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Standing Committee on Employment, Education and Training
Innovation and creativity: a workforce for the new economy

PATERSON, Dr Adrian, Chief Executive Officer, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

RICHTER, Dr Simone, Group Executive, Nuclear Science and Technology and Landmark Infrastructure, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation

Committee met at 12:00

CHAIR ( Mr Laming ): I declare open this public hearing for the standing committee inquiring into innovation and creativity. I welcome ANSTO to the table. The committee does not require you to give evidence on oath. I remind you that these are still legal proceedings of the parliament and warrant the same respect as proceedings of the House. Giving false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as a contempt. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. Over to you, Dr Paterson.

D r Paterson : Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today and to contribute to this important inquiry. The outcomes of this inquiry will no doubt have important implications for Australia in growing its skilled and innovative workforce, and for further strengthening Australia's economy through greater synergies between industry and the research and education sectors.

You have just met my colleague Dr Simone Richter. She looks after about 40 per cent of ANSTO—our research infrastructure and the research activities that we undertake. She is also responsible for planning and delivering the proposed ANSTO graduate institute, which forms part of our five-year plan. That may be of particular interest to the committee. She will be answering questions in relation to that. ANSTO's landmark research infrastructure—the OPAL multipurpose research reactor, the Australia Synchrotron in Clayton in Victoria, the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering and the Centre for Accelerator Science—are a critical part of Australia's education, skills and economic base. They maintain a highly skilled STEM workforce enabling knowledge production and technological breakthroughs, solving complex problems for Australian small- and medium-sized enterprises and larger companies and sustaining Australia's business and research competitiveness and global relevance.

Last financial year, ANSTO's research infrastructure attracted approximately 6,000 Australian and international researchers from universities, research institutions and industry. As the Australian epicentre for nuclear research and innovation, ANSTO is acutely aware that our ability to generate benefit for Australia into the future, including the production of life-saving nuclear medicine and world-class research outcomes, is founded on appropriately skilled, qualified and workforce-ready people. ANSTO has a number of programs in place to assist in bridging the gap between the uptake of STEM education at all levels and the current and future demands for STEM-qualified workforce-ready professionals. These are outlined in our written submission.

However, the most significant upcoming development for us in this area is the proposed ANSTO innovation precinct and graduate institute. The aim of such a precinct is to crowd in and co-locate on our southern Sydney campus scientific partners, small and medium enterprises, high-tech industry and STEM graduates. They will then have the benefit of close access to our unique capabilities and research infrastructure, and it will create an innovation ecosystem that fosters technology development and transfer, commercialisation, entrepreneurship and STEM education. ANSTO has a lot to offer industry and we have been working hard to straddle the divide between academia and industry. We continue to strengthen relationships with university and industry partners through research, promoting a collaborative environment that enables high quality innovation that has an effect both locally and abroad.

ANSTO has been involved in a number of projects that we can bring to your attention, but here are just two examples, briefly. Working together with Charles Sturt University, the New South Wales Department of Primary Industry and food manufacturers we are helping Australian farmers tackle global malnutrition by improving the nutritional value of rice. Also, we are partnering with the railway industry, including Queensland Rail, to lead research into damaged rails to understand how residual stresses evolve that cause rails to degrade, so we can eliminate those causes of degradation of the rails and cut down on maintenance costs and improve safety, including the lifetime that we can use the rails for.

The ANSTO innovation precinct will further enhance our contribution to drive Australia's innovation economy. I look forward to further assisting the committee today in answering any questions you may have.

CHAIR: Thank you very much. I will ask the first question to get the ball rolling. You may have something to add. Can you help with this number of around 6,000 scientists? They are mostly virtual networks, I imagine, spread around the country. What is the estimated size of the hub that you are talking about developing in your southern Sydney campus?

