Science meets Parliament and the economists meet science: physics in April

There has been a lot of focus on science in the political sphere this month. As you will know, we heard the very good news that Australia’s national scientific research infrastructure fund (NCRIS) is now ‘safe’, at least for the next 12 months.

We had three AIP representatives at Parliament this week at the annual Science Meets Parliament, bringing researchers together with parliamentarians, policymakers and the media. Our three reps report on what was discussed later in this bulletin.

During last week, Australia’s Chief Scientist Ian Chubb released a study of the economic impact of the physical and mathematical sciences, coming to $145 billion per year from the physical sciences and maths. We look at the details later in this bulletin.I strongly encourage all AIP members to make this very positive message for physics—and more broadly the hard sciences—known as widely as possible.

This month I am very pleased to announce the name of our new early-career researcher (ECR) award—a new prize that recognises research excellence amongst physicists in the early stages of their career. It will be called the Ruby Payne-Scott ECR Award, after one of Australia’s most outstanding physicists. See more below.

Nominations are still open for four other AIP awards, and for the Eureka Prizes, the Australian Academy of Science’s honorific awards and Tall Poppies.

The AIP Council has approved a new constitution by-lay defining the Membership Committee, now included in the constitution available on the AIP website.

And there’s plenty more in this bulletin, with events from our state branches and highlights of physics research and discoveries from around Australia and the world.


Warrick Couch
President, Australian Institute of Physics



Ruby Payne-Scott Early Career Award

The AIP’s newest award recognises research excellence amongst physicists in the early stages of their career.

The Ruby Payne-Scott Award is named after one of Australia’s most outstanding physicists, best known for her pioneering contributions to radio astronomy in Australia in the early part of her own research career (1941–51).

The medal will be awarded biennially in Congress years and will be based on the research conducted in the first 12 years of the recipient’s career following the award of a first degree (and allowing for any career breaks). The inaugural call for nominations will be made in early 2016.

The AIP recognises excellent physics research and services to physics by awarding a number of annual prizes. We’re very pleased to be able to announce this new award.

Science meets Parliament

The annual Science Meets Parliament event aims to improve understanding between scientists and policy makers. Hosted by Science and Technology Australia, it’s an opportunity for scientists to learn about the policy-making process. AIP representatives Joanna Turner, Peter Metaxas and Laurentiu Stamatescu report below.

On day one, scientists learned about media and policy-making from journalists, policy advisors and academics, including physics Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt. At a gala dinner that night, Science Minister Ian McFarlane and leader of the opposition Bill Shorten spoke about the importance of science and its role in the community. Other parliamentarians mixed with the scientists, occasionally being summoned away when ringing bells and blinking lights signalled a vote in progress—an eye-opener for the scientists.

Day two started with Chief Scientist Ian Chubb releasing the report on the contribution of physical and mathematical science to the Australian economy (see earlier in this bulletin). This was followed by Prof Chubb’s inspiring National Press Club address, and a hard-hitting Q&A session with panellists including previous Science Minister Kim Carr and ARC CEO Aidan Byrne.

In parallel with this non-stop program, each representative had a formal meeting with a politician: an opportunity to discuss our own work and research, in which all politicians showed genuine interest, and also to highlight issues of wider interest to the AIP such as the discontinuation of the Future Fellowships scheme, and the newly reformed Women in Physics AIP group. The meetings showed our elected representatives are genuinely interested in hearing what we do and how we could help them in the policy-making process.

However, our hosts’ busy meeting schedules and our viewing of question time also highlighted the fact that scientists are only one of many groups hoping for a larger slice of the Federal budget.

Joanna Turner (USQ), Peter Metaxas (UWA) and Laurence Stamatescu (Minelab, SA)

More AIP awards and prizes

The AIP is also asking for nominations for:

  • Walter Boas Medal for contributions to physics research by a member of the AIP.
  • Bragg Gold Medal for the most outstanding physics PhD thesis at an Australian university.
  • Outstanding Service to Physics for exceptional contribution to furthering physics as a discipline.

Nominations close on 1 July 2015. More information in last month’s bulletin.

The NSW community outreach award recognises an individual in that state who’s made notable contributions to physics education or community engagement and has demonstrated passion for the study of physics. Nominations close 9 October 2015. For more details see the NSW AIP website.


Hard science bringing in the big bucks

A report released this week by Chief Scientist Ian Chubb (pictured) conservatively estimated the direct economic value to Australia of the ‘hard’ sciences, plus maths, as $145 billionper year—representing 11% of the economy.

The report considered only physics, chemistry, earth science and maths. The economic benefit to Australia from the life sciences, including biomedical science, will be studied in a future report.

Although the hard sciences and maths employ only 7% of the workforce (a creditable three-quarters of a million people), the productivity of those workers is estimated as 75% higher than the rest of the economy. And exports associated with that science are worth $74 billion a year (24% of Australian exports).

The economic benefit grows to almost $300 billion when flow-on effects are considered—representing 22% of the Australian economy.

For example, Australia’s telecommunications, boosted by physics and maths, contribute indirectly to the economy by increasing business productivity via improved efficiency and lower costs—the indirect value of mobile broadband alone is estimated at $15 bn. The report encourages us to consider an economy without advanced telecoms—with business communications limited to telephone-pole phones and the postal service.

Other industries receiving significant direct benefit from physics include:

  • mining ($25 billion in direct benefits from science) for example gravity-based mineral exploration, equipment wear detection
  • oil and gas extraction ($16 billion ) for example modelling and design of undersea pipelines, pipeline sensors
  • pathology and diagnostic imaging ($7 billion)

The full text of the report is available on the Chief Scientist’s website.

ANU tops physics publishing list in 2014

The ANU led the list of Australian institutions publishing top-class physics in 2014, according to data from international journal Nature. The Nature Index 2015 placed the ANU first in physical sciences using each of three slightly different measures used to rank institutions: number of articles published, fractional count (percentage of all published authors), and weighted fractional count (which counters a disproportionately high astronomy score).

Over all sciences, the University of Queensland topped the list for Australia, driven by life science publications. Monash University published across life sciences, chemistry and physics to come in second.

More prizes

In addition to our own prizes (above) a cornucopia of other prizes remain open for nomination. It’d be great to see more Australian physics being recognised on the winner’s podium:

  • The Australian Museum’s Eureka Prizes include honours for defence, multidisciplinary research, international collaboration, and school students. Nominations close 1 May
  • The Australian Academy of Science honorific awards for scientific excellence include medals for physics; physical, terrestrial and planetary sciences; women in science; and applied science. Nominations close 30 April
  • Tall Poppies recognises excellence in early-career research and a proven ability to engage the community with science. Nominations for all states and territories close 5 April
  • L’Oréal For Women in Science Fellowships recognise excellent early-career female scientists in Australia and NZ. Applications close 7 April.