AL Andrew Leigh
AF Alan Finkel
AF The other important thing I’ve been trying to encourage is for teachers and parents to help their children to aim higher, to set their aspirations higher. The cruellest thing you can do to a young child is to not encourage them to set their aspirations high. You’ve got to help them set their aspirations high and then teach them how to achieve those.
AL Welcome to The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation, a podcast about living a happy, healthy and ethical life. In this podcast we seek out wise men and women who have lessons to teach us about living life to the full, with humour, pleasure, meaning and love. We’ll chat with musicians and athletes, CEOs and carers about making the most of this one precious life. If you like this podcast, do take a moment to tell your friends or give us a rating. Now, sit back and enjoy the conversation.
Alan Finkel is an engineer turned neuroscientist who founded the Silicon Valley company, Axon Instruments. He started two magazines, Cosmos and G, served as Chancellor of Monash University and is just coming to the end of his five-year term as Australia’s Chief Scientist. He’s passionate about innovation, science history and education and few Australians give a better speech.
Alan, welcome to The Good Life podcast. I wanted to start with your dad, David Finkel, who came out to Australia at the age of 32 as a holocaust survivor. How did it shape you to grow up as the son of somebody who had fled the Nazis?
AF Gosh, the reality is that whilst it shaped Dad tremendously, he never allowed it to influence the way he interacted with us. He never held it over us as children. When I say us, I mean my brother and my sister, both older than me. He never expected anything special from us in acknowledgement of that but clearly he wanted us to have the best possible start in life, the best education, the best home experience, the most love. There’s just no doubt that it shaped the way he interacted with us but he never held it over us.
AL I love your story that he came out with only one suit but it was stitched in such a way that he could turn it inside out and people thought he had two.
AF And that’s part of how he wooed my mother. He was a fancy flashy dresser, a charismatic man, good sense of music, loved to dance, came out here with nothing and made the most of what he could scrounge together. He got started in business, literally by buying a little bit of material and selling it to somebody else and that’s the way he got started as an immigrant.
AL Did he pass on that entrepreneurial spirit to you? Because you’re a business-minded scientist is how I think of you. You’re thinking not only about the new discoveries but also the commercialization opportunities. How did that get passed on to you from your father?
AF So, the answer is that he did pass it on to me, mainly through a vehicle that you wouldn’t anticipate. And that was through building construction, and I mean the nitty gritty of building construction. So, dad as an immigrant started buying and selling some material, made a bit of money out of that, hired some people, started a very small knitting factory and then that turned into a frock-making factory, became eventually a substantial business, employing about 400 people.
But at every stage as it grew, Dad would buy a little warehouse, renovate it and that would become his factory for a few years. Then he’d outgrow that and he’d buy another little old warehouse and renovate that. And eventually he got to the point where he bought some land and started building things from new.
And he was fascinated with that design and construction process and he taught himself drafting. I have all these strong memories of walking into the study area where Dad used to work with gigantic pieces of Mylar in front of him, probably A0 in size, and a clutch pencil, a lead pencil, and a draughtsman’s ruler and Dad would be doing meticulous drafting of the overall design. Not the engineering design or construction drawings but the overall design, every window, every door, every air outlet and inlet.
It was that sense of engagement, involvement in creativity and design that… I just used to love seeing it. There was a certain intensity that was impressive. But it also meant that for my school holidays, probably three or four times, not more than that but three or four time, I did carpentry jobs and construction jobs at one of Dad’s factory sites.
And so I learnt to be a handyman, I learnt to solve problems. This is one of the good things about being a carpenter or somebody in construction is you’ve got to solve problems all the time. And so I learnt to use my hands, use my brain and do things that gave me the satisfaction of seeing something develop and be finished through my own hard work. So, that was something very important that I got from Dad.
AL And a skill which has turned out to be important for Australians. I understand that one of the things you’ve done as Chief Scientist is to lead a team putting together design specifications for ventilators so we could produce them locally.
AF I did and I’ve got to tell you, I enjoyed that so so much. I’ve got to say it, I was born an engineer. Every cell in my body I think is an engineer. I became a crossdresser and became a scientist, a neuroscientist, but very deep down I’m an engineer and I’ve always enjoyed that design process and pulling ideas together.
And sometimes it’s through the meticulous efforts that you do, literally designing circuits or for me it was designing circuits just like Dad was designing buildings and just like Dad would stay up late at night designing things on a piece of Mylar, I would stay up during my PhD, my post-doc in my early career as a businessman in America until two a.m., three a.m. in the morning designing circuits.
But after four or five years, starting a business and the business grows, you actually don’t get the chance to do that kind of detailed hands-on design work and construction design and construction work anymore and most of my creative efforts went more into the business strategy and the product conceptualisation.
