Five Science Breakthroughs That Could Change Politics

I gave a speech to a group of Sydney University students this morning on ‘Five Science Breakthroughs That Could Change Politics’. The text is below.

‘Five Science Breakthroughs That Could Change Politics’*

Andrew Leigh MP
Federal Member for Fraser

Talented Students Program Breakfast
Sydney University
18 April 2012


In 1910, Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, was visiting Australia. In Melbourne, he gave evidence to a parliamentary committee on communications.[1] He told them his ‘dream’ was that ‘a man will be able to talk with any other in any part of the United States’. Bell criticised our use of single-wire telephones, and encouraged Australia to install two-wire circuits to avoid ‘cross talk’. And he praised the quality of Australian electrical engineers. But even the great Bell didn’t get everything right. Asked about mobile telephones, he said that wireless telephony was unlikely to compete, due to the difficulty of securing privacy.

Reading Bell’s evidence a century on, I am struck by the sense of optimism and possibility, and my predecessors’ deep interest in one of the scientific breakthroughs that would shape the modern age.

There are three reasons I wanted to speak with you about science breakthroughs. First, I don’t think it’s a topic that politicians spend enough time on. For example, a survey published in 2010 of federal politicians’ reading habits found only one respondent reading a book about science.[2] And as the climate change debate showed, even findings that are broadly accepted by scientists can be described by certain politicians as ‘absolute crap’.

Second, talking about science is good for us because it engenders a sense of awe. As Monty Python once pointed out, our galaxy, one of millions in the universe, is a hundred thousand light years side to side.[3] As the late Christopher Hitchens observed, when our sun finally gives out, the people watching it will be a higher evolutionary form of humans than us.[4] Bryan Gaensler describes ‘Oh-my-God’ particles, which have been recorded moving through the universe at 99.9999999999999999999996% of the speed of light.[5] Like the great arts, science can be beautiful and thrilling.

Third, I’m immensely proud of what science has achieved. The stump-jump plough transformed nineteenth century agriculture. The winged keel allowed us to end the US’s 132-year hold over the America’s Cup. Spray-on skin helped burns victims. My own electorate contains CSIRO, who invented wi-fi and ultrasound; and ANU, the workplace of Brian Schmidt, who shared the 2011 Physics Nobel Prize for his work showing that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

Five Breakthroughs

In choosing five science breakthroughs, I’ve focused on ideas that are just over the horizon for most of us. So green roofs, LED lights, genetically modified crops, 3D printers and geo-engineering are important, but improvements are likely to be steady rather than seismic. Instead, I’ve chosen ‘disruptive ideas’ that could radically affect the way our society operates. 

1. Driverless electric cars. The two big developments in automotive technology right now are electric cars and driverless cars. Together, they are likely to transform transport. In the case of electric cars, we’re still waiting to see whether the model that prevails is the one in which we charge our cars at home, or whether we use battery swap stations like those operated by Better Place. Either way, electric cars will reduce emissions, are cheaper to maintain, and help manage the peak load problem of power generation.

The next step is driverless cars. In California and Nevada, Google’s fleet of seven self-drive Toyota Priuses have now driven more than 300,000 kilometres. The cars use multiple video cameras that match what they’re ‘seeing’ with images from Google’s Street View project. They have driven in busy city traffic, through a Taco Bell drive-thru, and across the Golden Gate Bridge. Last month, Steve Mahan, who is legally blind, took the driver’s seat. He joked afterwards ‘this is some of the best driving I’ve ever done’.[6]

Self-drive cars can do a few things that your regular car can’t do. They can reduce traffic congestion and move more efficiently by driving in ‘platoons’. Like Knight Rider’s KITT, they can travel empty. But while David Hasselhoff used this to escape bad guys, we’re more likely to use it to share our car with other people.

For policymakers, self-drive cars create painfully difficult questions. Even if the car is safer on average than a human, who is legally at fault when something goes wrong? Environmentally, electric cars may produce less emissions, but they’re also cheaper per kilometre. Because it’ll cost less to drive to work in your new electric car than it did in your old petrol car, electric cars may make traffic congestion worse.[7] Given that both pollution and congestion are negative externalities, policymakers must ask: what is the appropriate balance of taxes and subsidies?

2. Space elevators. When I was in primary school in the early-1980s, I vividly remember participating in a science extension program one school holidays, and asking the teacher why it wasn’t possible to transmit electricity wirelessly. It took a generation of research, but in 2009, a team of researchers won a NASA competition to power a robot to climb a one kilometre cable.[8] They did it by firing a laser beam at a photovoltaic panel. At present, the energy loss from power beaming is around 40 percent, but it is steadily becoming more efficient.

The most exciting application of laser beaming is the notion of a space elevator; the idea that robots could be powered to climb cables that reach from the ground up to orbiting satellites. The great irony of space exploration at present is that a vast amount of the energy required is in going the first few kilometres. Getting in and out of the earth’s atmosphere is expensive, dangerous and polluting. A space elevator would end the need for rockets; thereby changing the economics of both satellites and space travel.

