How do you make ideas happen – both as a Nobel Prize winning scientist and as Vice-Chancellor of the ANU?
The Nobel Prize gives you the ability to talk to people which you would otherwise not get a chance to. It puts some barriers up since people think you’re Superman when you’re not, but the process is about the same. You have an idea, and then you have to go pitch it! I mean you have to know the details so you know what you’re pitching, but you need to come up with a compelling narrative of what you want to do. So for example, if I want to have this university rethink how it teaches classes, well I got to get some resources, I’ve got to convince and pitch to staff. I have to pitch to students as well and say “this is worthwhile, come to ANU because it’s not just another boring lecture, we’re going to have innovative learning”. So you really need to think through the whole narrative of why is this interesting, what you want to do, how you’re going to do it, and why you think it’s going to work. The science background gives you a technical basis, so you have the freedom (especially in astronomy), to think really broadly about how to solve problems. In my case, to solve my big problems, I never try to do anything myself. I know what I’m good at, and I look at people who have skills I don’t. I put together teams and then go as fast as I can to get where I want to go; which all starts to sound like building an interesting startup! I’ve always done business that way, and it’s how I approach science. So it makes it easier, moving into something like ANU, because you can take the same approach here. You don’t need a science background, though, what you need is experience working over broad groups of people. Running a university isn’t exactly a normal business, but it is a billion dollar operation.
Is there something tricky with regards to pitching to students and teachers?
It is tricky on some level, because normally when you’re pitching, you only have to get say, seven people in a room across the line. Here I have to get 20,000 students, and 4300 staff. There’s no way to get everyone. You’re not pitching to the lowest denominator; you’re trying to go through and get a narrative which gets people excited. Then the staff and students do part of the pitching for you. They start to say “No we want to do that!”. You win things by not just winning the argument, but getting people excited, so that you can get change happening. If you have a bunch of people lukewarm, and maybe one person who really hates it, it’s not going to happen. But if you have nine people who are excited and one who hates it, then it is going to happen. That sort of thing is really unique to both politics, and running a university.
The ANU is a research university, and you’re doing a lot of cool things in lots of different areas. How do you think research here fits into both the nationwide innovation agenda, and international innovation?
We do a lot of research at this university, but we’re also a teaching university, and the whole point is that both the research and teaching go together. Innovation is a part of how you get that research out there, and that’s part of the outreach which we call “societal transformation”. The research we do here is varied; everything from humanities and arts to the hardest sciences that there are. We’re also a very comprehensive university. We have a great reputation, and one of the things we pride ourselves on is making sure that all of the bits and pieces we do are really world class. The goal of every department is to be in the top 100 of the ERA (Excellence in Research Australia) rankings, and no other university really came close to us in achieving that. We’re good across the board – doesn’t mean we can’t be better – but we don’t have any gaping holes. Worldwide, amongst those departments, we have some real standouts. From where I come from up at Mount Stromlo, we’re one of the best labs for building astronomical instrumentation. Our philosophy department is one of the top five in the world. There are pockets of places that truly are world-class. The entire Humanities faculty en-masse here, it really is a huge resource and also one of the top 10 in the world right now. We have bits and pieces of research that are cutting edge. Computer science, for example, in which there’s been some really amazing developments with the partnership we have with Data61. These are the places, on the international stage, where you can make the biggest breakthroughs.
How have mentors played a role in your career?
They’re very important for me, you know I’ve never had a formal mentor, but I’ve always had informal mentors. They’re people I turn to for advice, and I always make sure I go out and ask people for that advice. I’d normally have more than one – at least two or three. I have a network of people that I use as Vice-Chancellor, where I can go out and say “Okay I need some help here, this is new territory for me”. It’s useful to have people out there who you can reflect on. Some people like the formal bit, I’m very gregarious, so I just naturally ask and call people. I don’t say “you’re going to be my mentor”, I say, “can you help me with this question?”. I like the informality because I like triangulation, and getting many perspectives on things from a reliable handful of people. You have to have the confidence and wherewithal to ask questions. I like to think of myself as relatively self-aware, so hopefully I’m getting that mentorship when I need it. Formal mentors are really for people who need to have a standing discussion with someone, whereas I’m prepared to go out and do it on an ad-hoc basis, which works for me, but not necessarily for everyone.
Could you highlight a couple standout projects here at ANU?
