October 2018

Dr Alan Finkel on Australia’s resources industry: ‘It’s more than just rocks in the ground’

  • By Alana Schetzer

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Alan Finkel, sees inherent value in Australia’s mining industry and believes innovation in mining is greatly undervalued.

Alan Finkel is an endlessly curious man. As Australia’s Chief Scientist, it’s a quality that one would expect he have, but it’s a curiosity that delves deeper than most people’s desire to know the unknown.

During his speech at an AusIMM Women in Mining event in July, he discussed the genuine fascination he has with mining, comparing his first visit to Rio Tinto’s ’seamless’ Perth control room to the Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise.

’It had to be seamless – because what was happening on the ground in the Pilbara, 1500 km away, was extraordinary. Sixteen mines, 1000 miles of rail, three ports, three power stations and a massive network of water and sewerage infrastructure.

‘And every minute, 2.4 terabytes of data from thousands of sensors and pieces of equipment, flowing in to the control room in Perth.’

Dr Finkel is quick to point out that he is not an expert in mining – a point he reiterates several times. But as someone who has a lifelong interest in innovation, he sees mining as a poster child for not only what is possible, but also how those improvements and efficiencies can bolster other industries too.

It was during his visit to Perth two years ago that Dr Finkel says he developed his ‘extraordinary appreciation’ for the industry.

However, there are two main elements of mining that Dr Finkel is especially passionate about: getting enough – and the right – university students into mining, and changing how mining is perceived by Australians.

An innovative industry

Despite the fact that mining has paved the way for some of the most significant innovation in Australia – from remote control machinery to automation, including driverless transport – it is generally thought of as ’just digging something up, shipping if off and leaving a big hole behind’, Dr Finkel says.

‘It’s an attitude that must change’, he adds.

‘In general, there is an attitude that mining is a wasting asset, that you’re not creating the next asset. But it’s not the case. For iron ore and other materials like gas, our ability to extract resources cost effectively and in massive quantities, and safely and with minimum environmental impact, depends on an extraordinary amount of innovation.’

That attitude is also prevalent in how mining is perceived as contributing to Australia’s innovation.

‘One of the most common metrics used to rank countries is the ratio of high-tech to low-tech exports. Silicon chips are high-tech. Iron ore is considered low-tech,’ Dr Finkel says.

‘So if you are brilliantly successful at getting iron ore out of the ground safely, efficiently and with minimal impact on the environment… then what happens? Your total exports, the bottom line of the ratio, balloons. Your high-tech exports, the top line of the ratio, stays flat. So the better you are at mining efficiently and competitively, the worse you score!’

Looking at a smartphone, it’s obvious that it’s a piece of highly evolved technology, Dr Finkel says.

‘But the automation technology in a world-first intelligent mine is more advanced than the processes in your standard silicon chip factory. It’s just not easy to see that in a lump of rock.’

He emphasises that it’s not an either/or situation, and innovation metrics need to be capable of capturing both to be useful to policymakers.

The Federal Government has provided funding for a review, co-chaired by Dr Finkel, to explore the issue.

’We’re going to try and identify ways to meaningfully measure the innovation across the economy. But in particular, in my mind, is mining, because if we can’t do it with mining, then we have probably failed.

’If we get that up, it could make a very substantial difference. It would say “value this industry” and be proud of what we’re doing.’

Dr Finkel speaking at the AusIMM WIMnet Victoria 125 Anniversary Luncheon in Melbourne, July 2018.

An illustrious career

Dr Finkel’s resume is as long as it is varied. Having earned his PhD in electrical engineering from Monash University, he then went on to work in neuroscience research at the Australian National University. After that, Dr Finkel took a huge leap and moved overseas, to the United States, where he established Axon Instruments, which would eventually be listed on the Australian Securities Exchange.

For 23 years, Dr Finkel and his team created precision scientific instruments that were then used by pharmaceutical companies and universities in their work on medicine research. After selling the company for US$134 million, he and his wife Elizabeth, a biochemist and science journalist, created the science magazine Cosmos, which remains one of the most popular science publications in the world.

Challenges and adventure seem to run as a theme throughout Dr Finkel’s career, and his extra-curricular activities too. Over the years, he has been director of NASDAQ-listed Molecular Devices and ASX-listed diagnostics company Cogstate Limited, chairman of
the Australian Centre of Excellence for All-Sky Astrophysics, chief technology officer of Better Place Australia and has supported the creation of the Florey Neuroscience Institute.

But in between these roles, Dr Finkel has found time to become a highly ambitious mountain climber. He’s already tackled Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro, the 6476 metre-high Mera peak in the Himalayas, and Mont Blanc, the tallest mountain in the Alps.

Over the years, Dr Finkel has held some of the most esteemed titles in Australian science and academia. He was chancellor of Monash University and has been awarded Victorian of the Year (2016), the Mountbatten Medal (UK) and the Clunies Ross Award for his work on facilitating international neuroscience research.