As a businessman in Silicon Valley, making scientific instruments, electronic instruments and scientific data collection and visualisation software, I spent a lot of my time writing up the product specifications for what this future product would do. And it’s critically important because the engineering team is not going to build the product that you want and your customers want unless you can explain it to them in words, in a non-ambiguous but still open fashion so that their creativity can lead to the best product.
And I got quite good at that. But I didn’t do it for years and years and years. Let me bring the word decade or two into it. But early this year, when I was assisting the Commonwealth Government by leading its strategy for developing multiple lines of supply for ICU ventilators, one of the things that became apparent that we needed was the specifications against which the well-intentioned but not experienced engineers and engineering companies in Australia could actually develop a solution.
And I just fell naturally right into it because I’d learnt in just a few short weeks very much about what’s required for ICU ventilators through my conversations with ICU specialists. One of the first things I did within two days of taking on the role was start to develop a cohort of ICU physicians to whom I spoke on a regular basis and with whom I tested every idea about our strategic needs, our tactical needs, about companies with whom we could work.
And so when I realised that we needed to have a detailed product specification for these well-intentioned engineers and engineering firms, I just started interrogating all these ICU specialists and the wisdom of what went into this product specification came from them but I held the pin. So, it’s a single voice coherent product specification, very similar to what I would have done for a scientific lab-based instrument or a piece of scientific data acquisition software back in the way back when, when I ran a company in Silicon Valley.
So, I brought it all together and within a few days of starting had it finished and the TGA published on their website and it has been the go-to document that has helped direct the good efforts of Australian engineering companies.
AL So, you enrolled in electrical engineering at Monash University in the late 1970s. How do you characterise the engineering mindset? What was it that drew you towards engineering?
AF Well, I would characterise it differently now to the answer to your question of what drove me to it because now I’m looking with the wisdom of hindsight. What drew me to it, as in many decision-making points in my life, Andrew, it was avoiding making some other decision.
So, as a youngster, at school, in primary and secondary school, I had been convinced that I wanted to be a doctor, and that goes back to some extent to your opening question about my father and my mother, the influence on me. They wanted the best for their three children possible, and they knew it all started with education, and they knew that the children of an immigrant family being educated and ultimately getting a degree in law or medicine was a fabulous start, a fabulous way to come out of the initial poverty that is inherent in being a wartime immigrant.
So, they were very encouraging of me to study and, without being overbearing, very encouraging of the idea of me being a doctor. And I’d bought into it because I found it fascinating and I used to buy books called the How and Why Wonder Book on various parts of the human body, the digestive system, the brain, the skeleton, etc. I remember putting together these little models. I enjoyed putting together aeroplane models, the plastic ones where you stick all the pieces together.
But I also had a model called The Invisible Man. Sorry about the gender bias but that’s what it was called, the Invisible Man, which was something that you put together and then you could pull apart and see how all the organs and the skeletal aspects of the body went together. And so I was fascinated with it. And I was convinced that I wanted to be a doctor.
Until the day in Year 12, and I remember it clearly, sitting up at the back of the class, it was one of those classes with a sloping set of desks and seats, next to a very good friend of mine who absolutely wanted to do medicine and knew he wanted to be a cardiologist. He was unwavering. I remember sitting at the back and filling out the form for our university application and I was pretty confident that I would get into my first preference, and all of a sudden I thought, oh, my gosh, if I choose medicine and do medicine, I’ll have to deal with sick people, I’ll have to deal with old people, and I sort of panicked.
And somehow I had the insight that what I enjoyed about the idea of being a doctor was really the mechanical aspects, the idea of being a surgeon and understanding how things work, the physics and the biology and the chemistry of it all. So, I decided that I probably shouldn’t do medicine. And then what should I do?
I liked maths, I liked physics. I didn’t want to do a pure maths degree because I couldn’t see at the time where that would take me, and so I chose to do engineering, because I knew that that involved physics and chemistry and machinery and all sorts of exciting things, and that’s how I chose to do engineering.
Going back to the first part of your question, I’m not sure how you phrased it, what is it about the engineering mindset that attracts me, I guess I learnt through my degree at Monash University in Engineering what it means to be an engineer. There are two aspects of it that I come back to again and again and again.
The first is what I would call the engineering method, which starts with identifying the problem. And that sounds so trite. Of course, if you’re going to develop a product and solution, you have to know what the problem is.
But, Andrew, you will have seen this in your own life, how often do people jump into a solution on an assumed problem without stopping and actually thinking, actually what is the problem that I’m trying to solve?
And so as an engineer you have to start with that, so identifying the problem, analysing it and then coming up with a prototype solution and testing it, iterating between the prototype solution and testing, improving, improving and eventually putting it all together and delivering an outcome, a product. That’s the engineering method.
