announced a A$5.3 billion seven-year extension.

Australia's scientific community is world class. With 1.9 per cent of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development gross national profit, Australia produces 2.9 per cent of the world's research publications.

Everyone recognises that the intellectual capital of the country needs to be turned into wealth creation. State governments are taking the initiative. For example, Victoria is building a synchrotron source in Clayton, while Victoria and Queensland have established biotechnology institutes.

State ministers of science and innovation attend international biotechnology conferences. In short, there is a real buzz in the community and high expectations for the future.

Under such circumstances the opportunity for Australian nationals to return home and share their overseas experiences in ways that maximise innovation and technology transfer is irresistible. I have accepted this challenge, and with the A$7 million funds of support over five years expect to establish a laboratory for ten people in addition to a dedicated team of scientists at CSIRO Molecular Science.

I will miss Cambridge enormously and I realise how privileged I have been to have had unrivalled access to 32 years of chemistry at the cutting edge.

Chemistry is central to innovation at the frontiers of materials science, physics, engineering and biology. One of the biggest changes I have seen is the participation in European-wide research collaborations funded under the European Commission's framework programmes. This allows us to challenge our colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic.

I passionately believe that the big breakthroughs in future will be achieved by multidisciplinary teams in a global research environment, and it is vital for Australian research groups to take advantage of new rules allowing third-country participation in European research networks.

If I had the chance to choose my academic career again, I would grasp the same opportunities. I have worked with some of the best undergraduates in the world and am pleased to see the emergence of jobs for well-trained chemists in the Cambridge area created by my academic colleagues.

A strong research base fosters these initiatives. Serendipitous discovery, by definition, cannot be written down in research proposals. As the Harvard University physiologist Walter Cannon once observed, it more likely emerges from "the presence of a prepared mind". As vice-chancellors deal with the temptation to close down chemistry departments as an easy cost-cutting exercise, they should not forget the centrality of chemistry to all physical and biological sciences.

It has been recognised in the US that spin-off companies gather around strong university research centres. It is our job to convince the public that this most central of sciences should continue to receive generous research support to underpin one of Britain's most successful export manufacturing industries. For me, that challenge will extend to Australia.

Andrew Holmes is professor of organic and polymer chemistry, director of the Melville Laboratory for Polymer Synthesis at Cambridge University and a co-founder of Cambridge Display Technology. He was awarded a Federation fellowship to return to Australia in October. In the Australia Day Honours he was appointed AM.

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