For policymakers, lowering the cost of getting into space would enable more scientific research, as well as more extensive use of satellites for purposes such as entertainment and communications. Yet there is also a danger that space junk will proliferate. More than 6000 satellites have been launched since Sputnik in 1957, and thousands of pieces of space debris currently orbit the earth.[9] For aviation, space elevators also generate unique regulatory challenges. Currently, we assume that the space a few kilometres above the earth is essentially free for aircraft. How would we divide it between planes and elevators?

3. Nanotechnology. Our ability to change matter at a molecular level has given birth to a rich subfield of research. At the interface between biology and electronics, nanotechnology offers the potential of better bionic technology, from limbs to aural implants.[10] Programmable matter would radically change manufacturing, since the same block of matter could shift into endlessly different shapes.[11] Among the possible applications are shape-shifting furniture (perfect for small apartments!), or videoconferencing in which a realistic copy of the other speaker is in the room with you.

In solar cells, nanotechnology will soon enable wearable solar cells, likely to change clothing in practical ways (for soldiers and hikers) and aesthetic ones (for fashion designers). Similarly, nanogenerators in your shoes would provide a source of power that could charge a mobile phone or power a Pacemaker.[12] In countries where people do not have access to clean water, nanotechnology could provide a better way to purify water.[13]

For policymakers, nanotechnology poses multiple challenges. We need more research on the health risks, since the small size of nanoparticles means they can potentially penetrate cell walls. Yet we should also be aware of the benefits that nanoparticles bring. In 2009, the Therapeutic Goods Administration conducted a scientific review of nanoparticles in sunscreens, and concluded that the weight of the evidence is that nanoparticles do not cause health risks.[14] With nearly 2000 Australians dying annually from skin cancer, there’s a big social payoff from improving sunscreens.

4. Ubiquitous Data. Commentators often talk about things increasing ‘exponentially’, when they mean ‘fast’. But in the case of computing power and storage capacity, you really can plot advances as a straight line on a logarithmic scale. That means that many new scientific breakthroughs are likely to be made by coming up with better ways to collect, organise and analyse data.

One application will be in ‘lifelogging’ – recording and analysing our lives. In an extraordinary blog post last month, Stephen Wolfram analysed two decades worth of his own data, including keystrokes, emails, files, meetings, phonecalls and footsteps (he wears a pedometer).[15] Through hundreds of millions of pieces of data, you can see clear patterns in his daily habits, as well as sudden bursts of creativity. For others, lifelogging may involve wearing a video camera at all times. While it sounds creepy, neurologists have shown that it helps sufferers of memory loss to regain control of their lives.[16]

Data analytics can help identify trends, such the use of internet search data to give real-time information on the spread of influenza or the rate of unemployment.[17] It can also help catch criminals, by identifying irregular transactions or behaviours. And yet it creates vast concerns for privacy, data storage, and intellectual property. As a former academic researcher, I often found myself frustrated at the difficulty of gaining access to government data. Increasingly, I think the government is losing its monopoly over data, and that private agencies are holding data that is at least as interesting to researchers.

5. Machine Intelligence. Despite massive advances in computing, we’re still yet to build a machine that can replicate the human brain. But at some point, it seems conceivable that we will succeed, either through artificial intelligence, or through building a machine that can emulate the brain.[18] Economist Robin Hanson argues that when we do, it will be an economic breakthrough akin to the start of farming, or the industrial revolution.[19]

Hanson observes that once we can replicate the brain, things start to change very quickly. To begin, we can start dialling up the clock speed. Then, we can start making copies. Next, we can start making them smaller. You might be squeamish about uploading your memories to a machine, but so long as some people are willing, it won’t be long before there are millions of these new entities in existence.

In the past, the kinds of jobs that have been displaced by computerisation are routine data entry positions. In the early-1990s, when I began working in university holidays at the Parramatta law firm of Coleman and Greig, the firm employed a pool of typists. Technology has now replaced almost every typist in Australia. But a machine that can emulate the human brain would challenge all occupations, from hairdressers to architects.

In the case of this science breakthrough, it’s hard to even begin to think how policymakers would respond. Do we limit how many times you can replicate yourself? If we have a machine that contains your memories and can think like you, shall we treat it like a slave or pay it a wage? Do you have the right to turn off copies of yourself? Will this breakthrough cause wages to fall? If so, how do we make sure that everyone has some capital to get by? After thinking about Hanson’s work for a few weeks, I’ve decided that this is one breakthrough for which I don’t want to be around.


As physicist Nils Bohr once said, ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future’. In this talk, I’ve aimed to pique your interest in five areas of scientific research that could have major impacts on policy. I’ve deliberately chosen ‘disruptive technologies’ that could significantly change society, and would challenge politics.

But mine are only one set of possibilities, and it’s quite possible I’m thinking about it the wrong way. For example, US researchers Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz argue that the main changes will come not from individual technologies, but from the convergence of ‘five horsemen’: nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and communications technology, robotics and cognitive science.[20] I’m sure you’ll also have your own ideas about the most interesting work occurring at the frontiers of science, and I’m keen to hear about them.

