Chief Scientist launches Nanotechnology Exhibition

Thank you for the invitation to open the Nanotechnology Exhibition here at the Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium.

Nanotechnology truly is at the cutting edge of Australian science; five years ago this exhibition would not have been possible. In my view, this exhibition serves to communicate the role nanotechnology, and science more broadly, plays in every day life.

The exhibition is a collaboration between the Australian Centre for Electromaterials Science and the Wollongong Science Centre and Planetarium. I applaud both Centres for an excellent exhibition that takes a cross disciplinary approach to presenting science to the public and acknowledge the fact that this is the first exhibition to be completed entirely within the Centre’s own workshop.

Nanotechonolgy

As many of you will know, nanotechnology works on the nanometre scale, which is very very small. A nanometre is a billionth of a metre, that is a billion nanometres make up a metre. To put this in perspective, the head of a pin is about 1 million nanometers wide. A human hair is about 50 to 100 thousand nanometres wide. Atoms range in size from one-tenth to one half of a nanometre. So, at scales this small, scientists are literally designing, constructing and manipulating materials atom by atom. This allows the materials to be incredibly uniform, and incredibly customisable.

Nanotechnology has the possibility to enhance our lives in many fields –medicine, manufacturing, energy, food and water security, communications…the list goes on.

It may also help us address the significant challenges we face nationally and globally. Nanotechnology can address key Australian economic and social challenges relating to mining and agribusiness; health and medicine; energy and environment; advanced materials and manufacturing; electronics; and information and communication technologies. (www.innovation.gov.au)

In the words of Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Smalley “Nanotechnology will reverse the damage caused by the Industrial Revolution.”  High hopes perhaps, but the potential exists, if we get it right.

With the pressures of climate change and a rising population place on society and the environment, we cannot afford to ignore such a promising option, and that includes advances in science, in nanotechnology.

Personal experience and Australian nanotech

One of the highlights of my time as Vice-Chancellor of theAustralianNationalUniversitywas opening the Australia-China Joint Research Centre for Functional Molecular Materials. The Centre has a focus on metal-containing nanomaterials, which have applications in advanced materials such as for computing and communications.

I have also spoken at the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology inBrisbane. The Institute has a focus on medical and environmental application of nanotechnology, for example targeted drug delivery, needle free injections and water purification.

Then of course there is the Australian Centre for Electromaterials Science, co-organisers of the exhibition here. The Centre brings together six research organisations to explore electromaterials and how they can improve the way we live, for example in advanced electronic devices and bionic implants.

The amazing science being done in these institutions and others like them demonstrates to me thatAustraliahas a robust nanotechnology industry of international standing.

Controversy

It is however not without controversy. Nanotechology is distrusted in sections of the community. It, like many new technologies over the years, is the subject of intense community scrutiny, as it should be. This is a challenge to scientists and the community. We must be alert to a changing relationship between science and society – particularly where new technologies are concerned.

Such technologies must have both community support, but also meet community expectations. Not only that, but the science community must operate within reasonable community scrutiny, in openness and transparency. They must work ethically and within community expectations and mores. The scientific community must also communicate the importance and relevance of new developments to the wider community.

And hence the role of this exhibition, to engage the community with the science, and communicate its importance. The Centre can bridge the gap between the science community and the wider community and build understanding.

Government’s position

The scientific community and the Government are acutely aware of the need to embrace nanotenchology in a safe and sustainable manner.

To ensure a prosperous future, Australia needs to achieve the highest possible degree of material progress – without losing sight of obligations to protect the environment and the wellbeing of individuals and communities – and without unreasonably inhibiting innovation.

The Australian Government has established the 4 year $38.2 million National Enabling Technologies Strategy – called NETS – which focuses on biotechnology and nanotechnology.

NETS funds studies to investigate things like: improved understanding of how nanoparticles behave; the adequacy of the existing regulatory framework –its responsiveness and strength; whether workplace control measures are equal to the challenge of dealing with nanomaterials.

The exhibition, the centre and students

Back to the exhibition though, the reason why we are all here. This exhibition is designed to communicate new technologies to the general public and students in particular. This is an important role, in light of the lack of science engagement at the moment.

A survey last year by the Department of Primary Industries showed that 75% of school children thought that cotton socks were made from animals, and 27% were convinced that yoghurt was a plant based product. Clearly, we need to better engage our students in the facts and fascination of science.

Holding an exhibition on nanotechnology here, at the Science Centre and Planetarium is unique. In doing so, this exhibition brings together nanotechnology, the study of the very small, and astronomy, the study of the very large. This bridges different areas of science in a format that brings together scientists and the community. This allows people to engage with science, and collaboration within the scientific community. Given some of the public discourse around scientists and scientific data in recent times, such an exhibition is a crucial part of public discourse.

Scientific data is based on evidence, evidence drawn from techniques which are increasingly specialised and complex. The challenge for the scientific community is to communicate the importance and relevance of science to the wider community. I particularly like that this exhibition is family friendly, and engages with our students. The case for sparking and maintaining interest in science amongst school students cannot be overstated.

As I’ve stated previously, Of the year 11/12 students not studying science in 2011, only 4 per cent thought science was ‘almost always’ useful in everyday life while 60% thought it ‘never’ or only ’sometimes’ useful; 1% thought it relevant to their future ‘almost always’ while 42% thought ‘never.’

Students studying science had a different but still alarming view: only19% thought that science was ‘almost always’ useful in their everyday lives, and just 33% thought it was relevant to their future ‘almost always’. Happily, only 9% thought it was never relevant to the future.

Conclusion

Therefore, I commend this exhibition and its organisers, and I hope that it reveals to students, families and the community the interest, importance and enjoyment to be had in science.

Thank you again for inviting me here, the exhibition is now open and I hope you enjoy what the Centre has to offer you tonight.