I think we have potentially some really interesting things about to happen in cybersecurity. Earlier this year we made a deal with the Australian Signals Directorate. One of the features they have is that if you’re going to go work for them, you’re going to have a quite lengthy period in which you’re being “checked out” for your ability to work at AST. So what do you do with people in that period? Well, we cut a deal where we have a new floor in our computer science building where we’re going to have a bunch of Masters students, so people can do Masters degrees in cybersecurity. I’m thinking one of the interesting things we could do there is have them work together, collectively, on big problems as part of their degree structure. That’ll give us a chance to have a team of 50 people working on something, which is a huge capability. Linking that in with what we’re doing with Data61 and broader cybersecurity measures, which involve some of the social sciences, our National Security College, criminology – bringing those things together has huge potential. We’ve innovated in actually pulling it off; it’s got scale, and it’s also looking attractive when talking to partners about it.
Another thing over in medical research is the Center for Personalized Immunology, which is all about how you can use new technology for reading and writing DNA, and possibly curing diseases with existing drugs. We can tweak drugs to fit a given patient – lots of things. That’s a centre which we’ve invested in with China, and is sort of in its infancy, but has great promise.
We also have Liquid Instruments, which Daniel Shaddock from our physics department (who worked on the discovery of gravitational waves) built a platform for essentially doing high-end data collection and monitoring for a very cheap cost. That came out of his daily work, will have a broad use, and really shows how innovation works.
I’ll also mention another one that’s very exciting for me; Quintessence Labs which also came out of the physics labs and quantum optics. They’re doing a lot of stuff in cybersecurity, and one of the things they have is a quantum number generator. There seemed to be a backdoor into RSA encryption which came from random numbers not being completely random, but a quantum number generator is truly random. They’ve also developed a bunch of other products and software. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg!
Are there any ANU innovations, past or present, which you think have had a really big commercial impact for Australian society and/or environment?
The biggest innovation, in terms of impact, really depends on how you look at it. Bruce Chapman’s development of the income contingent loan, which students are paying for their education with right now, is being used around the world. That’s $10 billion of stuff happening right here in Australia, so you’d have to say that’s pretty big. But you know we have another $75 million startup, Lithicon which does technology for oil and gas exploration. There’s Liquid Instruments which I mentioned before.
If you look at some of the work done in the Center for Population Health and Epidemiology, there’s a lot of work being done on public health knowledge. It’s not sexy, but it saves huge amounts of money when you understand what works and what doesn’t. A lot of what we do isn’t that high-profile Atlassian type thing – although I’d like to get one of those. But we’ve got the guy who invented Rsync, which is a utility I use every day in Unix. He did his PhD and teaches computer science here. But some of the works we’ve done around Indigenous rights are innovations too, with social impact.
On environment, we’ve got the Energy Change Institute which helped the ACT government get to 100% renewables. We have Frank Jotzo going through and providing advice to the government on getting to no net emissions in 2050. One of our students is putting up solar cells in Cambodia to help people manage their environment out in the middle of nowhere. David Lindenmayer has gone through and figured out the true sustainable practice for farms. He did this huge survey around Australia so he can now say “here’s how many trees you can take off, how much fertilizer etc…” the whole inventory, that helps farmers sustainably manage their land – in a true definition of sustainable.
Can you tell us a bit about the university’s renewable energy partnership with the ACT government?
As part of the ACT Government’s commitment to getting us into renewable energy, they have started to invest in 36 MW-hours of battery storage. That battery storage will be distributed to households around Canberra, and it turns out to be cost effective for them. As part of that reverse auction process, where they get people out and bid to do this, part of that was investing in research within the ACT. We were successful to put together a bid with the winning group where we bring in a world-leader in battery technology, which provides a total of about $8 million to work on new battery technology. That’s an innovative way of doing business and gets us a world leader in that area. We’re still in the early days, but I mean, I drive a battery. So trying to figure out how to integrate those into the grid, that’s 85 kWh of battery in my Tesla. That’s four or five days of use for a family of four. Another startup out of here is Reposit, from Lachlan Blackhall, are going through and integrating batteries into the grid, in a systematic way where you can arbitrage with the power companies as to how and when you dump the power.
You guys also co-invest in InnovationACT, can you talk a bit about the university’s involvement in that?
