Getting to know our Patron Professor Ian Chubb

Tackling issues from should Australia have a space agency to how many times he has been down the free-fall slide at Questacon, Science Olympian Siobhan Tobin sits down with our Patron Ian Chubb and asks the questions.

Young people often wonder what the sciences have to offer them as subjects in high school. What would your advice be to a student who believes they “can’t do science”?

I think anybody can do science. They’ve just got to be attracted by the awesomeness of science – which means they have got to see it and think about it. It comes down to wondering about how the natural world works, seeking answers to questions they might have from their everyday lives, and getting access to information that helps them get an answer. Everyone can do science. They just need to realise that it’s awesome and worth the effort.

Can you give us an example of some great science you learnt in your last year as Australia’s Chief Scientist?

Oh my last year that’s a bit hard. I think the best way for me to answer that is to say that during the period that I was Chief Scientist, I saw some of the really great science that is being done in Australia, from computer science to astronomy, quantum computing to biology, genetics. Some extraordinary uses of technology to understand the complexity of things, like brain function and the impact of science on the everyday lives of people. I guess the best thing was to see the enthusiasm of the people doing [science], whether they be very young, in the middle, or at the older end of the spectrum. Once the science bug gets you, you can’t let go.

The “ideas boom” sounds great, but for Australians in regional, rural and remote areas, STEM innovation can seem very far away. For example, the recent Australian Academy of Science decadal report on mathematical sciences in Australia stated that rural and regional Australians (of all ages and stages) participate far less in maths than Australians in urban or metropolitan environments. This has repercussions not just for maths, but for all science and innovation. How can we get the “ideas boom” to truly sweep the nation?

I think the first point to make is that it takes leadership, and by leadership I mean political leadership. I think that they have to go out there and explain to people across the country why it’s important, and they have to have a vision for why it’s important for the country. To explain it to people who might not have studied much science, and often times to people not understanding how often they use science on a daily basis. So politicians providing leadership, then scientists providing information that’s accessible to everybody. That’s one part of it. But we do know, the closer you are to the GPO, the more likely you are to have teachers well qualified in the disciplines they teach, while the further away you are, the less likely that is the case, or more often teaching out of field. So it’s really important that we see the nation as a whole, rather than bits that coalesce around big cities; the importance of regional areas to make Australia what we want it to be, is great. I don’t think we have paid enough attention to that in the recent past – we have to get our act together. As it happens, I’m giving a speech in a couple of weeks about science and nation-building. I was reading what the Federationists were saying – in Canberra, you have these three word mantras, you know, ‘stop this’ and ‘start that’ – their mantra was four words: ‘One people, one destiny’. Critically important that we think that that is as important today as it was then.

If you could travel anywhere in space time to see something amazing and scientific happen, where would you go? Back to the days of megafauna? Watch a supernova collapse? The International Space Station?

One of the things you learn is that there are many things today that are just as challenging as when things were observed for the first time, or invented for the first time. We just look at things differently today, because they are current, rather than old. But if you look at some of the mind-boggling differences that inventions have made in the world, when you think about inventions like the printing press or harnessing electricity, or beginning to understand the basics of chemistry, they’re incredibly far-reaching. But I suspect that the work scientists are doing today will be just as far-reaching when we look back on it: think of the studies of our genome, splicing, and inserting a gene here and taking one out there. The way that we used science was important, and it is still so important. So I don’t think I’d want to go back anywhere but I’d stay in today’s revolutions in science to make sure it’s used properly. And that takes all of us to discuss how science can be used properly, and not just use it because we can, but use it for good purposes rather than just any purpose. We need that discussion today: we can do a lot more but it is up to us to decide whether doing more is good or bad.  Knowing that science can be used for good or bad. We have to work that out for ourselves.

What are your thoughts on an Australian space agency?

I don’t think Australia can opt out of space, basically. And I think we need a coordinated approach. I think if you were to learn anything from Australia’s past is that unless we begin to harness the energies, we’ll end up with multiple smaller space agencies and not one big one that makes a big difference to how Australia can benefit. It’s a very deep question, and hard to answer, other than to say that Australia can’t keep out of space. It’s important in the way we position ourselves, and the way we position to benefit Australia. I would not like us to be totally dependent on other countries. And sophisticated use of satellites, for example, can help us study things that are uniquely Australian, and therefore ones that nobody else will volunteer to do for us.

Interdisciplinary research is increasingly a feature of science. Do you think this should be reflected in the senior years of high school with subjects called something other than biology, chemistry, environmental science and physics?

Interdisciplinary research, interdisciplinary thinking, is increasingly a feature of science. It’s certainly widely accepted that there aren’t very many big problems that will be solved by one discipline on its own, separated from other disciplines. So if you think of it from that point of view, it’s going to be a question of how those disciplines all work together, not whether. On the other hand, what we can’t do, is be soft on the study and use of the disciplines because the work is interdisciplinary. It’s still got to be very good physics, it’s still got to be very good chemistry, it’s still got to be very good biology and environmental science, where each of those disciplines is strong. So I don’t think I’d change the names of them in the senior years of high school, I think I’d still call them biology, chemistry and physics, because people have got to know that those disciplines have got to be strong. But what I would do in high schools is make sure that people know and understand that, some of the big problems facing humanity are going to be solved by all of those strong disciplines working together.

How many times have you done the free fall slide at Questacon?

Never. And no I won’t ever. I’m happy to go and watch people do it…if doing it makes them happy.

How can we shake up the teaching of science in primary schools so all students, regardless of gender, enter high school excited about science, maths and technology subjects? I’ve read about primary school students in the UK learning about particle physics and drawing Feynman diagrams – yet in Australia, kids rarely seem to get beyond the water cycle. I will admit that I did find the excursions to the local reservoir and the sewage farm (twice!) pretty interesting though.

Science is a very practical subject, except for the theoretical aspects of certain disciplines. For most practising physicists or chemists, or any of the others, it’s what they do: design, prosecute, observe, interpret and then start again with a new design. Science ought to be taught that way – a very practical subject area. Science isn’t a textbook or a piece of paper, we can actually show people the outcome of science at work. I’ve often said that one of the advantages that I had was that my first primary school was a single-room country school with one teacher. Because I was an only child, I could read very well by the time I went to school. So he would set us a challenge of reading chapter one of book one or whatever, and if you finished early, you could go outside and play. But he didn’t say go outside and play every time. Sometimes we were allowed to, but sometimes we had to go out and look at the butterflies or look at ants, or look at the trees and the leaves and the cicadas and observe things. Then we’d come back and talk about it. And that was science in action. We got motivated to talk about what we had observed. We didn’t get formal ‘science’, but we saw science – everywhere. I think that it’s important that we give teachers the confidence to show people science and not just talk about it from a book – that means skilling up teachers, primary school teachers particularly, to have that confidence, and all the skills and knowledge that they need to inspire young people to go further to look at increasingly complex issues. But you have to see science to understand how great it can be, and to do science to understand it. Sitting down learning from a textbook, is part of it, not all of it. I wouldn’t burn all the textbooks, because they are important, but they’re an adjunct to the learning process, they’re not the learning process.