News article

2020: A year of challenges

December 16 2020

This year has been like no other.

It began with bushfires and choking smoke, then rolled into floods and damaging hail storms before a deadly new disease spread and eventually encompassed the globe. In this year of disasters the work of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and its Fellows has been more important than ever. ATSE Fellows worked with the highest levels of government to develop plans for every contingency, repurposed their manufacturing businesses to make ventilators, and worked tirelessly to find a vaccine.

ATSE CEO Kylie Walker’s end-of-year message for 2020

ATSE responded as an organisation to the unprecedented challenges facing our society, economy and lives, and collaborated with other experts and decision makers in Australia and around the world to respond to the challenges and work to build resilience for the future.

Here are some of the highlights:

In February, following a harrowing summer of bushfires, ATSE called for an urgent transition to a clean energy economy, considering all safe, low-emissions technologies. We followed this up in June with an emissions targets explainer which asked the question: is Australia meeting its international obligations to cut carbon emissions? Short answer: no.

As Australia was still formulating its response to the growing threat from COVID-19 in March, ATSE co-hosted a Hydrogen Futures workshop in Melbourne with the Korean National Academy of Engineering. We also celebrated the inaugural World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development, initiated by ATSE Fellow Dr Marlene Kanga as President of the World Federation of Engineering Organisations. Things moved quickly and by the middle of the month ATSE was advising on how technology could help get people through the pandemic, producing a helpful fact sheet.

In April, with most of the state borders closed and the number of coronavirus cases rising, ATSE joined forces with Australia’s other learned academies to launch a COVID-19 expert database to allow governments, researchers, businesses and others to easily access the expertise they needed in the crisis. We also drew on our expert Fellows to provide advice to Government on investing in a post-COVID tech boom. ATSE launched the second of our technology readiness assessments:  ‘A new prescription – preparing for a healthcare transformation’ just as COVID really started to bite in Australia. The report was prescient and many of its recommendations – such as the expansion of telehealth – were swiftly and widely implemented.

Come May, and ATSE led the publication of two Rapid Research Information Forum reports, on the impact of COVID-19 on Australia’s workforce and the impact on women in the STEM workforce. These reports mobilised government, industry and research sector action to attempt to head off disastrous losses in Australia’s research capacity, and shone a light on the disproportionate effects the pandemic was having on women.

In June ATSE provided advice on a suite of Government policies from higher education to energy technology. We cautiously welcomed the Job Ready Graduates policy’s goal of increasing STEM graduates, while warning that the funding model may need some work. ATSE also provided a vision for Australia’s clean, affordable and reliable energy future for the Government’s National Technology Roadmap.

July was a time of celebration as ATSE held its Innovation and Excellence Awards, although continuing COVID restrictions meant that the ceremony was held for the first time as an online event. The format was very successful, and was used as the model for the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science, which were affected by the same restrictions. An evaluation of ATSE’s Industry Mentoring Network in STEM the same month showed that the program is fostering a culture shift between industry and academia, with PhD graduates and students participating in the program much more likely to actively pursue an industry career.

In August we looked towards the future, and launched the 2020 API STELR Solar Car Challenge – challenging students to construct and modify a solar car to make it the fastest, most powerful or energy efficient. They learned about building electric circuits and using investigations to build more efficient cars.  STELR also introduced a remote learning module on wind turbines, to ensure the science of renewable energy continued to reach students during the pandemic.

With international travel a rapidly receding memory ATSE was still fostering foreign relations in September, signing a Memorandum of Understanding with the ASEAN Academy of Engineering and Technology and co-hosting a webinar with the Israel-Australia Chamber of Commerce, featuring Israel’s Minister of Science and Technology Izhar Shay. ATSE used its pre-budget submission to urge the Government to leverage its past investments in our educated workforce and continue to develop advanced industry in Australia.

October brought the publication of ATSE’s magazine: IMPACT, filled with stories of innovation, invention and inspiration. The Federal government handed down the delayed budget which promised a tech-led recovery, and ATSE held a budget briefing webinar for its Fellows to examine these measures.

November was a big month for ATSE. ATSE Fellow and Board member Dr Cathy Foley was named as Australia’s next Chief Scientist, taking over from past ATSE President Dr Alan Finkel. ATSE released the third of its technology readiness reports ‘Towards a Waste Free Future’ and also admitted 25 new Fellows in another ‘together apart’ online ceremony.

December has been a time of preparation for the year ahead, planning and developing partnerships to deliver proactive, evidence-based, impactful work in 2021. We look forward to another big year of achievements towards helping Australia to understand and benefit from technology, applied science and engineering.