Australia’s Learned Academies respond to current ARC grant issues

Australia’s Learned Academies have voiced their concerns over highly-recommended Australian Research Council (ARC) applications that were revealed recently as being subject to non-transparent Ministerial veto under former Education Minister Simon Birmingham.

Australian researchers face many hurdles in establishing a stable career in their field, including the award of competitive research funding. Australia’s research funding system and the award of highly competitive grants incorporates rigorous peer review assessment from Australia’s most eminent experts. The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) believes that the transparency and integrity of this process should be upheld.

According to ACOLA President Professor Glenn Withers: “ACOLA values excellence in research and believes that expertise across all disciplines and fields is vital to the attainment of a healthy, sustainable and productive nation”.

Education Minister Dan Tehan has directed the CEO of the ARC, Professor Sue Thomas, to review aspects of the ARC’s existing science and research priorities provisions and some related matters. The Minister has also affirmed a policy of transparency for ministerial intervention in such grants.

There is also the ongoing matter of an impact and engagement research strategy established by this government.

Responses from Australia’s Learned Academies to these and future developments can be accessed via the links below.

Australian Academy of the Humanities

Australian Academy of Science

Australian Academy of Social Sciences in Australia

Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering




Announcement – ACOLA farewells CEO, Dr Angus Henderson

ACOLA farewells CEO, Dr Angus Henderson


ACOLA farewelled Chief Executive Officer, Dr Angus Henderson on 2 November 2018. During his time at ACOLA, Angus played a critical role in the success of the organisation as it transitioned from completing the Securing Australia’s Future program to establishment of the Horizon Scanning Series. He also helped guide through restructure of the organisation’s governance arrangements.

Chair of the ACOLA Board, Professor Glenn Withers AO FASSA, said “the Board sincerely thanks Dr Henderson for his significant contributions and leadership during his time at ACOLA. His drive and commitment to the organisation has been paramount and will be missed. We wish Angus all the very best for the next stage in his career.”

Dr Lauren Palmer has been appointed Interim CEO while the formal process to appoint a CEO is underway.




MEDIA RELEASE – Framework for responsible advancement of synthetic biology in Australia

Synthetic biology could reshape the global industrial landscape, creating opportunities and challenges for Australian firms, according to a new report from the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA).

Synthetic biology in Australia: an outlook to 2030 examines the prospects for a fast-evolving field characterised by bold thinking and interdisciplinary research. Broadly defined, synthetic biology involves the application of engineering principles to biology to produce new and improved products and services, to manufacture substances that are difficult to synthesise by traditional techniques, and to harvest sustainably from nature. Examples include a low-emissions method of making jet fuel or the anti-malarial compound artemisinin.

The report analyses the opportunities across areas critical to Australia, including: health and medicine; industry and energy; agriculture and food, and; environment and biocontrol. The report also explores the human concerns raised by the technology, highlighting the importance of an adaptable and responsive regulatory system to guide responsible advancement.

“Synthetic biology offers immense potential to transform industry and deliver significant benefits for Australia. Its development will require strategic investment and a skilled workforce which can integrate the essential ethical, legal and social aspects of synthetic biology into the research and innovation process from its earliest stages,” said the chair of the ACOLA expert working group, Professor Peter Gray.

The report makes six findings that highlight the opportunities presented by synthetic biology and the steps needed to maximise the economic and societal benefits. These include building on areas of existing capability, improved research translation, proactive public communication, a workforce skilled in both HASS and STEM disciplines, and an integrated national infrastructure platform. Without a broad-reaching national implementation strategy for synthetic biology, and strategic investments in education and infrastructure, Australia will fall behind other leading nations. These, together with an inclusive ethical and social framework, and a strengthened culture of technology development and commercialisation, will provide Australia with significant benefits.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who commissioned the report on behalf of the Commonwealth Science Council, urged policymakers to reflect on the questions it raises.

“The possibilities of synthetic biology are limitless,” Dr Finkel said. “The question for Australians is which avenues to pursue, and how to do so in a manner that earns consumers’ trust.”

This is the third in ACOLA’s Horizon Scanning series. ‘These interdisciplinary reports provide credible and well-considered evidence to guide opportunities and inform policy on issues ranging from the technological change and sustainability to international competitiveness and the economy’ Professor Glenn Withers, ACOLA President, said.

The report, funded by the CSIRO and the Federal Department of Health, is available at

Media Contact:

Penny Underwood on (03) 9818 8540, 0409 925 299 or

Expert Working Group

  • Professor Peter Gray AO FTSE (Chair)
  • Dr Sue Meek AO FTSE (Deputy Chair)
  • Professor Paul Griffiths FAHA
  • Professor Joseph Trapani FAHMS
  • Professor Ian Small FAA
  • Associate Professor Claudia Vickers
  • Professor Catherine Waldby FASSA

ACOLA receives ARC funding to undertake two new Horizon Scanning projects on AI and IoT

The Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) has been awarded two project grants through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Learned Academies Special Projects (LASP) program Supporting Responses to Commonwealth Science Council Priorities.

The projects are looking at how digital technologies benefit Australia and will bring top scholars and practitioners together from across the academic spectrum. The two projects, Deployment of Artificial Intelligence and what it presents for Australia and The Internet of Things: Maximising the benefit of deployment in Australia will examine the social, cultural, legal, ethical, economic and environmental implications of deployment in Australia. They will each provide an evidence base to support government decision making and will help ensure the safe and responsible implementation of these transformative technologies alongside the development of research and industry capabilities to maximise the benefits across our economy.