The other aspect of engineering that I’ve subsequently understood and hold dear is what I call the engineering way, and the engineering way is the art of optimisation. You hear that politics is the art of compromise or things like that. Engineering is the art of optimisation. There is no room for compromise and, surprisingly, there’s no room for perfection. So, take the example of building a bridge. If, as an engineer, you design to perfection the ultimate bridge, good luck finding someone who can afford to finance the construction of that bridge. It’s not going to happen.
If you go to the other extreme and you design a bridge which compromises on the structural strength and safety, well, that is a complete and unacceptable disaster. You can’t do that. You can’t compromise. You have to work within safety margins and ultimately you have to come up with the optimised design that gives you the optimisation between safety and cost and just the structural beauty, integrity and economics. So, there are two aspects of the engineering profession that I hold dear.
AL And as an economist I’m drawn to that. You’ll, of course, be familiar with the notion of the economist as engineer and a lot of what our models are trying to do is to maximise subject to constraints. But you then took a detour, as I understand it, into neuroscience. Was that while you were doing your post-doc at the Australian National University?
AF That was all part of making a lifelong decision. So, I finished my Bachelor’s degree and decided, my God, if I go out and get a job now, I will never ever come back to academia and do a PhD. I didn’t know whether I wanted to do a PhD but I said, it’s either now or never.
So, without knowing what I wanted to do, I started speaking to some of the researchers at Monash and ended up being offered an opportunity to do a PhD in a biomedical engineering lab within the Department of Electrical Engineering, working with a guy named Stephen Redman, himself a wonderful mathematically-oriented engineer who had become fascinated with the nervous system and in particular the spinal cord reflex.
It’s interesting. In engineering one of the key concepts that all machines have to follow in control theory, it’s called negative feedback. And negative feedback doesn’t mean, gee, Andrew, you’re not looking good today. That’s maybe a social negative feedback.
Negative feedback is actually a mathematical concept that says that if you want a certain defect, you can’t just aim for it and hope that it’ll happen. You have to adjust as you go. Look, a perfect example is catching a ball. Let’s say you’re at one end of a field and I throw a tennis ball towards you and you put up your hand to catch it a few seconds before it arrives and then you close your eyes. You will not catch that ball because the wind will change its trajectory, your estimate was not perfect in the first place.
But if you keep your eyes open, without you even thinking about it, you’ll be moving your hand into the right position to finally catch the ball through adjusting based on the errors between where you initially estimated it would be and where it is now apparently going to. And that process is called negative feedback. It’s how James Watson chose to control the speed of a steam train to be constant as it went uphill along the flat and downhill.
He came up with a thing called a governor and that was the first time in history where a human being designed negative feedback to achieve a certain defect that is repleting everything. The amplifiers that play the music at home, everything in the engineering world works on that. What was an eyeopener for engineers in the 1940s, so before I got involved, was the discovery that the neural connections and the neural systems in the human brain do two things that we would not have recognised if we hadn’t invented them ourselves.
So, one thing is negative feedback is really common in the brain and the rest of the body. The reason why your temperature is controlled at a constant, such as 37.3 degrees, despite it being colder or hotter outside, is because you have a system of negative feedback that corrects your metabolism to keep your temperature constant. And, similarly, the signals in your brain that allow you to think or to control that hand to catch the ball, are based on negative feedback.
And if we hadn’t independently invented it, I don’t know, 200 years ago, we being James Watson and the engineers that followed him, neuroscientists would not have recognised it in the brain. So, for an electrical engineer who’d learnt all their control theory… And the second thing that I alluded to but didn’t describe, which is digital communications because the electrical signals in the brain are pulses of electricity rather than a continuum, if I hadn’t learnt about binary signalling and control systems, I might not have been interested in doing neuroscience.
But because I had, I and Steve Redman, my PhD supervisor, we were just fascinated to learn more about how the human brain and the spinal cord motor neuron reflexes worked. And Steve and a few others had established a biomedical research lab at Monash University. I just went into that and studied certain electrical characteristics in individual brain cells.
AL So, then you found yourself post-doc heading towards the US to found a Silicon Valley company and an experience that saw you living in Silicon Valley through much of the 1980s and 1990s. What was Silicon Valley like in that era?
AF It was wonderful. It was probably an era where most Australians hadn’t heard of Silicon Valley. I ended up there through love. I followed my wife. She got a post-doctoral position at UC San Francisco and I had made the decision that I did not want to stay as a researcher indefinitely, as a post-doctoral researcher and then beyond, because I was actually better as an electrical designer. I designed all the electronic equipment that I used that made my experiments possible.
