November 30, 2015

Kat Gaus speaks at a Korean-German Science Innovation Conference

Kat Gaus tells us a little about her experience at the Korean-German Conference and the usefulness of useless knowledge.

1. You recently spoke at the 7th Joint Korean-German Conference 2015 on Science and Innovation – how did this come about?

Through my contacts with Zeiss Microscopy. Germany and the Republic of Korea hold high level meetings each year. This year the meeting was held in Seoul and opened by the German President, Joachim Gauck, and the theme was Science and Innovation. The conference was attended by politicians and several hundred captains of industry. It focused on the role of scientific research in transforming Korean industries into an innovation-based economy, using Germany as a role model. Similar conversations are currently taking place in Australia.

2. What is the German approach to science and innovation and what can Australia learn from it?

There is a German saying – highlighted at the conference by the President of the Humboldt Foundation, Professor Dr Helmut Schwarz – the usefulness of useless knowledge.

Curiosity is arguably the outstanding characteristic of modern thinking – whether or not it results in something useful. Likewise, it is the knowledge generated by researchers today that will be the foundations of industry in a generation. It is safe to say that many companies with a competitive edge today were based on fundamental “useless” research projects.

Schwarz emphasised that no governments, funding agencies or scientists today can predict what knowledge will be useful in 10, 20, 50 years from now. The role of the government must be to fund research with the understanding that return on such investment comes only in the long term when scientists are allowed the freedom to explore what they find intellectually stimulating.

The current Australian vernacular is in stark contrast to this. Our public should know about the fundamental science whose unforeseen breakthroughs have changed our lives. Marconi may have invented the radio in 1901, but it was based on Professor Clerk Maxwell’s fundamental theory of electromagnetism from 1865.

3. Your talk on TCR triggering efficiency seems very specific. How was it received?

Very well, I think. By using light microscopy in a new and innovative manner, we have gained insights into the function of the T cell receptor, which could have implications for immunotherapy – or not. This was the point of the conference: to be prepared to take some risks and push the boundaries of what is scientifically and technically possible, even when we don’t exactly know where that leads us.

And to hear Schwarz refer to scientists like myself as “courageous trailblazers” reinvigorated me. We [scientists] need room to think about abstract things, have the time to satisfy our curiosity and develop ideas we didn’t even think we were interested in – until we are.

4. What was the most out-of-the-box thing you learnt?

Changes are happening faster and faster everywhere, not just in science.

There were 48 years between the discovery of the double helical structure of the DNA molecule by Francis Crick and James Watson and the completion of the human genome project (1953 – 2001). Yet only a mere 12 months for gene editing to become commercially available.

Disruptive technologies are transforming many industries – think 3D printing, mobile internet and advanced robotics.

Industry 4.0 is a high-tech strategy of the German government to promote the automation of manufacturing. It will bring together cyber-physical systems, the Internet of Things and the Internet of Services to deliver “Smart Factories” able to make decentralised decisions. This fourth industrial revolution is already underway.

The best preparation for these dramatic changes is scientific research coupled with research training. It is not just the new knowledge generated during a PhD, for example, but also the thinking a PhD student acquires that makes it possible to see opportunities, and not just threads, in global changes.

This makes the Imaging CoE even more important; our research spans across the sciences and we have a strong focus on training and retaining the very best across these fields.