Expanding Geelong's Horizons

Tue, 18 Sep 2007 15:03:00 +1000

An edited version of the talk given by Professor David Stokes, Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research, at the Smart Geelong Research of the Year Awards Presentation Dinner on August 25, 2007.

Anytime is a good time to talk about expanding Geelong’s horizons but tonight I want to talk about why 2007 is an especially good time.

I should hasten to add that I am well aware that 2007 could be a very special year for Geelong for a different reason.

I was listening the other morning driving up from Geelong to Melbourne to Ian Cover and ABC radio and he was talking about some of the characters they are starting to see at Geelong’s AFL games.

I really like the man in a blue duffle coat with ‘go Polly’ on the back or the guy with the red and white vinyl bag that says TAA.

Of course I am not here to talk about a winning football team. I am here to talk about expanding Geelong’s horizons through research and the role of a different winning team - the research winning team from the members of the Smart Geelong Network …a team-made up of research staff from manufacturing industry, government departments, the Gordon Institute of Technical and Further Education, two Divisions of CSIRO, Barwon Health, a marine research facility at Queenscliff, and Deakin University.

I was at the Victoria Prize ceremony at Government House last week and the new Premier said 2007 is a special time.

I agree. There is an election coming, we have a new medical school in Geelong, we have a new Premier in Victoria, we have new future funds being set up, and we have been talking up the creation of our version of Silicon Valley in Geelong.

It is time to say again to our community leaders that research is not a cost --it is a benefit and an important driver of prosperity.

What I want to talk about tonight is what we at Deakin are calling a “step-change” - what we have to do in the next few years to make a bigger contribution to research, not more of the same, but a contribution that really puts Geelong on the map as a place in the world that is recognised for its research.

Suppose we could put Geelong on the world research map in the way that the people who built this City put Geelong on the map because of the quality of Geelong wool.

Some years ago I was part of a team that travelled the world looking at innovation in the textiles industry. We went to Biella in Italy where Avagadro, the man of the famous number lived. We went to Biella for a different reason and that was to see Italy’s finest wool suiting being made at Nino Cerrutti’s factory.

The wool, of course, came from Geelong. Walking through the picturesque cobbled streets of Biella that night we saw shops with woollen clothes that said made in Italy from Geelong wool.

A step change involves ideas, planning, money, and world class facilities.

When most people talk about research and innovation, money and facilities seem to be the things that loom large on their list. They are important, but in my view we should also be talking about people and ideas.

Research is about exceptional people who have exceptional ideas. Sometimes they work by themselves. These days research is more often about exceptional people with exceptional ideas who lead exceptional research teams.

The important words here are exceptional, ideas and lead.

When I was a post-doctoral student at Imperial College in London my boss showed me a facsimile of the book that he had been given when he became FRS. On one page there was a list of the people who had joined the society that year and their signatures.

On earlier pages and in earlier years were signatures of James Cook, Edward Jenner, Hans Krebs, Dorothy Hodgkin, Joseph Banks, Joseph Hooker, Thomas Huxley.

This year, 2007, 44 names were added including two from the University of Melbourne, Professor Sam Berkovic for his work on epilepsy and Professor David Boger for his work in fluid mechanics.

Otto Warburg, who won a Nobel prize for Medicine, told a story about his father, who was a highly respected physicist, and in Warburg's childhood such luminaries as Albert Einstein, Max Planck, Emil Fischer, and Walther Nernst were frequent dinner guests.

Staying with this theme of exceptional people, I was listening recently to a talk by Lord Robert Winston. He was talking about the significance of RNA in epigenetics. During the talk he referred to the idea that there had always been exceptional individuals who could think in different ways and that one day science might understand more about these processes.

In my view “Team Geelong” has some of these exceptional individuals and we are doing our best to look after them.

As part of the step change process we have set ourselves the task of getting some more. To get more people, and to keep the people we have, of course you need the best facilities for the researchers to work but we also need ideas.

When I was a post doc at Sheffield the ‘Scala’ Picture theatre was still on campus. I have been showing a picture of it to the Early Career Researchers because I was told that it was in the ex-projectionist’s room that Sir Hans Krebs did some of his early work on what was to become the Krebs Cycle and for which he won a Nobel Prize.

These days a lot of the research action is at the nanoscale and the equipment and the infrastructure required is more costly and it can only be provided once.

