Peter Doherty Institute Speech

Speech by Vice-Chancellor Duncan Maskell, September 2019

Thank you Sharon. I also begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians of the land we meet on, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nations. And I pay my respects to the Indigenous Elders, past, present and emerging.

A warm welcome everyone to the Peter Doherty Institute – five years on!

What better way to mark this milestone at a still-new, though already world-leading medical research institute, than with a symposium, with this second session led off by the Chief Scientist of Australia Alan Finkel.

Welcome Alan.

And who better to back up – and perhaps to challenge – the Chief Scientist, than the CEO of the National Health and Medical Research Council, Anne Kelso.

Welcome Anne.

Finally, a warm welcome to our other speakers in this session namely:

  • The CEO of Melbourne Health, Christine Kilpatrick
  • The Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne, Jim McCluskey
  • And of course last but by no means least the outstanding scientist whose name this institute proudly bears, Professor Peter Doherty.

This afternoon I have been asked to preface proceedings with some reflections on the Australian scientific landscape.

It’s a pleasure to do that, but also a little challenging given that I have only been here a year and it takes much longer than that to become properly embedded in a new system.

I am sure that our governments in Canberra and Spring Street are of course all 100 per cent on board with the importance of funding research properly!  But the definition of properly can be somewhat fluid, both in terms of amounts of cash and fields of endeavour.

I do not want this to be all about the money, but I would make an initial observation that funding research in the absence of a full economic costing model and system is, in my view, a missed opportunity.  Once the FEC of doing a piece of research is transparently derived and properly known, then hard decisions about the proportion of that cost that should be borne by Government funders can be sensibly made.  I would argue of course that 100 per cent of the FEC should be funded from Government funds, but there are plenty who would give a different view on that issue.

Another observation is that it is odd, at least to this relative newcomer, that there is an NHMRC, and an MRFF for medical research, and an ARC for absolutely everything else. It is so important for the health of a national research system that a wide range of disciplines is properly funded.  Worldwide, we have barely begun to tap into the great strength afforded by bringing together apparently highly disparate disciplines to address some of the world’s big questions.  I have a concern that the somewhat, shall we say, unbalanced funding system here in Australia will militate against us achieving our enormous potential to contribute, and yes to lead, on the world stage in some of the most important areas of research.

As a microbiologist I am well attuned to the research projects underway in this building, being driven by colleagues I respect and admire greatly from the Director of the Doherty Sharon Lewin through all the laboratories and research groups operating here.

One of the great strengths of an institute like this is its being part of a comprehensive university like Melbourne. The complex problems being addressed here will definitely need input from many disciplines if solutions are to be found.  We can invent the scientifically best vaccine in the world, but it is completely useless unless the need for it, the economics underpinning it, the cultural barriers to it being used properly, and the ethical and legal issues around its use are properly understood and dealt with.  This is a single example of how a very wide range of research and scholarly disciplines needs to be deployed to address major and complex world challenges.

Getting these things right is so important, not least because the academic community in Australia is clearly outstanding by any international standards, and should be facilitated in its work and international profile.

I am not a particular fan of the various league tables that are published annually, with today the results of the Times Higher tables being in the news.  But a take-away from them is that Australian universities and associated institutes clearly do very well on the research front.  League tables have the pernicious effect of introducing more competition than is necessary into a sector which works best when top institutions collaborate.   The University of Melbourne is once again in the privileged position of being the most highly ranked Australian university in the Times Higher table, an achievement that is absolutely dependent on the outstanding contributions of our staff, but I will say that many of our outstanding achievements are clearly also dependent on collaboration, not least with and between the outstanding array of medical research institutes such as those here in the Parkville precinct, but also many others across Melbourne and around Australia.  It is interesting to note that our nearest so-called “competitor” university in the league tables, in Melbourne, down the road at Clayton, is also the University with which we have the most joint publications!

We have a thriving higher education sector in Australia, and we have to nurture and protect it, for the health and well-being of Australians, but also to make our contribution to the world.

You don’t just do Test cricket well. You do higher education extremely well too!

In coming to Melbourne from Cambridge 12 months ago, to take up the wonderful opportunity to be Vice-Chancellor at this great university,

I was strongly mindful, and very excited by the prospect, of working in close proximity with brilliant researchers and professional staff and students from many excellent institutions, who together make up what is a very vibrant and successful research landscape.

For many of these people, certainly in the sciences, basic research is what drives them, and I think that it is important to be clear that this is essential to a thriving research nation.

I think that a fundamental reason for universities to exist is to do basic research: to be the ‘engine of discovery’. We are here for humanity in that very broad sense, through uncovering knowledge about how the world works, of course in terms of the natural and technical sciences, but also in terms of human cultures, societies, the arts and humanities.

Making this strong statement about basic research should not be misinterpreted.  I also believe that we have an obligation to translate our discoveries wherever possible.  Translation does not always mean commercialisation.  There are many examples where great discoveries can be turned into benefit for the world with no prospect of making a commercial return, or of monetising the discovery.   But if something can be commercialised, then again, I think that it should be.   I will also say that not everybody is very good at translation, and the idea that we should all be a jack-of-all-trades is na├»ve. On the other hand there are some colleagues who are great at both basic research and translation.  I think that a big task that we have on in Australia is to try leave the former alone to get on with their brilliant basic research, but to provide pathways and assistance to pick up their discoveries to take through to translation as appropriate.  We also need to provide great support for the latter group of people to make as easy as possible their natural inclination and skill set in translating their research. But we also need to give some hard thought to how we identify, convince and nurture those people sitting somewhere in the middle of the two extremes outlined above, who might be great at translation but don’t yet know it, who have not yet had the opportunity to do so, or who have been thwarted at an early stage.

Basic research in universities has to be pushing a gushing torrent into the translation pipeline, but the pipeline has to be well constructed and kept wide open for the translation to actually happen.

In so many ways the work undertaken in this building is absolutely exemplary in showing the country and the world what can be achieved by outstanding research communities working at the cutting-edge of knowledge, with a mindset and determination to make a big difference in the lives of people and the world.

This is where I believe that Australia is beautifully poised to go much further than it has already. We should be ambitious, as a nation of researchers (and students and educators), about tackling really big problems in the world.

To do that successfully, we will need first to maintain the great strength and disciplinary depth that we have in basic research, and to knit that in well with translational and commercialisation pathways.

But second, we will also need to work increasingly and with clear determination in cross-disciplinary contexts. Because it is through cross-disciplinary work that we do have great potential to address and perhaps solve really hard problems.

To finish up, I think that Australia’s scientific landscape is not only healthy – it’s outstanding.

But we have great potential to go a lot further, and we should. What we may need is to energise our own thinking around coming together to solve big problems, as well as maintaining the excellence already here.

A more rational and transparent funding landscape would also help, especially if we could get our spend on research up to something similar to the proportion of GDP that other countries in the world spend.

I would also argue that there is a lot of untapped potential in the Australian research sector and that this connects to a bigger picture of untapped potential for the nation of Australia and its place in the world.

This country has a unique vantage point and provides a unique access point to the world’s most dynamic region.

We already have the most international universities in the world. But we are far from having explored all the possibilities for collaboration, partnership and the exploration of fascinating problems with our colleagues in neighbouring countries.

The excellence of our science landscape must be part of that much bigger picture too.

Thank you.