Delivered over the next twelve months, the two projects will bring together Fellows from Australia’s Learned Academies to consider the full spectrum of issues and opportunity, and present Key Findings to inform complete policy responses to the anticipated scientific and technological change.

ACOLA President, Professor Glenn Withers said that “ACOLA is grateful to Ministers Birmingham and Cash, and the ARC for their support to deliver projects on artificial intelligence and the internet of things. Working in close partnership with the Chief Scientist and government departments, ACOLA is ideally placed to bring together Australia’s best minds, from many disciplines, to provide timely evidence on priority issues for Australia”.

These studies are part of ACOLA’s Horizon Scanning Program that has been requested by Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, on behalf of the Commonwealth Science Council. Following topics of energy storage, precision medicine and synthetic biology, these studies on artificial intelligence and the internet of things have also received generous support from the Commonwealth Government Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science.

Further information about ACOLA’s Horizon Scanning Program can be found at:


MEDIA RELEASE: Road map to better health care system in Australia

A report released today by the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA) says that precision medicine has the potential to transform Australia’s health care system.

Precision medicine combines knowledge of a person’s unique genetic makeup, protein levels, and their environment to allow accurate disease prevention and treatment tailored to individual needs.

To date, the main focus has been in well-supported clinical areas, such as cancer, and ‘rare’ single-gene disorders which are a cause of intellectual and physical disability in children.

However, The future of precision medicine in Australia report says that opportunities to improve health outcomes for complex disorders, such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease are equally exciting.

“With careful planning, advances in precision medicine and the technologies that support it will offer great value for the health of all Australians. Precision medicine is the personalised medicine of the future,” said the chair of the ACOLA expert working group, Professor Bob Williamson.

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who commissioned the report on behalf of the Commonwealth Science Council, said it was a roadmap to a better health system for the nation.

“The essence of this report is optimisation: the optimisation of public policy for individual care. It provides the intellectual framework for a healthcare revolution that will shape the lives and choices of all Australians,” Dr Finkel said.

The report sets out how precision medicine will build on the strong tradition of medical research in fields such as immunology, genetics, vaccine development, bionics and imaging in Australia. It explains where precision medicine is likely to go over the next five to ten years. The report also notes that the technologies that underpin precision medicine are also of great value to other fields such as agriculture and the environmental sciences, where there is a high level of skill and commitment in Australia.

However, the report also warns that precision medicine could lead to genetic discrimination, or continue inequality of access to health care. Ensuring benefits to everyone in Australia will require ethical thought and planned implementation.

The forward-looking report has nine key findings, and is the second in the horizon scanning series. It was funded by the Federal Department of Health.

“By working in close partnership with the Chief Scientist and government departments, and bringing together some of Australia’s best minds, from many disciplines, ACOLA is able to provide evidence on priority issues for Australia to inform policy and guide opportunities,” said ACOLA President, Professor Glenn Withers.

The launch was attended by patient Louis (4), who has benefited from precision medicine, and his parents Amy and Martin. Louis was diagnosed with a severe condition at just five months old, which comes under the umbrella term of ‘Leigh’s Disease’. A comprehensive genomic analysis of his DNA allowed doctors to isolate the gene which had produced Louis’ illness, and develop a treatment regime.

After 10.30am on Wednesday 31 January, the full report can be found at

Media Contact:

Penny Underwood on (03) 9818 8540, 0409 925 299 or

Expert Working Group

Professor Robert Williamson AO FRS FAA FAHMS (Chair)
Professor Warwick Anderson FAHA FASSA FAHMS
Dr Stephen Duckett FASSA FAHMS
Professor Ian Frazer AC FRS FAA FTSE FAHMS
Dr Carrie Hillyard FTSE
Professor Emma Kowal
Professor John Mattick AO FAA FRSN FAHMS
Professor Catriona McLean FAHMS
Professor Kathryn North AM FAHMS
Mr Adrian Turner

Background on Louis and his mother Amy Clarke

Amy and her husband Martin have three children – Noah (aged 10), Nina (9) and Louis (4). Their youngest child, Louis, was diagnosed with a severe condition at just five months old, which comes under the umbrella term of ‘Leigh’s Disease’.

Leigh disease is a rare (1 in 40,000) genetic condition that is caused by a defect in the cellular aerobic energy pathway, leading to developmental delay, low muscle tone, seizures and resulting in a progressive decline in neurological function. Mutations in a number of different genes can cause Leigh disease, but there is no cure and for most forms of the disease there is no specific treatment.

Amy said she and her husband were devastated to learn that their baby boy’s condition would worsen with time. “We were told he was unlikely to survive more than a few years.”

In June 2014, Louis’s family were contacted about the possibility of being involved in a research study that hoped to find the genetic basis of Louis’s condition. A comprehensive genomic analysis of his DNA led to a likely cause of Louis’s condition to be discovered. They isolated the gene which had produced Louis’ terrible illness and it was a gene mutation that responds to treatment!

Although this is a very new area of study, the researchers and doctors are confident that Louis’ condition is no longer terminal. Whilst the damage Louis has sustained to his brain is irreparable, careful and consistent medication should ensure he doesn’t experience any further damage.

“Precision medicine has changed our family’s life and we will be forever grateful,” Amy said.