WAMSI interviews E/Prof Alan Robson AO CitWA

We chat with Emeritus Professor Alan Robson AO CitWA about Nobel Prizes, the big picture, and the importance of collaborative science – including marine science – for Western Australia’s future.

WAMSI: First of all, congratulations on being the Premier’s 2014 inductee to the Western Australian Science Hall of Fame – how does it feel?

Prof Robson: Well firstly I was very pleased that people remember that I was a scientist! I worked at UWA as an agricultural scientist for twenty years, and during that time I supervised a very large number of PhD and Masters students. We did some pretty interesting research that led to some significant practical outcomes for agriculture in WA. Then of course I left the lab and went and did other things – like being on the CSIRO Board, the state science council,  helping establish the West Australian Institute for Medical Research, which has now become the Harry Perkins Institute, as well as continuing to be heavily involved in strengthening research institutes within UWA. So it was quite an honour to be recognised in that way.

WAMSI: In all those achievements, what are you most proud of?

Prof Robson: I guess in retrospect I was very pleased to recruit Prof Barry Marshall for UWA – he then went on to win the Nobel Prize, which has to be one of the best moments so far for Western Australian science, almost like a coming-of-age. I also felt pretty proud when the Perkins Institute’s new building was opened, and now seeing that established and functioning so well. It was also pleasing to be in a position to help drive UWA’s entry into the ranks of the world’s top 100 research universities over the past few decades.

WAMSI: So much of what you’ve achieved has been aimed at strengthening WA’s science capability. Why do you think that’s important?

Prof Robson: Well, our future as a smart country is always going to involve using our brains. From my viewpoint here in WA we currently have two major industries – resources extraction and agriculture – and the reason both of these are competitive is that we’ve put quite a lot of effort into research and development. Western Australia’s always been clever, and we’ve always got to be developing the next innovative, clever things. The only way we can deliver clever things is by having research capability at home, as well as good links to the national and international community. We’ve got to be doing research that is as good as or better than anything else in the world so that we maintain a competitive edge here.

In terms of marine science, we’ve got an enormous coastline, enormous reserves of offshore oil and gas, important fisheries, and virtually all of us live near the coast so we’re all concerned about what goes on in the sea. I think it’s just essential that Western Australia has a strong marine science capability. Also, the Indian Ocean is very important globally and here in WA we have arguably the best-existing Indian Ocean-based capability for marine science.

WAMSI: That’s interesting given that our Governing Board of Joint Venture partners has actually put forward that big-picture view, that marine research done here should not only benefit WA but also be deployed elsewhere.

Prof Robson: Marine science work done in Western Australia is directly relevant to other Indian Ocean countries. You’ve always got to be thinking in terms of export of services – if we have figured out how to do something well in our own environment, it could be of commercial benefit to Western Australia to help apply that knowledge elsewhere. I think it would be a good aspirational/academic goal for the WAMSI JV partners to jointly strive towards making a marine science hub across the Indian Ocean. At the very least, imagine what the local and tangible benefits of actually trying to achieve something like that would be.

WAMSI: Wow, do you think that’s realistic, and what would some of the challenges be?

Prof Robson: I think it is an absolutely realistic goal. One of the biggest challenges – and not just in marine science – is that individuals and organisations often see the advancement of their organisation as being more important than contributing to a collaborative research solution. We need more people and organisations to look beyond their own advancement and think about the greater good.

WAMSI: On that note, as one of the original architects of WAMSI (along with a range of other people), can you explain why you favoured the joint venture approach?

Prof Robson: At that time marine research activity in Western Australia was in camps – the Department of Fisheries did one set of things, AIMS did something, CSIRO did something, the universities beavered away, but even within each university marine science wasn’t well organised. There was no way to get a coherent overall picture of what was going on.

So as a first try to just coordinate everything that was happening we had SRFME [2001-2006], which was really just a state government-granted body. The hope was that the skills from a range of people in a range of organisations could be pooled to solve common problems, with everyone getting appropriate credit. But in my opinion if you look at SRFME and even its descendant, WAMSI, they haven’t been completely effective. There is still scope for more inter-agency collaboration. We can do better.

WAMSI: We are certainly trying. One last question – there’s a lot of news at the moment in Australia about future investment in science being in doubt. What do you say to young people who might be discouraged from a scientific career?

Prof Robson: Science is a great career. Whether it’s marine science or agricultural science or whichever science you choose, you get to travel the world, do stimulating things, meet good people, solve real-world problems. Right at the moment we are in difficult times – governments and industry are cutting back on investment in science – but I believe the long-term future is bright. Everything we do depends on science and we’ve always got to keep looking at smarter ways of doing things.

WAMSI: Thanks very much for your time, Prof Robson.