The other day I saw a seminar by Robyn Williams and this is what I learnt*

What did Henry Sutton invent in Ballarat in 1885? Don’t know? I didn’t either. The answer my friend is television! Henry Sutton broadcasted the 1885 Melbourne cup from Flemington Racecourse to Ballarat. Why didn’t I know that? Why was the entire seminar room silent as Robyn asked that question? Turns out Henry Sutton also had the bright idea of the telephone headset along with many other innovations. Surely this is something everyone should know?

Science journalist and broadcaster Robyn Williams begins his talk with this question to make (I guess) two points. Firstly, that Australians have always been leading innovators when it comes to scientific advancements (he continues to cite the most recent examples). And secondly, that we as a society have (case and point) a short memory when it comes to just how significant the contribution of Australians has been.

For his seminar entitled, “R&D or RIP – is that the choice?Why science is so important and why EVERYBODY wants to know about it!”, presented at La Trobe University the other day (20 May 2014), Robyn casually and elegantly discussed essentially, how awesome is science!? Coupled with plenty of how important is science!? Add a dash of how bad is it when people don’t appreciate science!? And rounded all off with a sprinkle of how much is science appreciated in today’s society!? The answer to all questions (even the last) is HEAPS.

He uses the example of HIS smartphone (the smartest of all smartphones according to him) in which he states that most people look at an iPhone and think of what an amazing innovator Steve Jobs was to ‘invent’ such a thing. When in actual fact, what Steve did was simply take the outcomes of 7 different research groups and slam them together. Apple had nothing to do with the science behind the 7 constituent parts that make up an iPhone. In the same way that industry had nothing to do with inventing WiFi (props to CSIRO). These innovations, and many more, have all come out of state funded research institutions.

The key message is that wealth is underpinned by science. Or put even more simply, science creates wealth. So why on earth then, you may ask, are we still funding 19th century technology (coal) when solar energy generation is already a cheaper option, and with advances in nanotechnology panels will soon be 87% efficient??

The reason, says Robyn, as to why there is no initiative to change, is because decision makers are lazy! They have short-sited, ‘don’t rock the boat’ attitudes, and they don’t want to be the ones responsible for difficult decisions and would rather leave that up to “the market”. Even though Australia’s biggest economic export is medical and pharmaceutical goods. Wait…. are you sure weren’t meant to say iron-ore or coal or mining something-or-other?? Nope, biggest export economy is direct products of good science!

Robyn made many more great points throughout his engaging seminar. The final point struck me as a truthful account on the state of all things – “…. but we’re all going to die and things are just going to go on changing”. Robyn predicts he won’t be around to see any of the budgeted increases in research funding when it comes online around 2022. With Robyn’s (and all of our) deaths imminent, I would highly recommend that you catch his Science Show on ABC RN Saturdays at noon (that is of course if you are not already a religious listener) – before it’s too late.

I had the opportunity to head into the ABC studios the other day and record a 5 min spot explaining my PhD research for Robyn’s show. The bit will be aired in the coming months – watch this space for details.

*All information here is simply repeated from what I heard in the seminar and has not been fact-checked in the slightest

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