Think of the synchrotron at Clayton, the new facilities for biosecurity to be built at AHL, or the nanofabrication facility to be built in Clayton. I have mentioned Clayton twice. A few years ago, Clayton was where you went to the twin drive-in, now it is synonymous with Monash and high tech. The same is true of the Parkville strip, Bio21 and Melbourne University. These places, smart-places, are national or even international facilities for research. These facilities are putting Melbourne and Victoria on the global map of science.

A report released by the City of Melbourne (“Melbourne the next Global Knowledge Capital”) last Monday talks about Melbourne as “the Boston of the Southern Hemisphere”. The report says that the annual turnover of Melbourne’s universities (including Deakin) is $4 billion and the universities contribute to international exports worth more than $2 billion each year- the same as Melbourne’s tourism industry!

Not surprisingly the report identifies the biomedical sector as one area to promote Melbourne internationally.

In a global competition for talent we have to decide what we are looking for.

Years ago we had great difficulty getting the best people to accept our top jobs. They often took one look at what we could offer and they went elsewhere.

I think in all the research institutions in Geelong at the moment there is a sense that we are now able to select from a pool of really talented people who want to come and work in Geelong.

On the Geelong Campus of Deakin University at Waurn Ponds we are building what we are calling the Silicon Valley of the Southern Hemisphere.

Not just silicon, like Stanford, not just biotech like San Diego, but a real mix of bio-info and nano the ten to minus nine space where the nanoparticles, and the nanotubes exist. It is about:

  • Concept more than co-location
  • Discovery, applied and commercial research
  • Building on strengths
  • Building on centralisation of our high tech equipment
  • New funding mechanisms
  • Identifying flagships
  • Creating partnerships locally, nationally and internationally
  • Building the “Big Sheds”
  • Proof of concept

This is more than a technology park. It is industry and research working together around a common set of facilities and services to drive development further down the value adding chain than is normally the case in most Universities: Spin out, spin off and commercialisation for share holder value as well as discovery research is all part of the plan.

The list of exciting project is already impressive:

  • new materials for a different more bone like hip joints
  • clothes that change colour
  • lighter stronger steels
  • carbon fibre moulded and made more quickly
  • nanobots that deliver drugs to particular target cells
  • sense of touch safety equipment for the defence industries, logistics at airports and for other defence applications.

Research involves having the ideas and developing a culture where everyone is seeking an opportunity and everyone is ready to take advantage of what comes along. It is about sharing but it is also about “the best”. Being ready is good but what if we were to choose to push ahead in a particular direction say in biotech, materials, or human disease.

How do we choose? How do we define what we are we after? How do we set ourselves in relation to the Parkville strip, Clayton or Queensland?

Do we place more emphasis on being distinctive?

At Deakin we are saying yes. We think it is time to try to be more definitive about what we have and where we are going.

In a report in “The Age” this week the visiting American IT guru Larrie Smarr said that “what we have learned in California is that the Universities are absolutely the most critical element of the innovation economy”. “We have learned that there is going to be (I think he should have said there is) a labour shortage for trained people in Australia. Where do they come from”?

“They come from Universities”.

Whether we are talking about the new manufacturing, about health or about bio-security I think we are talking about expanding Geelong’s horizons through research and research training.

To conclude with football, there was a lovely story in “The Age” today by Martin Flanagan. Flanagan says Bob Davis, the legendary coach of the winning 1963 Geelong team, got the best players, put them in the best positions and told them to go for it.

There is an element of truth in this for research. Exceptional people need space to be creative. But in today’s research game we have to expand our horizons and move up to the next league and this requires vision and a plan.

At Deakin and here in Geelong, we have all of the above.

Let’s go for it!

Research winners at the Smart Geelong Research of the Year Awards included: The G-Force Recruitment Researcher of the Year Award - Associate Professor Mark Kirkland from Barwon Biomedical Research based at Barwon Health for his work in reprogramming stem cells. He also won the Dept. of Innovation, Industry & Regional Development Biomedical Award. Professor Kirkland has been featured in previous Deakin Research newsletter because of his involvement in BioDeakin projects.

Deakin University’s Tong Cheng won the Early Researcher Award for her project called “development of Photochromic Wool Fabrics” that was featured in last month’s newsletter.

The Deakin University Partnerships Award, presented by Alison Hadfield, Director of Research Services, went to Associate Professor Julie Pascoe from University of Melbourne Department at Barwon Health for her research project “Metabolic Syndrome in Australian Men”.

The Geelong Independent Population Health and Well Being Award went to Dr Andrea Sanigorski and her team from Deakin University for their research project “Be Active, Eat Well – A Successful Program to Reduce Unhealthy Weight Gain in Children”.


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