SCIENTISTS should take more risks in their research and spend more time communicating with the community and government about what they do, according to WA’s Chief Scientist, Professor Peter Klinken.
“I would like to think we can encourage our young researchers, support their careers and encourage them to ask big questions,” he said.
“But to ask big questions, you’ve got to take some risks.
“I would promote the idea that [young researchers] have the ‘James Cook’ approach to research, rather than the ‘Matthew Flinders’ approach.
“By that I mean James Cook went out in search of a continent, the Great South Land.
“Matthew Flinders, conversely, fine-mapped a continent that was already discovered.
“To me, too much of Australian science is involved in risk-averse, fine mapping, incremental, small improvements, and not enough ‘continent hunting’.
“We need to encourage our bright people to ask the big question, take the risk, and support them when it doesn’t come off.
“Because with risk there is failure, but we learn from failure. We shouldn’t see that as an impediment.”
As an example of scientists who take risks, Prof Klinken cited WA’s Nobel Prize winners Barry Marshall and Robin Warren and their breakthrough idea that bacteria, not stress, cause stomach ulcers.
Communication with policymakers is key
Professor Klinken said government has a key role to play in supporting science.
“It’s really important that government understands the role of science and the powerful role it plays in the state,” he said.
“And equally, I think it is incumbent upon scientists to explain what they do to policymakers in simple terms.
“Too many times I’ve heard the statement that research is a ‘black hole’ into which money gets poured and there are no tangible benefits.
“What that tells me is that scientists and researchers have not been able to explain convincingly to policymakers and government what they do.
“So I think we need to lift our game. I think it’s incumbent upon us to explain what we do.
“Likewise, I think it’s absolutely essential for scientists to communicate much better with the community. Explain what you do to the community and they will come along as your passionate advocates.”
Prof Klinken has been active as WA’s Chief Scientist since his appointment in June 2014.
Most recently, he met with Chief Scientists from other States in Melbourne to update each other on key issues facing science across Australia.