And I was actually better at that than I was as a biological researcher. So, I knew that I wanted to leave research. I was at the ANU at the time, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research. My wife got a post-doctoral position at UCSF. I thought, great, I’ll go to San Francisco, Silicon Valley and start a company making the kinds of equipment that I’d made for my own research for other people doing neuroscience research because some of them had expressed some interest.
At the time leaving Melbourne, I didn’t even understand the difference between San Francisco and Silicon Valley. From, I don’t know, 15,000 kilometres away, they seemed the same. But Silicon Valley is this area that starts about 20 kilometres south of San Francisco and goes all the way down to San Jose, really centred around Stanford University but very, very extensively spread out from there.
And when I went there initially, it was all low rise buildings on big plots of land and each of those buildings was some significant electronic company, like Intel or Hewlett Packard. But it was all about start-ups, so it didn’t take me more than a week or two to find some premises which were built as an office warehouse but all of them in that block were used as corporate start-ups, and it was really quite easy to get all the components that I would need, components that I thought of, back in Australia, as exotic components.
It was easy to get all the components that I need to build the equipment that I was making. It was not that hard to find the subcontractors to work with me on the assembly. It was not that hard to find really clever engineers and it was also a real pleasure living in Silicon Valley, in San Francisco. We lived in San Francisco and I worked in Silicon Valley. I drove down every day. It was really a pleasure living with.
At the time I was a little bit scared going to America because the news was always full of articles about street violence and other things like that. But living in San Francisco, Silicon Valley, the Bay area was like a special world. After a few weeks I was quite happy to leave my car parked with the doors open. I just didn’t have any sense of anything untoward at all. It was as pleasant as living in Australia.
AL I think of Silicon Valley during that period through the lens of the computer companies, Apple, of course, but also HP and Intel and then, towards the end of your period there, in the late 1990s, the dotcom boom as well. But there must also have been a thriving medical device community there that you tapped into. Was that mostly where you were centred or was there actually a bit of crossover with the computer firms?
AF It was completely intermingled. All technologies were all over the place in Silicon Valley, so there was Bio-Rad and Molecular Dynamics and other medical firms but they could be next door to an Apple or an Intel. It was just high tech in all of its guises. And it was always sunny. Have you been to San Francisco in summer?
AL Yes, absolutely.
AF And it’s foggy. What did Mark Twain say? I think he said the coldest winter I’ve ever spent was summer in San Francisco. So, we lived in San Francisco, right next to the Golden Gate Park and I remember the summers, the fog in the morning, and I would drive down… Well, down in the sense of south to Silicon Valley, about 40 kilometres, into beautiful clear skies, warm weather and at the end of the day I’d be driving back into my airconditioned city. It was really quite remarkable.
AL Yes. One of my thesis advisors took a job in Stanford and said that she only realised how good the weather was when a student came in one day to complain that it was raining and it was affecting her mood. Yes, it’s a bucolic part of the world. But you then chose to return to Australia. What prompted that return?
AF Babysitters. Would you like me to elaborate?
AF We were there five years and after about four and a half we had our first child. We’d never intended to go there indefinitely. We intended initially to go for two or three years for Elizabeth to do her post-doc, for me to give it a try in business and things were going very, very well and so we were quite happy staying.
We had got to five years but we had a baby and that’s when we realised that we really missed home and we missed the cousins and the aunties and the uncles and the grandparents. I call them the babysitters but it’s the extended family that you become very conscious of when you have a child.
So, we decided to come back and that was a significant decision-making point for me, to either close the business down, try to sell it but it was still in the early growth phase, or keep it going, and I chose to keep it going. So, I actually ran the business as the Chief Executive Officer for 23 years. The first five years were the years where I founded it and ran it for five years living in California. And for the next 18 years I became one of the world’s longest distance commuters. F
And so basically every five weeks, or thereabouts, I’d get on a plane from Melbourne and fly to San Francisco for a week and then come back for four weeks to Melbourne. From Melbourne, I then learnt to get up early to be in the office by 6 a.m. so I could be on the phone talking to my staff in Silicon Valley and just making it work, somehow even despite the distance, I managed to run the company effectively and productively and profitably.
But it did need those frequent trips back. You’ll probably have your own opinion about this after having been through the Zoom year that we’ve had but there’s something irreplaceable about the face-to-face contact, being in the same room as a dozen people and swapping ideas strategically.
You can do a lot through Zoom but you still need those face-to-face contacts. Now, of course, back then, in the 1990s, we didn’t have Zoom. We tried video conferencing from time to time but it was always a failure. The technology just wasn’t right. It’s only the last few years that the technology has all come together with high-speed broadband, with really good microphones and cameras in laptop computers and excellent software such as Teams and Zoom and Google Meets and others.
