Cathy Foley is a solid-state physicist and Australia’s chief scientist. She previously spent more than 35 years at the CSIRO national science agency, where she also served as chief scientist. With research interests in nitride semiconductors and superconducting electronics, she developed a sensor for locating underground deposits of minerals such as nickel sulphide, silver and gold.
What skills do you use every day in your job?
I have been Australia’s chief scientist since 2021, where my role is to advise the government, champion Australian science and support the research system to be as impactful as possible. Although I’m not involved in any research, what I do now is work across research disciplines, including the social sciences. I provide advice based on evidence, whether it’s the water quality of the Great Barrier Reef, quantum applications or RNA vaccine development.
Not surprisingly, I use my knowledge of what quality research looks like to decide whether the evidence at hand is valid. Have the researchers measured what they think they were measuring? Have the correct sample sizes been used to make the claims presented? Did they use the right statistics and present the data in a way that minimizes bias?
Other skills I use every day include collaborating, giving talks, writing and pulling together concepts across a wide range of disciplines to understand the challenges we face. As Australia’s chief scientist, my only lever is influence. Thanks in part to my experience as editor-in-chief of the IOP Publishing journal Superconductor Science and Technology, I also know how publishing works, which has put me in good stead to advise the Australian government on, say, possible approaches to open access.
What do you like best and least about your job?
Working as an adviser to government requires a huge amount of energy and I have lots of balls in the air on multiple projects. Within the space of a few hours, I might have to swap between meetings discussing, say, mineral processing, the energy transition or the circular economy, STEM career pathways and research metrics. I enjoy this aspect of the job but what I like best about this role is that I get to use everything I have ever learnt.
Having worked with people right across Australia and around the world, there’s so much expertise I can call on – people who are willing to drop everything to link me to the evidence I need to advise government. How good is that! Probably the least attractive part is the 4 a.m. starts. Some days I also have to go to Canberra, where it might be –2 °C and I’m freezing cold as I’ve travelled without a coat as I know I’m flying the next day to Townsville or Darwin, where it’ll be boiling hot.
What do you know today, that you wish you knew when you were starting out in your career?
When I started my career, I used to hate practising giving talks. I felt embarrassed and thought a slide deck and knowing my stuff was enough. Over the years, however, I’ve found that practice is critical. Now I aim to run through any talk I give at least six or eight times. Sometimes I even practise out loud, sometimes to a small audience and occasionally with just myself – which can be interesting for the person next to me on a plane.
Ask me anything: Nicole Bell – ‘Collaboration is the norm: we achieve more when we work together’
I also wish I’d known that the things you do outside your job are worthwhile too. For me, this was being involved with the Australian Institute of Physics, giving talks at schools and volunteering. People said I was wasting my time doing these “extra” things, and I felt bad about ignoring their advice. But I’m glad I stuck with what I thought was important. The skills and networks I gained from these extracurricular efforts were critical to building up skills and networks I use in my current role.
Finally, I wish I’d learnt earlier how to peer review research papers with a strong, critical eye. High-quality papers are crucial for us to develop research that can be trusted and built on by others – but I was not critical enough of my own work or that of others. As editor-in-chief of Superconductor Science and Technology, that is my favourite part of working with authors – helping them to consider and demonstrate the rigour and impact of their work as well as possible.