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Physicist Cathy Foley AO

Physicist Cathy Foley will be Australia’s ninth chief scientist. (Supplied: CSIRO).

Belinda Smith, Physicist Cathy Foley appointed Australia’s next chief scientist, ABC News, 9 November 2020

Australia’s next chief scientist will be renowned physicist Cathy Foley, who will commence the appointment in January.

Dr Foley is currently chief scientist at CSIRO.

And while stepping into the national role during a pandemic might put most people off, Dr Foley said this is “an absolutely fantastic time” to be appointed.

“We’re seeing government looking to advice from people who are experts to lead Australia out of COVID,” she said.

“Post-COVID-recession, we’re going to have a very different Australia, which has the chance to be more sustainable … with industries based on the fabulous research done here and elsewhere, because Australia must collaborate internationally.”

When Dr Foley takes the reins from current chief scientist Alan Finkel, she will be Australia’s ninth chief scientist — a role that she says has grown since the first chief scientist appointment in 1989.

“As a consequence, what we’re seeing is government recognising that science, technology, engineering and maths are all things that it needs in order to navigate the world around it — something that’s been highlighted and probably accelerated with COVID.”

‘On a training path for this role’

Dr Foley is no stranger to politics. As national secretary of the Council of Australian Postgraduate Associations in the 1980s, she and others successfully lobbied to double the value of postgraduate scholarships and ensure they were untaxed.

She has since served as president of organisations such as Science and Technology Australia and advised the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council.

“CSIRO is really good at taking early-stage work and turning it into scaled-up delivery, then engaging with government and industry.

“I’ve been involved with climate change, stem cells, health and biosecurity, mineral resources, manufacturing, astronomy and energy, so I’ve had a really good exposure to a whole range of science.

Dr Foley’s 36-year research career developing quantum physics and material science technologies brings analytical skills to help policymakers identify and make sense of conflicting information and different views.

“As a scientist, you need to be able to identify how best to take that into account,” she said.

“Where I hope I can bring value is being able to identify where … research is complete or is the best knowledge or information as possible, then what that means to translate into policy.”

Dr Foley helped develop devices that use superconductors to detect magnetic fields and locate valuable mineral deposits. (Supplied: CSIRO).

Diversity and sustainability

Dr Foley will be the second woman chief scientist. She follows astronomer Penny Sackett, who held the role from 2008 to 2011.

Dr Foley has long championed diversity in science and leadership, and encourages girls and women to study traditionally male-dominated realms of science, such as engineering, maths, and physics.

And in the face of a changing climate and more extreme floods and bushfires, she said Australia must recognise and harness the know-how that’s been here all along.

“There’s a huge opportunity for us to really dig into Indigenous scientific knowledge and learn from the tens of thousands of years of understanding of sustainability.

“We’ve been pretty arrogant not recognising what is there for us to learn from.

“I would hope that we get to a point where we will have an Indigenous Australian chief scientist in the future.”

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