As well as the general issues that these science ideas present, there are ongoing challenges in making sure government policies support good scientific research. Our intellectual property system, grounded in the idea that providing a temporary monopoly to an inventor will spur innovation, needs to keep evolving as technologies change. Our research funding system should think not only about funding researchers who attempt to reach a goal, but also providing prizes for success (akin to the Netflix prize). For publicly funded research, we should aim to ensure datasets are made publicly available, and articles aren’t locked forever behind expensive paywalls.

We must remember that for developing countries, what often matters isn’t breakthroughs in achievement, but in cost, so OLPC’s $100 laptop and Tata’s $2500 car are vital innovations too.[21] Finally, we need to improve the quality and quantity of interaction between scientists and politicians, to make sure that when the next breakthrough comes, our system of governance is ready to deal with it.

* Science ideas in this talk are drawn from research by Matthew James of the Parliamentary Library, plus suggestions from a variety of boffins, including Paul Harris and Andrew Wade. I am grateful to Bryan Gaensler for inviting me to give this talk, and to Nick Terrell for valuable comments on an earlier draft.

[1] I am indebted to David Forman for drawing my attention to the Alcatel-Lucent publication ‘Dr Bell’s Testimony to the Royal Commission on the Postmaster General’s Department’.

[2] Macgregor Duncan and Andrew Leigh, 2010, ‘Power Readers’ Australian Literary Review, 5(2): 14-16 (3 March 2010). We received responses from 89 of the 226 members and senators (39 percent). The only parliamentarian who told us that he or she was reading a science book was Tony Burke.

[3] Monty Python, 1983, ‘The Galaxy Song’ from The Meaning of Life.

[4] Christopher Hitchens, 2009, Opening Address to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, 3 October 2009

[5] Bryan Gaensler, 2011, Extreme Cosmos, New South Books, Sydney.

[6] Angela Moscaritolo, 2012, ‘Google’s Self-Driving Car Takes Blind Man for a Ride’, PC Mag, 29 March 2012

[7] This also affects estimates of how more fuel-efficient cars will reduce emissions. For a thoughtful discussion of what economists call the ‘Jevons paradox’, see David Owen, 2010, ‘The Efficiency Dilemma’ New Yorker, December 20, 2010.

[8] ‘Beam it up’, 2011, The Economist, 10 March 2011

[9] See

[10] Simon Moulton, Geoffrey Spinks and Gordon Wallace, 2009, ‘Nanobionics’, NanoQ, ARC Nanotechnology Network, Canberra, March 2009, pp.2-4

[11] ‘50 ideas to change science’, 2010, New Scientist, 16 October 2010

[12] ‘50 ideas to change science’, 2010, New Scientist, 9 October 2010

[13] Peter Majewski, 2009, ‘Surface Engineered Silica for Water Treatment’, NanoQ, ARC Nanotechnology Network, Canberra, March 2009, pp.5-6

[14] Therapeutic Goods Administration, 2009, ‘A review of the scientific literature on the safety of nanoparticulate titanium dioxide or zinc oxide in sunscreens’, TGA, Canberra.

[15] Stephen Wolfram, 2012, ‘The Personal Analytics of My Life’, 8 March 2012.

[16] Gordon Bell, 2010, ‘Lifelogging’, New Scientist, 19 October 2010

[17] See for example Andrew Leigh, 2011, ‘Google’s on top of today’Australian Financial Review, 20 September 2011. In that article, I noted ‘A cute feature of using search data to look at joblessness is that it also points to distinct patterns of search terms among the unemployed – many of whom are young men. [Google Chief Economist] Hal Varian finds that the first set of terms to spike are labour market related (eg. ‘jobs classifieds’, ‘unemployment benefits’). The second phase sees an increase in searches for new technologies (eg. ‘ipod apps’, ‘free ringtone’). The third stage of unemployment searches are for low-cost entertainment (eg. ‘guitar scales beginner’, ‘home workout routines’). The fourth stage of unemployment searches are for adult content (eg. ‘adult video’, ‘porn tube’).’

[18] Anders Sandberg and Nick Bostrom, 2008, ‘Whole Brain Emulation: A Roadmap’, Technical Report #2008‐3, Future of Humanity Institute, Oxford University.

[19] See for example Robin Hanson, 1994, ‘If uploads come first: The crack of a future dawn’. Extropy, 6; Robin Hanson, 2008, ‘Economics of the singularity’. IEEE Spectrum, 37‐42; Robin Hanson, 2012, ‘Em Econ 101’, Presentation at Halcyon, Redwood City, CA, 6 April 2012.

[20] Braden Allenby and Daniel Sarawitz, 2011, ‘We’ve made a world we cannot control’, New Scientist, 14 May 2011.

[21] OLPC is the acronym for One Laptop per Child (see for more details). The Tata Neo was aimed at a price point of one lakh, or 100,000 rupees.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.

Stay in touch

Subscribe to our monthly newsletter


Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.