Despite the numerous accolades heaped upon him, Dr Finkel is far less sombre than many would think him to be. His speeches and interviews are often laced with humour that highlights his genuine curiosity about what is going on in the world.

Dr Finkel was appointed Australia’s eighth Chief Scientist in January 2016. In September 2018, his term was extended for a further two years until 2020.

In 2016, Dr Finkel chaired the expert panel that conducted the Independent Review into the Future Security of the National Electricity Market, popularly known as the ‘Finkel Review’.

Two years on, he’s leading another expert panel reporting to energy ministers – and he’s got hydrogen in his sights.

‘We’ve spoken about using hydrogen for energy for decades, but it’s never progressed,’ Dr Finkel said.

‘It’s a zero emissions fuel, and it can be made for almost zero emissions by electrolysis powered by renewable electricity; or from coal and methane with carbon sequestration. But it’s different now because the costs of renewable electricity have tumbled, and Japan has now emerged as a major, long-term and highly committed hydrogen buyer.

‘They’ve identified Australia as the perfect supplier, thanks to our abundant resources. There’s a tremendous sense of potential all the way from Perth to Gladstone. It’s akin to the excitement in the 1980s around LNG.’Dr Finkel has also utilised his platform as a trailblazer in the energy sector to speak out on issues he believes are fundamental to the future of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) in this country.

Preparing our students

Dr Finkel believes that one of the challenging issues in STEM education is around the signals we send to school students about the level of preparation they need – not just to be accepted into university STEM courses, but to keep up and succeed when they get there.

Under the current ATAR system, which ranks graduating Year 12 students, Dr Finkel hears many stories of schools, parents and career counsellors advising students to study entry-level maths, rather than intermediate or advanced maths, in order to boost their scores. And despite not having the mathematics preparation needed to study science and engineering at university, Dr Finkel says some universities will let students in simply because they have a good ATAR score.

’It’s not a sensible decision; they’ll struggle’, he says, shaking his head.

A recent study revealed that students who study first year biology or chemistry at university, having already done advanced maths in Year 12, had a 100 per cent pass rate. In contrast, those who studied first year biology or chemistry, but had only done entry-level maths in Year 12, had a pass rate of just 23 per cent.

Dr Finkel reflects on the skills and education required in scientific industries, noting that when he ran Axon Instruments, despite the fact that the company made biomedical products, he never hired a biomedical engineer.

’We typically put together a group of ten people working on a project consisting of some lab scientists to do the testing, an expert in mechanical engineering, an expert in optical engineering, experts in software and databases, and then all of a sudden we had ten people in a team and each person had an extraordinary depth of knowledge in their respective fields.’

He says the mining industry should think more laterally about the skills it needs from university students, instead of focusing on mining engineering. Dr Finkel suggests that ‘as the future of mining goes towards intelligent mines’, it should consider bringing in experts in mechatronics, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, geoscience, software and artificial intelligence, and big data analysis – these experts could make a formidable team.

Ensuring students are adequately prepared when they commence STEM subjects at university is one thing, but getting young people interested in STEM, and especially mining, in the first place must begin much earlier.

‘We need to make sure that teachers are knowledgeable in their fields. Currently, there are a large number of teachers assigned to teach maths or chemistry who don’t have specific expertise in those subjects,’ he says.

Dr Finkel has submitted a report to federal, state and territory education ministers, recommending that all teachers be required to do a minimum number of hours every year in discipline-specific professional development.

Changing perceptions

An issue that Dr Finkel is passionate about is the increasing role of women in the mining industry. While the ratio between the genders has idled at 85 per cent men to 15 per cent women, Dr Finkel believes that continuing to push mining to the technology frontier will be a driving force to encourage more women to enter the industry.

‘It seems to me that if we can be the best in the world at integrating artificial intelligence into mining, then we ought to be the best at capitalising on human intelligence as well. I know this sector is capable of reinventing itself.’

Dr Finkel notes the incredible achievements of some of the industry’s leading women including Kellie Parker, Diane Jurgens, Elizabeth Gaines, Megan Clark and Gabriela Love as just some of a host of distinguished women who have made an invaluable contribution to mining, many through technology-focused roles.

’So, what would it take to optimise mining to attract the best talent, irrespective of gender? Optimise for talent, full stop.’

To attract talent and improve community perceptions, Dr Finkel believes that the mining industry should do more to promote its achievements, especially in the innovation sector. Driverless cars, for example, are on their way to becoming a reality in society and yet most people associate the technology with Silicon Valley.

’Very few people out there realise that the only truly autonomous vehicles working on a regular basis are in the mining industry. They’re physically very big but the significance is also big.’Changing perceptions, be it from the public’s point of view or how international bodies view what is actually involved in mining, will be a ’hard slog’, he says.

’People carry their impressions for many, many years. I think that people change their impressions more by seeing examples than anything else.

’Women in the industry, driverless technology and environmental benefits that come from using intelligent approaches, these are good examples that illustrate the fact that it’s more than rocks in the ground or oil or gas. Getting those stories out is probably the only thing you can do.’

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