Earlier this week, Prof. Ian Chubb stepped down and welcomed in Australia's new Chief Scientist: Dr Alan Finkel.
Dr Finkel received his PhD. from Monash University in electrical engineering in 1981, and since then did post-doctoral research in neuroscience at Australian National University. He also founded Axon Insturments (a global science technology company), Cosmos Magazine, and in 2013 was was appointed President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.
So yeah, he's quite a busy guy.
The media describe him as a "respected engineer, neuroscientist entrepreneur and philanthropist", and rightly so. What struck me as immediately cool about Alan Finkel is that the guy has a house powered entirely by renewable energy, and he has an electric car. He's also spoken about how we need to be prepared for automation - the shock that will create for employment - and about how we really need more effective science education in schools. These are very important issues which require more discussion and planning for the next generation of Australians.
Dr Finkel is also an advocate for renewable energy, and openly supports and encourages Australia to begin transitioning away from coal. He was quoted at a recent media event:
My vision is for a country, a society, a world where we don't use any coal, oil, or natural gas because we have zero-emissions electricity in huge abundance...but you can't get there overnight.
Actually, I'd like to draw attention to the latter half (or perhaps, 3/4) of that video. Dr Finkel is definitely backing a "coal-free, emissions-free" society - something we should undoubtedly strive for. However, it is quite evident that our Prime Minister, Malcom Turnbull, had to almost interrupt him there to clarify that "coal is a very large part of the global energy mix" and that "coal is a very important part of the agenda". Perhaps Turnbull is referring to the fact that the Carmichael coal mine - Australia's biggest - just go re-approved to go ahead. This is after staunch opposition from various influential environmental groups and scientists including Australian Nobel Prize winner Peter Doherty openly opposed the movement.
Now, I wonder, is Malcom Turnbull backing coal because he truly believes this is in Australia's best interest (despite his new Chief Scientist saying otherwise)? Or is it because influential conservative members of his party being unwilling to let go? It's an interesting conflict regardless. However, I worry that Dr Finkel might see some hindering opposition against his scientific and environmental vision for Australia.
I really hope this whole political game that Canberra has going on right now doesn't intrude with Dr Finkel's science agenda. Especially since he's also an advocate for nuclear power too.
Oh did I mention that Alan Finkel is also pro-nuclear?
It seems that the media really can't help but bring that question up at every interview Dr Finkel is in lately, seeing as he's been a rather outspoken proponent for nuclear power well before the Chief Scientist role came up. Seeing as even the Greens are against nuclear power last I checked, it's remarkably refreshing to see an influential figure backing nuclear energy. As I explained in a previous post, nuclear isn't so complicated or scary anyway. Australia should definitely be considering it as part of our energy "mix".
Naturally, the media is after something to latch on to with Finkel's nuclear advocacy, especially since Fukushima is still fresh in everyone's mind despite being four years ago. In the public's eye, nuclear is scary and dangerous, so you can't blame Finkel for being ever so careful with his responses to such questions. He's also quick to bring up that nuclear is only part of the solution (despite Australia lying on top of some of the richest uranium reserves in the world...). Natural gas is another possibility, which is semi-clean and may provide something of a stepping stone to full scale renewables. As Finkel says himself, "In the world of engineering, we look for best possible outcomes, not perfection."
I for one, begrudgingly agree.
The future of energy production in Australia and the world at large is with a mix of sources; nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and yes, natural gas. Hopefully with our new and snazzy Chief Scientist, Australia can really begin to step in the right direction regarding not only science policy but also renewable energy production.
Also, check out some of the fantastic Cosmos articles written by Alan Finkel here!