If you want innovation to happen in Canberra or in the ANU, you’ve got to seed it with activity. You’ve gotta make it interesting, provide support and get people with ideas. You’ve first got to give people permission to have ideas, then incentivise that as well, and once they have the ideas, give them support. InnovationACT is essentially in the middle bit. You got an idea, you can pitch and have mentorship and support provided, and at the end, it’s a contest in which the best pitch wins $50,000 to advance your idea. It’s kind of an incubator in that way, and it’s part of the landscape, and one of the many things we can do.
Part of the things we have to do is giving people the license to have ideas within the university, and allow them to take time off. If you (a student) have an idea right now, you need to know you can suspend your classwork, go and do it, and come back to us in support of you doing that. That’s something we’re working on, for undergraduate students that’s easy, PhD students and postdocs are harder, and staff members are harder still. Maybe we’ll even give you a bit of startup money to do it. My hope is to implement something like that over the next couple of years.
You’ve previously mentioned that you want to bring the ANU to a level of education “equal to that of Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy League schools”. Students at MIT and Stanford often graduate and form startups. Do you think the ANU could provide a similar sort of role to students?
The first thing to do is to get a group of students that look like MIT or Harvard type material. The peer-to-peer effect is incredible. Because we have an on-campus experience and very good students, I think we get more peer-to-peer effect than any other university in Australia by an order of magnitude, but still not quite as good as MIT and Stanford. If you look at how people perform, you can put a really smart person next to nine other really smart people, and they’ll do a lot better with them. The peer-to-peer effect is not just a little incremental change; it is a really major change of pushing people and improving people. It’s not that we have a lock on great students (although demonstrably on average, the best students in the country), our students don’t check in and check out. They actually engage with the campus. A lot of them live on campus, and interact with their fellow students, that on average, a lot of other universities just don’t do. To get a chance at that peer to peer effect, you need to have a chance to sit down and talk with your fellow students. Getting that culture of people working peer-to-peer, that’s step 1.
Step 2: Some mentors, role models, people who have been there and done it. We’re going out and looking for entrepreneurial professors. People who have gone out and done it. Hopefully, we’ll have our first one announced here in the next couple of months, and there’s a couple others I’m looking at. These are high profile people, who, as a student, you can go talk to and ask “how does this work” or go work in their labs and see what it’s like. Once you start building role models up, I think the whole thing sort of propagates. If we get that right, the venture capital (of which the university has six or seven ways to bring that), just start becoming much more natural. Instead of dribble, you get a stream of people coming down. It’s not easy; it’s very difficult to recreate Silicon Valley or Cambridge, Massachusetts. But we’ve got a very vibrant culture in Canberra where we’re at. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t increase it by a factor of 10 – I think we can, and that’s the goal. Building up that culture really needs people hanging out and talking with those who have been there and done it, and it just becomes part of what we do. It’d be really difficult to ever reach MIT of Stanford level, just because it’s so concentrated, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be something a lot closer to where they are than to where we are right now.
Where does the Australian education sector really need to improve for the most innovative students?
That’s an interesting question. I can tell you about what I want to do, which is bringing the culture of innovation to our staff. Providing people with outside opportunities so they can work for companies and see how it’s done. Making it easy for people to go out and make a startup by giving them the license and funds for interesting ideas. All these things are lacking at every university in the country.
You just have to start filling in the holes. We’re very lucky, as one of the best universities in the world which gives us a huge advantage, over other places. But that doesn’t guarantee success; we have to use that advantage to get out, fix the problems, learn what other people are doing, get rid of the gaps in the whole process, learn from your mistakes, and make it part of the culture of the university. That’s what I think people are doing; it’s just not there. The places that have the most innovative culture, if I can be honest, probably don’t have the right students. They have too many students, so you don’t get that peer to peer effect. Too many students who don’t feel connected, they just go to classes and go home. As for primary education, on some levels, there’s huge room for improvement, but that’s probably not the big problem. The big problem starts in Year 7, where we don’t have enough teachers with specialist expertise teaching things like science and maths. We also, at that point, somehow make science and maths something girls don’t do. Somehow we need to entrench maths, engineering, coding and science – somehow get that across the Year 7,8 and 9 chasm which exists right now for girls. As a university, I need to incentivise people who are taking subjects which make them look like they have the capability of being entrepreneurs. It also means taking evidence of people who show evidence of entrepreneurialism even in high school and college, and saying that’s one of the traits we want to look at. That’s part of the deal actually, in changing the way we admit people in the university, so it’s more than ATAR. I can’t change the university instantly, but you’ve got to build from the ground up – you can’t take shortcuts.