NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer shares her views on the future

Thursday 6 June, 2013

Mary O'Kane

When the NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Mary O'Kane, spoke at Warrane on 22 May 2013, she shared her views on the future and gave College residents some hints on how to make the most of it.

She urged students to be ready to make the most of career opportunities as they arose, rather than trying to plan too far ahead.

“One of the big lessons in my life,” she said, “is that doors open all over the place, and you have got to know which doors you want to go through. It’s not about planning a career, it’s about knowing the criteria by which you are going to accept opportunities or seek them.”

Professor O’Kane said the thing that had most stayed with her from her own undergraduate degree was pure maths – “the topology, the algebra, the understanding of maths from the basic axioms, and I was very, very lucky to have been taught it very well”.

She said she had found that thanks to her maths training she became extraordinarily good at recognising patterns and was also able to use the symbolic reasoning that she had learnt.

“I realised that it was not just about maths. It’s about learning foreign languages, and in computing it’s about writing your own computing languages. That stood me in great stead. It is something that has been a running theme through all my life – picking patterns, talking to them, being able to see patterns in social groupings or in scientific groupings and I’m just lucky it is something I like.”

Another core skill that had helped her over the years was understanding how to very precisely state problems when researching or investigating.

“Often it is a problem you are attacking in life, or in research, or in anything you are doing, you have in your head an idea of what you are trying to do. But often if it is a complex problem. Being able to explain it in 25 words or less, and convince your audience, is quite hard.

“In research, I would often say to all the research boards I sat on, the big trick is knowing how to state what you really want to do. It is not always easy, you can’t always do it in a day. For those of you who are thinking of going on and doing PhDs or doing honours theses, trying to work hard on the statement of the problem is probably the most useful thing you can do.”

Professor O’Kane encouraged students to be open to learning from mentors, to have a go at things and to risk failure. She also urged them to consider going overseas for further studies and work.

“It is one of the best things you can do,” she said. “You build connections that end up lasting you for life. They’re often very, very good. They are not just personal connections, they are often very good work connections.”

Among the things she was most proud of was inventing the term and the concept of “early career researcher”.

She also urged young members of the scientific community to share their knowledge publicly to help solve contentious issues.

“I think the onus often sits on those of us from the scientific community to make sure that the debate is informed. One of the things with climate change, or sea-level rise, or coal-seam gas, or nuclear energy, or whatever, is that they are complex issues and too often the press understandably takes simplistic lines.

“I think there is a real onus on us, whether it is older people like me or people like you who they might listen to because you are the future, to act actually engage the debate and get to the bottom of it and to be willing to explain why it is so.”

During the question-and-answer session, Professor O’Kane shared her views on a number of contentious issues. On the question of energy, she said she believed that the future would involve a mixture of sources.

“Where it is appropriate to use single-source energy of some sort, if it doesn’t have to go 24 hours a day, you might as well use wind or solar or something like that…

“A lot of the issues in energy are not just about the production, but also the transmission costs and the building of grids and so on. So I think we are going to go in over time for a lot more local gridding where we use a multiple of local sources – sources for courses sort of thing – and then have backup of major generation capacity where the local grids fire into a bigger grid.”

On nuclear power she said her view was “you don’t shut out any energy source”, partly because all energy sources had their “down sides”.

“While I think technologically, Australia would not be wise to adopt some of the current nuclear technology, given that we have held out for a long time, some of the ones that are in development now, in early prototype, I think are much safer and much better contained.

She said that she was pleased that UNSW was appointing the first chair in nuclear energy, something that would put the country in a position to get more people trained.

On climate change she said she did believe that the evidence suggests something is happening, but she wasn’t sure whether it was “human made or natural cycling”.

“I don’t think we know,” she said. “I think there is a lot of data which suggests that humans have caused a lot of change and that it is in dangerous territory. Is it irreversible? I don’t think any of us know. I think all we can do is watch it carefully, study it harder than ever.

“I think that we haven’t put the resources, as a world, into studying the problem. I think we need to put more thought into what questions we should be asking. I think there has been too much emotive talk and not enough really precisely attending to what the scientific questions are.”

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