Dr Paterson : It is an interesting thing that often when we think about research we have this picture that came out of the last century of people in white coats in labs. What has changed fundamentally, and ANSTO is at the epicentre of this, is the large pieces of equipment that users come to actually advance their science—for example, the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne. That has beamlines, as we call them, that take X-rays that come out of the very intense bright light source. We use those X-rays to undertake research into materials in everything from agriculture to zoology. It can be studied using these instruments. So the game has changed. The capacity that Australia has with these multi-user, multidisciplinary facilities means that people come to the facility to do the work. Whether it is neutron scattering next to the OPAL reactor, or whether it is X-ray scattering being done at the Synchrotron, that is where these people are coming to actually physically touch the instruments and work with our scientists to develop their knowledge.

A number of medical breakthroughs, which Simone can speak to, have happened over time. That is the way that the science has changed. When I did my PhD, we had a little desktop X-ray machine that I used. I used it as well for my post-doc. I worked out that I could redo my post-doc, which was for one year at the University of Leeds, in about 20 minutes on one of the instruments we now have at the Synchrotron. Science has changed. So the transformation of science means that we are no longer as campus based as we used to be. We can co-locate these instruments in a campus-like environment like we have between Monash and the Synchrotron, and then with the fabrication facilities just around the corner. You can start to cluster in industry. They really need those services. With things like industrial PhDs, for example, you then have the capacity to have workforce-ready people. Perhaps a lot of people doing PhDs in the last decade thought that they were going to go into academic careers. Now only a small fraction of the PhDs can do that. So you have to really transform their experience of the workforce industrial issues and so on.

That is why we are quite interested in the Lucas Heights facility becoming a precinct in its own right, because it was built as a lab in the woods. In the days when we built Lucas Heights, it was meant to be far away from everything. Now it is meant to be close to everything. So this is a real transformation for us. Probably at the moment we have about 120 people doing PhDs and post-doc studies who are associated with our scientists. We want to increase that to between 300 and 400. So you are crowding in many more people. You start to bring in the very innovative small firms that are trying to develop new technologies that are linked to what we are doing and then, ultimately, to create that into a learning and knowledge intensive precinct, but also an industrial hub over time.

CHAIR: I will throw to some other questioners. Deputy Chair.

Ms BUTLER: Thank you for the submission. It really is fantastic. Can you tell us a bit more about the 'year in industry program'? I think everyone in the committee is very interested in work integrated learning and how that actually works. How do you find the firms and workplaces that are willing to take on students?

D r Paterson : The year in industry program, a number of universities look out for these programs. We bring the year in industry students to work on the campus. For example, if you take ANSTO Minerals, which is a facility that works on mineral activities related to naturally occurring radioactive materials—uranium, rare earths and so on—the year in industry students will have an opportunity to come and see how that larger scale infrastructure works and spend time learning about how we work with the industry to develop processes for them. We have recently developed some very interesting lithium extraction processes, and we work with companies in that regard. So they have the ability through those programs to say, 'I know more about what industry does'. One of the translational effects of that is that they can see themselves in careers in the industrial setting. That works pretty well to support that. In order expand that, on top of that you have the expansion of industrial PhDs where you can link people to firms. They do part of their research at the firm, part of their research at ANSTO and part of their research in the university setting. As was the case with my PhD many years ago, I worked directly with industry on my PhD and it gave me a sense that this is not all about the lab at the uni. It is actually about the network of innovation opportunities that are out there.

Ms BUTLER: When are they employed by industry in the course of the year in industry programs?

D r Paterson : Our year in industry students do not directly work with the industry, except by touching them through ANSTO. But the universities themselves do send people out into the industrial setting. In Australia we can actually crowd in a lot more capabilities. Once we get the innovation precinct working there will be many more opportunities for people to come and spend time working with these innovative companies. It is remarkable; as we started to look at the innovative companies in the 20 kilometres around ANSTO, there are a large number of these companies that have some good engineers and scientists. They are kind of unaware of the opportunities of bringing in young people. I think really amplifying the industrial PhDs in the year in industry by having a more coherent and organised precinct at ANSTO will be really helpful.

