Interview: Boss True Leaders 2017

Sunday, 05 November 2017

Dr Alan Finkel was interviewed by Patrick Durkin for the Australian Financial Review’s Boss Magazine, as part of their True Leaders 2017 October issue.

You can read the full article below, published in the Boss magazine October 2017, Volume 18.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Alan Finkel calls them the Club of Rome. He’s referring to the science and tech elites who he says are out of touch with everyday Australians.

Finkel, who is already under fire for this year’s energy report, has unleashed a new controversy by trying to reframe Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s innovation agenda to make it more popular. He has even spruiked the hidden innovation unleashed by smashing avocados, a claim that has science purists up in arms.

“What I was talking about is the extraordinary innovation which happens in ordinary aspects of our lives, in this case suburban restaurants. It is building up a gigantic industry but it’s not captured by any of our innovation metrics,” Finkel tells BOSS magazine in a rare in-depth interview.

Finkel also marvels about sitting in a Perth control room for a Rio Tinto mining site with operators at giant screens monitoring autonomous 300-tonne trucks and railway lines. The extracting of iron ore is happening with an improved safety record and lower environmental impact.

A mine site, he argues, can be as innovative as a semiconductor fabrication plant. The comment triggered indignation from founder Matt Barrie: “Mines are and always will be wasting assets,” he says.

Finkel responds: “While I respect Matt Barrie’s achievements enormously, he is a criticiser, a very vocal critic of our ineffectiveness in what I call SVT, Silicon Valley Technology. But if one just focuses on us not doing as well as Tel Aviv and San Francisco on SVT, you miss the fact that we are doing brilliantly with innovative technologies in mining, banking, agriculture and other areas,” Finkel says.

When he became Chief Scientist in 2015, he reckons the science and tech purists expected him to do two things: talk about the dearth of tech businesses and visit new start-ups to make exciting tech announcements.

The neuroscientist, engineer, entrepreneur and philanthropist who served as chancellor of Monash University for eight years, took a broader view and was keen to bring other sectors into the picture.

“It’s a little bit like parenting. If you have a child who is really good in computational thinking and maths and she is quite poor at creative writing, you don’t berate her for being terrible at creative writing. What you do is work with what she is good at, so she has the confidence.

“We seem to focus on what we are bad at. If you do that, you are setting the aspirations of the community really low and if your people don’t aspire, they won’t try and if they don’t try, they won’t achieve.”

Monash university vice chancellor, and True Leaders judge, professor Margaret Gardner says Finkel’s leadership shines through in his measured commentary and evidence-based judgments.

Finkel has learnt to live with the critics, particularly in the wake of his report into the national electricity market this year with the Turnbull government indicating on Monday it was preparing to walk away from Finkel’s Clean Energy Target – the last of 50 recommendations the government is yet to adopt.

BOSS has been talking to Finkel for close to an hour about his controversial CET when he finally seems to drop his guard.

“Did you have any idea it would be this hard?” we ask, amid a mind-bending discussion about system capacity, base load power and carbon emissions.

“I’ve never had anything so topical that’s for sure,” confesses the man who also wrote last year’s infrastructure roadmap. “I knew it would be difficult, I didn’t think it would be this vitriolic, it’s extremely divisive.

“It’s extraordinary, it’s partly because every person in the country uses electricity and therefore considers themselves to be an expert. They all come to quick decisions about what the solutions are to various problems.

“Sometimes those decisions are to disparage a particular technology and sometimes it is to promote a particular technology, the answer to your question would require psychological and behavioural analysis but it is because people tend to focus on the trees rather than the forest.”

Finkel makes it clear that his energy report is focused on outcomes and, despite advocating for nuclear energy in the past, he is not an advocate for one energy form over another.

“The world divides into those who love coal and those who hate coal. I am the only one who sits on the fence, I am focused on the outcomes,” he says.

“Most people talk about a target for renewable energy. To me, renewable energy is an input to the system. It’s part of the generation mix. I don’t mind what the balance is between solar, wind, hydro, gas, diesel, brown coal versus black coal as long as we are meeting our atmospheric emissions of carbon dioxide reduction that we signed up for. People confuse renewable energy with carbon emission reduction,” he says.

Finkel’s approach isn’t surprising given his adherence to what he calls the “engineering way”.

He says you can’t build a bridge based on the pursuit of perfection. That would be too expensive. You can’t build a bridge based on compromise. That would result in failure. His view is that to build a bridge you must optimise all of the variables. On energy that means securing future reliability, the lowest possible prices for consumers and lowering emissions.

CBA chairman and True Leaders judge Catherine Livingstone and others acknowledge Finkel’s consultative approach. “He makes it clear he wants to know what the views are and then he decides. The consultation side has come through very strongly. In a leader that’s important,” Livingstone says.

Finkel believes everything can be fixed and strongly believes in collaboration.

“I constantly go into a meeting anticipating what the sensible outcome will be and it’s rare that I walk out of the meeting where that is the outcome because through the process of debate around the table we arrive at a better outcome.”

The former Monash University chancellor says his advice to aspiring scientists and entrepreneurs is to always keep the doors of opportunity open.

“John Monash is one of my heroes and he had about 24 different jobs. He went from an engineer to a military strategist, coming back and leading the build out of the Victorian State Electricity Commission to becoming a university vice-chancellor.

“What I say to young people is do one thing really well. Law, engineering, science, arts, philosophy, do it really well but like any skills, practice makes perfect. When you deep dive, that’s when you practise your skills, you get your self-confidence and go off and do other things.”

When he was young, Finkel believed he was destined to become a doctor but found he was more interested in science and engineering. At university, one of his lecturers had a rule they couldn’t buy scientific equipment. So Finkel built his own instruments, which turned out to be better than the commercial versions.

One day, a visiting US neuroscientist, Paul Adams, noticed Finkel’s scientific instruments. He asked Finkel the most important question of his life: “Wow, could I buy one of those?” It led to the creation of Axon Instruments, a company that supplied tools for cellular neuroscience and drug discovery, that was bought by a US firm and listed on the ASX.

Finkel also founded the science magazine Cosmos, with his wife and science journalist Elizabeth Finkel, and an environment magazine called G: The Green Lifestyle Magazine and contributes towards a number of research institutes.

Last updated: Friday, 18 December 2020