But I didn’t have any of that. When I first came back, we were using telex and then we got very excited about two years later because the first fax machine came out, and then we used faxes and phone calls. Phone calls were $3 a minute. It was scary to have a long phone call. But we did them anyway because we had to have the communication. But the combination of phones and faxes, eventually email and travel made the option of long distance management workable.
AL So, it seems to me that once you got back to Australia you also started to get more excited about a range of different projects. One thing you’ve done which is surprisingly rare is you and Elizabeth founded two magazines, Cosmos, a science magazine, and G, a consumer sustainability magazine. What prompted that?
AF Look, my wife, when we came back to Australia, decided not to stay in research and decided to take up writing and science journalism. And so she was doing a lot of writing in the area in any event and she had won a prize and through that we’d gone to some dinner and through that I met Wilson da Silva, and she met Wilson da Silva, and Wilson da Silva was a well-known science print journalist and also he was on TV I think in a programme called Nova or something, I can’t remember what, one of the ABC science shows.
And between my wife’s influence and Wilson’s influence, when they realised I had a bit of time on my hands, they got me excited by the idea of actually being involved in trying to communicate science. I had grown up… I told you a few things before but also had grown up reading Scientific American every month religiously when it came out, reading National Geographic to follow Jacques Cousteau and his exploration of the deep oceans and the beautiful images of all the space missions.
The Mercury, the Gemini and the Apollo missions were well covered in National Geographic and Scientific American. They inspired me all the way and I felt later on as an adult that they had lost their mojo in a way and that there was not really anything particularly inspiring out there. And so Elizabeth Wilson, a fourth person, Kylie Hearne, and myself got talking about it and we agreed to co-found Cosmos Magazine, which I think we did in about… I think we agreed in 2004 and did it in 2005.
I only started doing these extra things after I saw the company. I shook hands as the CEO, subject to Board approval because we were a public company, in June of 2004 and then the transaction went through around about July of 2004 and I stayed on for 18 months.
It was only after I had sold the company that I started dabbling in other things. Anyway, that was the reason why we started Cosmos and I think Cosmos did, and continues to do, a wonderful job to present long from journalism with pictorial support on a range of interesting topics with the intention of writing a story that somebody can read and then want to talk to their family about and their friends at dinner that night.
We found that we were doing quite a few articles on environment and climate change and global warming and really through a strategic thought process at the Board and planning, we decided there was an opportunity for a second magazine and eventually we launched G Magazine. It was quite different because it wasn’t a science magazine, it was a green lifestyle magazine.
And it went really quite well but eventually we did decide that we weren’t the right people to be running it and we sold it off to another company and they kept it going for a long time. I’m not sure if it's going still. Cosmos is but I’m not sure about G Magazine but it certainly did go for a long time.
AL Yes, it seems to now, as somebody who loves a good science magazine, that podcasts are taking over some of that space for people who don’t have the scientific training but want to keep up to date with what’s going on in science.
But I wanted to ask you, one of your interesting turns in your fascinating career, because just about everything you seem to have touched has turned to gold, except perhaps for your involvement with Better Place, the car company that had battery swap technology at the heart of its model and which also had this idea that electric vehicles would provide electricity back to the grid in off times.
You were their Chief Technology Officer in 2009. Better Place ultimately wound up. What did you learn out of that?
AF A lot. So, just to set the scene a little bit more comprehensively, Better Place was actually an Israeli company founded by a fellow named Shai Agassi, who was extraordinarily articulate, visionary and you could probably use the word evangelical, and it raised a huge amount of money on the basis of solving the range anxiety problem of the nascent electric car industry by doing battery swaps.
The idea was you could drive into a special station and have the whole battery taken out and a fresh battery fully charged put in in three minutes and then go on your way. It was a great idea because at the time the electric cars that were just entering the market were targeting 100 miles or 160 kilometres in range, which sounds good but it’s just not enough. It’s not enough to be relaxed as you’re tootling around the city and certainly not if you have a long commute and then other things that you might have to do. So, that was really good.
I became the CTO of Better Place, Australia which was a branch. It wasn’t the Israeli company. We had our own investors here in Australia but the core technology was coming from Better Place to Australia with refinements that we were doing here.
Look, there were several problems. First of all, the strategy, as fabulous as it sounds, and it was in its time, within a few years became irrelevant because Elon Musk and Tesla showed that you could build an electric car with 400 kilometres range. And once you’ve got 400 kilometres range, range anxiety is just not a concern and so being able to swap out a battery in three minutes is not that important.
Now, swapping a battery… They’re 600/700 kilograms, so you can’t just drive onto a piece of concrete and have somebody reach under the car, pull it out and put a new one in. It’s a sophisticated station about the size of a car wash and they were very expensive to build and that made the economics of doing a swap not attractive.