Mr WALLACE: You would no doubt have been aware of the political talk in recent weeks about energy security. One of the concerns or road blocks that we have in this country to discussions around nuclear, I have heard many times, is that we do not have the skill in Australia to support a nuclear energy industry. What do you say about that? I have heard it would take as much 10 years to develop those sorts of skills, to develop that nuclear energy industry capacity in our people capacity.

D r Paterson : I think that part of what has happened over the past few years is that universities in Australia have become interested in educating people about nuclear energy and nuclear more broadly. The University of New South Wales has a masters level program which focuses on reactor technology, fuel cycle issues and so on. That program is starting to attract some students. If Australia made a policy decision to either be technology neutral or introduce nuclear, the normal pattern we have seen in the rest of the world—for example the United Arab Emirates is building some nuclear facilities—is that you do have to sharpen up your workforce to do that. They currently are training about 250 nuclear engineers around the world for their program. That is one way. You go outwards to draw people back inwards. The other thing they did was to hire a lot of skills from their vendor and supply-chain capable nations. Interestingly, there are a number of nuclear companies internationally that have come to Australia to start strengthening their supply chain. Westinghouse, for example, has partnered with a couple of Australian companies now to develop them to be nuclear ready as suppliers into the global nuclear supply chain. That is an attractive industrial opportunity as well. So we see changes. The nuclear industry used to be very much located in individual little sovereign countries. But we are seeing that the supply chains are globalising now, and that creates industrial opportunities. Westinghouse was the first of the large companies to specifically come to Australia with the purpose of establishing direct links with firms.

I think we can just see a pattern whereby the landing pad, if you will, of nuclear capability is strengthening. ANSTO has a very significant number of nuclear savvy engineers. They are currently designing and building a demonstration plant for the world's first Synroc plant using our nuclear waste technology, which was developed by Ted Ringwood at ANU. So we have nuclear engineering capability but it is not directed towards the power industry at the moment. But it is the same core set of skills. We have about 200 nuclear savvy engineers, which is a pretty large engineering workforce, which is available in ANSTO to do that sort of thing. Part of the vision we have had is to turn those to what I call being procurement engineers, who are writing specifications to buy things from people, to design engineers where they can actually design things. So the new nuclear medicine plant we are building, the internal part of that to make the nuclear medicine, was designed by ANSTO engineers.

Mrs SUDMALIS: Who sets the agenda for the research? Is it the university or is it the industry?

Dr Richter : Our collaboration with the universities is mainly around our research themes, which are human health, the effects of irradiation on living materials and, now, expanding also into the food space. It is around environment, climate change and contaminants in the environment. As Dr Paterson just talked about, it is the nuclear fuel cycle. We are clustering in around those hard topics mission we have and then creating a centre of gravity where we pull in industries that are using our landmark infrastructure, like the Australian Synchrotron or the Australian Centre for Neutron Scattering at Lucas Heights. So it is us driving those questions and then attracting those interested in those questions.

Mrs SUDMALIS: That is, for me, one of the concerns. The research is then saying to the industry: 'Come on in. We have some research going on.' And there may or may not be employment for the graduates because it may or may not match. How do you get the industry to actually set the research agenda so that as soon as the graduate is finished or during their study, there is already a connection—as you had during yours? So that we do not have these graduates who have fabulous qualifications and nowhere to go with them.

Dr Richter : A good case study is that we are engaged through the regional research centre over at the International Atomic Energy Association, the IAEA. We did some work in PNG looking into how we can support the local fish farmers. And that actually attracted interest from New South Wales Department of Primary Industries looking in to the new white fish, the kingfish, and now we have the New South Wales fishery, a couple of universities and a couple of industry partners. It is a big project looking into how we can farm kingfish, one of the new superfoods.

So we created that interest in industry. They were never aware, really, how you could use nuclear techniques in the food chain and in the environment. It has two aspects—how you can feed the fish to become a very valuable food while at the same time limiting the impacts of aquaculture on the environment. We are also creating our own market in that regard. The graduate students are then workforce ready to employ all the techniques they have learned on various aspects.

Mrs SUDMALIS: That is not in this submission. That is actually a standout star of exactly what we need to happen and it would be lovely if you can get that story to us.

