The power of cooperative science highlighted in Ralph Slatyer Address

Dr Katherine Woodthorpe giving the Ralph Slatyer Address at the National Press Club of Australia, streamed live on ABC TV.

22 October 2021

Chair of Natural Hazards Research Australia, Dr Katherine Woodthorpe AO, gave the 2021 Ralph Slatyer Address on Science and Society at the National Press Club of Australia, with National Press Club Director Mark Kenny describing her as one of Australia’s most influential people on innovation.

Dr Woodthorpe gave the address in honour of Australia’s first chief scientist, Prof Ralph Slatyer AC, whose wife and daughters were in attendance.

“Ralph was an avid believer in the potential of Australia and the role of science to achieve that,” she said.

Prime Minister Bob Hawke and Prof Slatyer founded the Cooperative Research Centres program that funded both the Bushfire CRC and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, the latter of which Dr Woodthorpe also chaired.

“I’ve always been passionate about research that delivers impact, and the CRC program is premised on that,” Dr Woodthorpe said.

“The Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC has led to economic benefits, of course, but most importantly it has saved lives – through improved extreme fire behaviour modelling, to targeted messaging for communities across all hazards, the CRC has worked across the whole of Australia, improving the management of and recovery from the major natural hazards that beset this country.”

Her address also reflected on the changing public perception of science and scientists in recent decades, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the rise of conspiracy and anti-science frustration on the rise within scientific debate.  

“We need to persuade the general public that the scientific process delivers outcomes for their benefit,” she said. “I hope everyone listening strongly stands up to those who would downplay the benefits of science.”

The address also detailed some hopes for Australian science, including a shift to renewable energy, reiterating the commercial and environmental benefits of a move away from fossil fuels.

“My dream is to enable Australia to benefit the most from the excellent science and technology that we already have here,” she said.

“Australia can be once again a powerhouse economy, not relying on digging things up and sending them offshore, but with cheap, plentiful, renewable energy, we can reinvigorate our manufacturing industries in ways that rely on high-value add with smart materials and advanced manufacturing techniques – and there’s a CRC for that too.”

Other topics that Dr Woodthorpe spoke about – in the address and when answering public questions – were the important role of science communication in expanding and funding science, the important history of vaccination science in the context of COVID-19, the complex use of Australia’s technology to solve climate issues, the importance of including scientists in governance, the issues with commercialising university research, and the role that governments need to play when investing in innovative science. 

To close the Q&A, Dr Woodthorpe touched on the importance of diversity in science, including people with disabilities, women in STEM, and people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds

“There is not a dearth of women in STEM, there is a dearth of women who are encouraged and enabled to rise in STEM,” she said.

“We keep cutting them out all the way to the top, and we don’t talk about women scientists or celebrate them.”

Referring specifically to Indigenous representation in governance structures at Natural Hazards Research Australia, Dr Woodthorpe reiterated her goals to increase diversity in those spaces.

“It’s something that’s constantly on my agenda as we continue to refresh the Board. It also comes back to the pipeline; we need to help people from all backgrounds through from the bottom up so there are more people at the top sharing the workload.”

The Ralph Slatyer Address is presented annually by Cooperative Research Australia, with this being the 11th address held as part of their 2021 Collaborate Innovate conference.

It was streamed live on ABC TV and can be viewed in full on ABC iView.