Another problem was they got Renault to build a car with a swappable battery but couldn’t get anybody else to do it because when you’re building an electric car with a long-range battery, the battery is by far the most expensive part of the car.
But it’s also the part of the car that is going to determine performance in the eyes of the driver and the car companies just didn’t want to have their highly refined battery pack taken out and replaced with some cheap alternative made somewhere in Asia or India or wherever, because that battery pack is actually quite a sophisticated piece of digital as well as electrical storage hardware and it communicates with the car.
And so they didn’t want to face the risk of you being driving at 100 kilometres an hour down the highway and something goes wrong with the communication to the battery and the car comes to a screeching halt because it doesn’t know what’s going on. There’s another reason they didn’t want to do swappable batteries, because when you’ve got something so big in the car, you need to spread it out and it’s not easy to get something as big as that out through the space between the four wheels and, plus, it’s part of the integral structure of the car.
So, many reasons why the companies didn’t want to get with it. But there were other problems as well. Shai Agassi, as smart as he was, made fundamental business mistakes of bringing in friends and siblings into key management roles that they didn’t have expertise on. It was just classic. The Board, and we’re talking boards representing what ultimately turned out to be big dollars of investment, the Board members were taken with Shai Agassi’s vision…
I’m not questioning his integrity, I think he was honest all the way but they were taken with his vision and just accepted it and didn’t call him up on the nepotism, didn’t call him up on the need to reinvent the strategy. And so it burnt through $1 billion on about zero revenue and collapsed.
I was there for two years. The first year I was incredibly enthusiastic, did a lot for the company, I thought, then got to the point where I could see that they were not evolving to take into account the changed circumstances. I tried for a year, working with the Australian CEO and senior executives in Israel, to encourage change. It was hopeless and so I just left and moved on.
AL You’ve also then served as Chancellor of Monash University. Is being a Chancellor a job you’d recommend? I’m thinking of a job which involves having to shake huge numbers of hands, typically to give the same inspiring graduation speech again and again and then to chair the University Board and choose a new Vice-Chancellor from time to time. Have I got the basic position description right of being a Chancellor and are there aspects of it that make it more exciting than I pitched it?
AF Several, Andrew.
AL Tell me about that.
AF First of all, when you’re talking about it as a career choice, it’s not an easy choice for people to make because you can’t normally go and apply for a job like that, you’ve got to be approached. So, the chancellor, for those who are not familiar with the university structure, is the chairman of the Board. The Board at a university is called either the Council or the Senate and the chair of the Board is called the chancellor. The CEO of a University is called the Vice-Chancellor.
You are right, in a year I shook 54,000 hands of Bachelor’s graduates, Master’s and PhD graduates. And you know what…?
AL You didn’t pick a very big university.
AF I did. I enjoyed it every single time because I was standing there and each of those students had their ten seconds of fame, their little history moment, walking across the stage in front of 400 people, including their family, and I just took it upon myself to do eyeball contact with them, to shake their hand warmly, say something and then give my attention to the next person.
And you could see that it’s boring but in a sense it was uplifting. But, look, there’s a lot more to it. There are ceremonial duties including meeting international visitors but, at the end of the day, the Chancellor and the Council have the same responsibilities as the chair and the Board members of a company.
Universities are a $2 billion industry. It’s like a medium-sized public company, a lot of staff, a lot of students. And the Council is responsible, ultimately, for the success of the university and therefore strategy and budget and the highest levels of appointments, such as the Vice Chancellor.
And it’s not as if a Board originates strategy. If it does, it’s a mistake. The CEO and the senior management, they’re the ones that are living and breathing strategy and budget every day of their lives. They’re the ones that put together the drafts but they bring it to the Board or the Council and during the course of developing the strategy and budget each year, they will come to the Board two or three times and get challenged appropriately, respectfully but seriously by the Board. They go back and they refine it.
And that’s an important process. So, the Council was responsible for strategy and for budget and as the chair, known as the Council, I had a special relationship three times with the three vice-chancellors. Think of it from the point of view of the CEO. There are certain things that are difficult to discuss, even with your closest management colleagues. It’s important to have a chair who can be your personal sounding board, mental advisor, whatever you want to call it.
So, I enjoyed the relationship with the CEO. I enjoyed the Council, which was, wonderful members, our responsibility. I did have the opportunity to lead what we call the Estates Committee. I developed the Estates Committee, we didn’t have it originally, which commissioned a master plan for our two major campuses, one in Clayton and one in Corfield.
And during the eight years there, we basically reinvented the physical amenity of our campuses so that when we spent money on a new building, instead of getting a box in the wrong spot, we got a really pleasant to attend building in the right location and, you know what, it didn’t cost a lot more to do it properly.
