Australia's chief scientist Cathy Foley urges coronavirus lessons be used for other research challenges

Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's new chief scientist, says lessons learnt during COVID could be applied to other scientific challenges. Picture: Supplied
Dr Cathy Foley, Australia's new chief scientist, says lessons learnt during COVID could be applied to other scientific challenges. Picture: Supplied

Australian researchers have been urged to use the lessons learnt during the COVID-19 pandemic to help urgently tackle other issues facing the country, according to the nation's leading scientist.

In her first major address since taking on the role of chief scientist earlier this year, Dr Cathy Foley said the international scientific response to COVID had been a major breakthrough, and the same type of response could also be drawn on to fight challenges like climate change or energy security.

Speaking before the National Press Club on Wednesday, Dr Foley said open access and open resources from scientists around the world had been critical to meeting major challenges such as testing and vaccine development.

"COVID-19 has been an international disaster story and a scientific success story," Dr Foley said.

"History tells us that science works best when there is a sense of urgency. A crisis such as wartime or a pandemic.

"Now it's time to bring those lessons to the challenges that come next."

A major reason for the scientific success in the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, according to Dr Foley, was the removal of obstacles for researchers looking to make new breakthroughs.

She said that now offered a blueprint for other major scientific challenges.

"The vaccine is not a miracle, as it is often described, it is the result of preparedness," Dr Foley said in the address.

"The pandemic has shown us that what we thought to be impossible becomes possible if we have the building blocks in place and if we work together."

Dr Foley is the ninth person appointed to the role of Australian chief scientist, after taking over from Alan Finkel, and is the second woman to hold the position.

She came into the role following more than 30 years at the CSIRO, where she was also chief scientist of the organisation for two years.

Her many scientific achievements include the development of a superconducting sensor that is able to detect and map out deposits of silver, gold and nickel buried deep underground.

The technology has since been used in the detection of billions of dollars of ore hidden beneath the earth.

In her speech to the Press Club, Dr Foley said the major issues she was looking to address during her tenure in the role were Australia's digital capability, STEM education, diversity in the research community and open access to research.

She said the latter of those areas was critical during the height of COVID.

"The pandemic demonstrated the power of open access and open research. Journals made COVID research freely available," Dr Foley said.

"Open sharing of data has been essential to the international science community coming together around a common goal.

"Governments have moved quickly and invested significantly and have been able to capitalise on their decades of support for medical research."

Despite major initiatives in the space, Dr Foley highlighted that diversity in Australia's scientific community was also painfully slow.

She said focusing on getting more women into science and STEM areas was also just part of the situation.

"It shouldn't need saying that we are more likely to succeed if we use our full human potential," Dr Foley said.

"Simply put, diversity of ideas and experience equals better results."

She said a key aspect of her three-year term was focusing on how Australian research and developments could be translated into new products.

"As a result, Australian ideas and industries are being lost offshore," she said.

"The question for me is how to strengthen the connections, connecting the work of scientists, researchers and innovators with industry and policymakers."

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This story COVID lessons should be used to tackle other research challenges: chief scientist first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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