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Five minutes with our new Chancellor

Issue 19 | Autumn/Winter 2007

Dr Alan Finkel. Photo: Melissa Di Ciero

He has established a world-class supplier of electronic and robotic instruments, invented a device that was successfully commercialised to speed drug research, and co-founded the award-winning science magazine Cosmos. Now Dr Alan Finkel, who received his doctorate in Electrical Engineering at Monash University in 1981, will take the helm as Chancellor of Monash University in 2008. He spoke to Monash Magazine about his plans for the future.

Congratulations, you are the first Monash Graduate to be appointed Chancellor. Are you surprised it took 50 years for this to happen?

Not at all. The first students from Monash University graduated in the mid 1960s, a touch over forty years ago. If one assumes that there is an unwritten law that says that a Chancellor has to be at least 50 years old, the first Monash graduates to reach this threshold would have done so in the 1990s. Thus, effectively, it has only been ten to fifteen years since the prospect of appointing a Monash graduate as Chancellor became practical. Even less if you assume an older threshold in the unwritten law.

How much has the University, and the sector for that matter, changed since you graduated?

When I started at Monash in 1971 university fees had recently been abolished. The only international students were the children of diplomats or business people on international transfer. Monash itself already had well established faculties of law, medicine, engineering, arts and others, but the trees were still small and the campus looked like it was populated with Lego blocks. Importantly, the academic staff were extremely enthusiastic about their work, although their enthusiasm for their job was dwarfed by the enthusiasm of the student representative council for political action during and at the end of the Vietnam era.

Since then the Dawkins reforms created a much larger number of universities, fees have been re-introduced in various ways, international students are a substantial and vibrant fraction of the university, compulsory student union fees have been banned and the sector is faced with continual changes to its financing. There is genuine and increasing diversity in the range of courses and course structures that are offered, opportunities for exchange study abroad are more common and research is vibrant. Are these changes all for the better? Yes and no, but most importantly as a result of some of these changes universities are now able to offer a richer variety of courses and research positions that are appropriate to our times.

What prompted you to 're-join' the Monash family?

I tend to be driven by issues and the chance to make a contribution. I spent most of my working life either living in America or running a US corporation from Melbourne, relying on a combination of frequent travel, telephone conferences and email to make my job possible. During that time, my closest associations with universities were with those that were "local" to my interests: Stanford University, University of California San Francisco and California Institute of Technology, as well as a few Australian universities with whom I had a special relationship. For example, I participated in small ways, such as academic advisory committees, at the John Curtin School of Medical Research, the University of Queensland and Monash University.

Since I retired from my business interests in California approximately two years ago, I have been able to re-engage with the Melbourne community. Professor Leon Piterman, at the time the Deputy Dean of Medicine at Monash University, invited me to join the advisory board of the National Research Centre for the Prevention of Child Abuse. I knew nothing more than a casual reader of the newspapers would know about this field but I agreed nevertheless and it became a means to "re-join" the Monash family and contribute to supporting research into an obviously important problem in our society.

What do you see as the role of Monash University in the higher education sector and some of the governance issues that may be ahead?

Universities such as Monash have a responsibility to train the future sensible citizens of our society. That is, in addition to walking out with a professional or generalist degree, through their participation at university students should learn how to analyse the complex political and scientific issues of the day, they should know how to study and research issues in addition to remembering a broad range of facts, and they should know more than just what it takes to be a professional.

Drs Alan and Elizabeth Finkel

The university trains the future leaders who will help to solve the primary social, economic and environment issues faced by Australia. The ability of the university to provide such relevant training is made possible by the strong linkage between research and teaching.

In addition, the university can contribute to the training its prospective students receive in secondary school. For example, the rate of science participation in secondary schools has been declining steadily despite the fact that technical jobs and scientific issues in our society continue to be extremely important. Monash University can contribute to understanding the reasons for this declining participation and based on its research advise governments, educationalists and professional teaching bodies on the most suitable remedial action.