It did mean, though, that you have to have a master plan and you had to have people such as a couple of Council members and a chancellor who had the long-term enduring strategy and performance of the university in their minds rather than the day to day exigencies that are in the minds of management.
So, there were many, many opportunities to be a useful, creative influence and the pleasure of doing graduation ceremonies.
AL In that design comment, I’m still hearing echoes of the philosophy of your father. It’s nice to think about. We’re coming towards the end of our time, Alan, and we haven’t even touched on your work as Chief Scientist over the past five years. You’ve done a huge amount during that period, including the Finkel Review and the Clean Energy Target, some important work around COVID this year, your thought leadership on artificial intelligence.
But I wanted to tap your brains on one of your real passions, which is education. You say that all students should focus on maths and English at school. Why this approach, which some would see as an old-fashioned back to basics?
AF Look, you could argue that but you’ve got to say, is it wrong to give attention to the basics? I actually put it that there are four subject areas that young people should be exposed to and learning and practicing right throughout primary school and secondary school. If you can only do two, it has to be English and mathematics because English is the language of discourse, of thinking, communicating with peers. Mathematics is the language of science.
I like to say that in the beginning… Forgive me, as a chief scientist we’re going to invoke God. In the beginning God created mathematics and mathematics begat physics and physics begat chemistry and chemistry begat biology and then you’ve got everything else.
There’s sort of a logic there. So, the mathematics underpins everything. So, English, the language of discourse, mathematics the language of science and both of them require muscle memory. You ride a bicycle. You don’t have to think about what you’re doing when you’re riding a bicycle because your muscles, your whole body has learnt how to do it and do it well.
Well, English and mathematics are like that. You need to start at a young age. When I say English, by the way, I mean the language of the country you grow up in. So, if you’re growing up in France, I’m talking about French. If you’re growing up in Spain, I’m talking about Spanish, in China I’m talking about Chinese. But you need to be learning English from a young age so that you can be a wonderful practitioner.
Same with mathematics. Good luck trying to pick up mathematics without having done it at school when you go to university. It’s not going to happen. English and Maths you need to learn early. The third like that is music and the fourth like that is sport. English, maths, music and sport are four subjects that you benefit greatly from learning them well and practicing all the way through school. I don’t think that’s old-fashioned, I think that’s just fundamental.
Beyond that students should be advised to take the subjects that will give them the maximum flexibility to follow their fundamental interests as they go through university. For each student that will be different.
The problem that I’ve had, and I’ve been fighting against, is that from the consultations I did when I did a report on science education at secondary schools for the COAG Education Council, it was very clear through the consultations that everybody teaching principles – parents, perhaps not students but everybody who was providing advice – was worried that students were being advised to choose their subjects in upper secondary school based on how they could maximise their eight hours school rather than choosing the subjects that would set them up best for life.
And so that’s the main issue that I’ve been grappling with. How do you get them to look beyond just that raw score? And it starts with giving them advice on what the right subjects are. The other important thing I’ve been trying to encourage is for teachers and parents to help their children to aim high, to set their aspirations high. A good friend of mine who was the chief scientist in India many years ago pointed out to me that the cruellest thing you can do to a young child is to not encourage them to set their aspirations high.
You’ve got to help them set their aspirations high and then teach them how to achieve those. They’re the things that have been driving me to give the right subject advice. One thing I have been able to do that I’m very pleased with, and it’s taken a few years and it’s just come to fruition now, is encourage a coalition of the willing of six universities to come together to put together, under the banner of Australian informed choices, a singular set of advice for young students in Years 9 and 10 to help them choose the right subjects to meet their interests in life, and that’s going to go public in the next couple of weeks.
AL Why are so many people turned off maths, do you think?
AF Many reasons. First of all, it’s actually quite hard and so you need good teachers. Because probably in the early 2000s as massification of universities started to occur, the universities dropped prerequisites for maths. Principals at school didn’t see the need to employ maths teachers and teach maths at the same rate that they were previously and so the teaching profession turned away from maths and now there’s a shortage of maths teachers.
And so you end up with teachers teaching out of discipline. In other words, teachers who weren’t trained in maths, trying to teach maths. The most important thing you need is a teacher with really good subject knowledge. That’s very difficult and that shows and the kids lose interest, partly because of that. So, it’s having the right maths teachers, having maths that’s taught with some context. Just learning maths for the sake of learning maths would be as boring as learning any other subject just for the sake of learning it. It’s got to have some context and that’s the curriculum material as well as teaching.
There is a tendency to think, gosh, now that we’ve got computers we don’t need maths and that was first manifest with calculators and not needing maths but I’ve got to tell you, so many things that I do in life, and I see it for other people, is standing around having a discussion about maybe… Let’s go back to building. You’re a builder or an architect or a developer and you’re talking about the square footage, they tend to still talk about that, and somehow you’ve got to convert that to metreage.