Dr Richter : Of course.

Mrs SUDMALIS: Because that is exactly what we are after—that sort of case study about bringing it in. If you are going to be attracting small associated researchers into this hub that you are proposing, what is your relationship to them in terms of your intellectual property rights?

D r Paterson : The first thing is that we really are very keen that the people who come in to this environment are coming from universities where they will be registered and the degrees will be conferred. So we do not want them to lose their link to universities, but we want to crowd them in. Typically if you are a user of our facilities and you are doing merit-based research, you retain ownership of the intellectual property. We have no interest in becoming an intellectual property trading agency at the level of individual researchers. We do sometimes secure intellectual property out of our own research. But the best rules from around the world for these user-based facilities are that you leave them with the intellectual property. For instance, if we had a medical researcher who made a breakthrough with a drug, the last thing you would want to do is have ANSTO try to clip a piece of the intellectual property off, because it just makes it more complicated. So, when it is merit-based access by users, we do not make any claim on the intellectual property because we want them to have the greatest freedom to then explore that with the typical partners. However, when it is our own research we then typically have an arrangement. Part of what we are really sharing with you today is that ANSTO is a research intensive organisation but it is also a user intensive organisation. That is not always understood. We love our users. One of the most wonderful things is to have 6,000 people to see us every year and spend time with us.

Mrs SUDMALIS: I do not think you are gloating enough, and that brings me to my last question. My first career was a high school science teacher. I am absolutely destroyed by the fact that young people these days are avoiding maths and science at school. Given that you have seen that as one of the barriers to getting graduates to come through the STEM process, have you given any thought to actions or ideas that would encourage young people, other than your story about creating superfish to feed people? That is a story that you can market extremely well to encourage kids to do science. Have you put any thought towards that yet?

D r Paterson : We do quite a lot. The ANSTO today attracts 15,000 visitors a year to the Lucas Height site. That is up from about 6,000 eight years ago. So we have really massified that part of the program. We now also have a virtual electronic classroom where we can partner with schools to take what we do at ANSTO directly into the classroom. We have also registered with the training authorities in New South Wales for teachers to come and spend time learning what we do. They can actually use that for professional development and so on. So we do have those linkages. We think teachers are part of the key to that and to get them involved in those processes. In addition, we have a wonderful program called Fact or Fiction, which is run by one of our enthusiastic connectors to schools who developed this program where we typically go to a theatre. We crowd it full of young people. They have these machines where we put up a scenario and say, 'Is this fact or fiction?' That has been running for about five years now. What is interesting about it is that about five of the items that used to be fiction are now fact. So we can see the rate of development of technology. That program runs right around the country in a sort of two-year cycle. We get in to all of the states and territories.

Mrs SUDMALIS: Do schools initiate that?

D r Paterson : Some schools initiate it but typically it is through museums. The museums really like it because they also are crowding in a lot of young people. We have a partnership with the Australian Museum in New South Wales and with the Queensland Museum. I am going to be up at the World Science Festival in March, talking about what large-scale science does to bring value to society. So, yes, the museums are very good anchors for that. They can bring more people through. We like those partnerships because we can amplify what they do and make people excited about science.

Mrs SUDMALIS: Can I give you my business card because I would like to have one of those and I am happy to work with you to do that.

Dr Paterson : Super!

CHAIR: It's like the Shark Tank: your pitch has been successful.

Dr Richter : Looking in to the skills set and the competencies of a contemporary research leader, we are currently developing a career pathways model that taps into all the different aspects, not only the academic public citation index. It is also looking in to outreach activities. We look in to some of those issues such as when people get promoted, if they are engaged in the academic space and the schools. It is one of our key performance indicators that we do measure.

Mrs SUDMALIS: That is not in your submission either. Can we have a copy of that, please?

Dr Paterson : In ANSTO now you can be promoted as a working instrument scientist for being a blogger as well, if you get on the science blogs and amplify the message. We have some very keen bloggers. They get quite big followings. So careers are changing. Science used to be a very linear process but we now have a multidimensional career model, as Simone has said, and we will be implementing that over the course of this year.