Financing this important work in the changing milieu of the higher education sector is clearly one of the biggest governance issues today and in the future, but so too is the ongoing effort to ensure the relevance and quality of our courses, to ensure that our researchers address the most pressing issues faced by our society and to ensure that governments and the population at large continue to recognise and support the role of universities in creating the high calibre and number of graduates necessary for Australia to achieve its goals.

Research is a key part of your career. How important is it that innovation, be it in any subject area -- arts law or science, continue to be encouraged at Monash University?

Innovation is the lifeblood of research and its benefits flow directly not only into the community at large but also from the research arm of the university into the education arm. In a recent talk by the president of the Indian National Science Academy, Ramesh Mashelkar, he defined innovation as "doing different things and doing them differently". It does not matter whether your field is teaching, law, science, arts or commerce, whatever you are doing you can be sure that there is a way to do it even better, and that there is a novel way that you can get there. We must all aspire to creating innovative solutions to the challenges in our lives. Great universities like Monash can and must show us by example how true this is. If Monash ever rested on its laurels it would cease to provide the stimulus that every student deserves to receive.

You spent time in the United States, commercialising research, what is your message to the current crop of researchers working on 'the next big thing'?

Dr Alan Finkel, astronaut Buzz Aldrin and Cosmos editor Wilson da Silva.

The first message is that anybody contemplating commercialising the results of their work must recognise that there is an enormous difference between technology and products. Consumers don't buy technology, they purchase products. Many companies in the past have been formed on the basis of a hot new technology but failed because there wasn't enough patient money available to fund them for the many years required to convert their technology into saleable products.

The second important message is that commercialisation success is most likely when the products are the result of the confluence of the passion of the researcher with the relevance of the field. If one is driven to commercialise it is essential to work in a field that is relevant to our social, economic or environmental benefit, and that is also a field in which one has sufficient passion to burn the midnight oil and dream about innovative solutions.

Is it a big step, moving from the creation and growth of a successful international neuroscience company to looking after the governance of Australia's largest university?

Universities and companies are both sophisticated organisations. They depend on their external relationships, an effective management structure and a nurturing Council (Board of Directors) to provide supportive governance and financial acuity. But most importantly, they depend on people. I always employed the most enthusiastic and best- educated people I could find and our company was amply rewarded. Monash University has excellent staff throughout the organisation and I expect that they more than anything else will make my step from corporate governance to university governance agreeable and successful.

You've booked a space flight on Virgin Galactic. Why?

The Virgin Galactic prototype spacecraft

This "why?" question always intrigues me because the most immediate answer that comes to mind is "Why not? Who wouldn't fly into space if they had the chance?" It turns out that for many or perhaps most people this would not be their answer so I will elaborate. I have always been fascinated by science and technology. The things that intrigued me as a child were the human body, electronic circuits and space travel. As a teenager I read everything I could about the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo manned space missions. The crisp photographs published in National Geographic and Scientific American of spacecraft floating against a blue earth and black space burned indelible memories in my mind. The possibility of being an astronaut never struck me as realistic but mine was a prepared mind nevertheless.

In October 2004, when I heard that a private company had won a prize for being the first private corporation to fly a human being into space not just once but twice within 14 days, I immediately trawled the internet looking for a way to participate. I was probably one of the first people to sign up on the Virgin Galactic website. I saw this as such a significant opportunity that I also signed up Wilson da Silva, the editor of the popular-science magazine Cosmos that Wilson and I co-founded with my wife Elizabeth and Wilson's partner Kylie Ahern.

Not only is flying into space a perfectly appropriate and desirable thing for the editor of a science magazine to do, it also captures the spirit of my approach to business. That is, there are two reasons to be in business: fun and profit. One without the other is insufficient. The same applies to education and research, although in those cases the mantra is fun and learning, or fun and outcomes, respectively.