Well, the person who turns around and gets out the calculator and starts doing the calculation to convert from square feet and square metres has dropped out of the conversation for 30 seconds, whereas the experienced builders and the people who’ve taught themselves or know maths can do an approximation in their head virtually instantaneously and keep going. I just think maths is replete in life and for that reason, if no other reason, it’s important.
AL Alan, what advice would you give to your teenage self?
AF Johnny Cash, the Country & Western singer, he had a song that said do what you do do well, boy, do what you do do well, and I think that’s probably the most important advice. You’ve got to choose what you want to do but, gosh, you’ll be doing it… Be intense, aim for quality, enjoy it and do it well. There are many other things that I would advise as well, like managing your emotions. Don’t get angry when people do silly things.
Respond to disrespect with respect. The most important thing you’ve got is your integrity. Don’t ever sacrifice it. But if I could only advise one thing, I’d say, do what you do do well.
AL What’s something you used to believe but no longer do?
AF I used to believe, and this goes to the late 1990s, that the Internet will bring harmony and international scale understanding to the peoples of our planet and, boy, I was so wrong.
AL It’s fascinating.
AF As you know, it’s become an echo chamber for crazy ideas.
AL It is fascinating, tracing the development of books about the Internet over the last 20 years, our Utopian democracy series of writings in the early 2000s now to the dark authoritarian turn, often traced back to the echo chambers and to the way in which conspiracy theories like QAnon are emboldened by the Internet. When are you most happy?
AF Eating chocolate mousse. Is that a legitimate answer?
AF And I’m really happy when I’m with my…
AL That knocks off me asking you about your guilty pleasures as well.
AF I have no guilty pleasures.
AL Just the pleasure of mousse.
AF Eating chocolate mousse, it’s not guilty. I enjoy being with my wife and children. I tell you what I really enjoy, and it doesn’t happen as often as I would like, and I’m hoping to recapture this next year when I have a bit more time, I’m really enjoying reading a great novel, the sort of thing where you just disappear into the pages of the book and don’t want to go to sleep.
AL I’ve got into audiobooks lately and if you haven’t read Ian McEwan’s Machines Like Us, I was thinking of you as I was going through it. Beautiful page-turner.
AF Sometimes I like… Listening to an audiobook is something that I’ve enjoyed from the past and this year, when we were doing some walks, I listened to The Martian by Andy Weir. That was a book that came out I don’t know how many years ago, became a movie and it’s about an engineer, so it’s obviously attractive.
An engineer just solving one problem after the other in the most creative possible ways in the most extraordinary circumstances. So, all three media on that particular book have worked for me. The original written material, the movie and the audiobook and it’s rare but all three of them were well done.
AL Yes, I’ve seen the Matt Damon movie but the book’s worth reading if you’ve seen the movie?
AF It is. Or the audiobook.
AL Okay. What’s the most important thing you do in your life to stay mentally and physically healthy?
AF I find exercise is important, so all my adult life I’ve been a jogger. I’m not a fabulous athlete or anything like that but if I go for a jog three mornings a week, I feel mentally alert all the time. And if, for various reasons I don’t, after a few days I get more and more sluggish. So, a little bit of exercise I think is essential.
AL Finally, Alan, which person or experience has most shaped your view of living an ethical life?
AF Let me give you two. We’ve already talked about my dad and I don’t think I got to mention that Dad always gave to charity and loved giving to charity and discuss morality and ethics with me as a young man. I remember that very well. My dad died when I was 21, so I’m stretching now to have those recollections.
But the other who gave me similar sorts of values was my PhD supervisor, Steve Redman. He used to do the hardest experiments and he just kept at them until he got all the data and it was meticulously analysed and if he only published one paper for the year, so be it. He was never into slicing and dicing and getting three papers where one would suffice. Just the highest level of research, integrity that you could imagine.
AL Alan Finkel, outgoing Chief Scientist and just outgoing scientist, thank you very much for taking the time to share your wisdom on The Good Life podcast today.
AF Andrew, absolute pleasure, thank you very much.
AL Thanks for listening to this week’s episode of The Good Life: Andrew Leigh in Conversation. If you enjoyed this discussion, I reckon you’ll love past interviews with Dr Kyle, Graham Walker and Michelle Simmons.
On the theme of living well, Nick Terrell and I have a new book out titled Reconnected: A Community Builder’s Handbook. We appreciate getting feedback on the podcast, so please leave us a rating or tell a friend about the show. Next week we’ll be back with another inspiring guest to discuss living a happier, healthier and more ethical life.