CHAIR: That is very relevant to our committee.

Ms SHARKIE: Along the lines of Anne Sudmalis's questions, I want to sort of unpack what you were talking about but for regional areas. I would like to know what sort of connections young people in high schools in regional areas make with you. What do you think we can do to support young people to take on science more, particularly if they are from remote areas? I would like you to touch upon connecting with young Indigenous people and how you see possibilities for us to look at more gender equality around sites, because we know that is an area where, when they get to year 10, they sort of drop off. If we are lucky they do biology.

Dr Paterson : I will start with gender. I have been fortunate enough to have been asked to be one of the Male Champions of Change in the STEM sector. So we are going to have a two-year process of really looking at our organisations through the lens of how we can make this a better place for women to work and have sustainable careers in science. It is something that I am personally very passionate about because my mum was one of the first female medical students in South Africa. There were three in the first year and 1,147 men. So right from my early youth I have been aware of this real challenge.

But the male champions of change process is complimented by the SAGE work that is being done by the two academies. I think we are the first members to sign up for SAGE. We are very passionate about that as well. We have a diversity and inclusion group in ANSTO that is also working on the other pieces that we might not be getting right. They meet with me regularly. We have probably not paid enough attention to our Aboriginal scientists. We have reached out in the last 12 months to really start to build that. We are working with the Aboriginal elders from the Dharawal and the Gandangara people. The intersection at Lucas Heights is there. The sisters group, which is an art group in the local area, will actually be painting a mural just outside our cafe for the first time because we want to connect ANSTO to the Indigenous heritage, which is very rich in the Lucas Heights area. We are also engaging with a number of our employees who have Aboriginal backgrounds. They want to amplify this as well. I have a strong history in Indigenous knowledge in the South African setting. It is slightly different in Australia, but we want to make sure that Indigenous knowledge systems are respected and that we connect with them appropriately.

That takes us to the regional and remote parts of Australia. I think that it is absolutely imperative that we connect with that conversation as well. We are doing it at the moment because of the discussion about a waste repository in South Australia. We have spent literally hundreds of hours and person days now working with the local communities. We invited the local Aboriginal community to come up and visit ANSTO and they have done that. We had a really good discussion about what it means to be a nuclear organisation and what it means to work in that setting. So we are very passionate about that. I have started a new conversation in ANSTO, which will develop over the next few years, which is how we are connecting to rural and regional Australia. We already do that through our work on water. One of the best ways to understand groundwater is to use nuclear techniques. We always think of water as just water. But you get ancient water and you get modern water. The isotopes that are in the water can tell you if it is very ancient or very modern water. So whether this is in WA or the Murray Darling system, we can actually find out where that water is going. Some of the work we have done in the Murray-Darling is really fascinating because people think of it sort of flowing up and down. A lot of it flows sideways into the groundwater. So how much of it is going into the groundwater system, how renewable is that from the age of the water that is in groundwater system? These are key questions which we are working on with colleagues in universities and the CSIRO to understand that.

Our power is to bring these nuclear techniques, which are highly precise, to the issues of rural and regional Australia. Then we have a dark matter experiment that the University of Melbourne is championing at Stawell in Victoria. I am hoping that we can use the gold mine there to really do fundamental physics and see what dark matter is. We still do not know, unfortunately. It has been talked about for decades, but we do not actually know what it is. Perhaps that experiment could be the one that actually finds the answer to that question.

So you are asking a question at the nexus of some things that are very important for us in the next decade. Getting them right is going to be about new types of partnerships, new types of conversations and new types of engagement. We are ready for that.

CHAIR: Look, time has beaten us. But certainly if we can find a single element that overlaps with our inquiry, I think we would like to come out and have a look, if you could accommodate that.

Dr Paterson : We want to welcome you to both Lucas Heights and to the Synchrotron in Clayton. It is the size of a football field, so it is not small. But it is full of interesting and fascinating scientists.

CHAIR: Thank you, everyone. We will be following up by letter if there are further inquiries from the committee.