University science – the key to our energy transition

ACDS Op-ed: Professor Melissa Brown, President ACDS, and Dr Tony Willis, Executive Director ACDS

April 2024

The Prime Minister recently unveiled an ambitious $1 billion investment in the Solar Sunshot program[i] arguing that it will help position Australia toward becoming a global renewable energy leader, promising economic growth, environmental protection, and a shift to sustainable energy.  And opposition leader Dutton recently outlined the Coalition’s pre-election energy policy, which would include large-scale nuclear power plants and small modular reactors[ii]. Achieving both visions demands a skilled workforce and sustained research investment. As highlighted recently by former Chief Scientist, Dr. Alan Finkel[iii], the next generation of university-educated scientists and further research from our universities are key in managing the shift to a decarbonised energy system, the most critical change our economy and community have encountered in a century.

Our universities have an approach that is adaptive, proactive, inclusive, and multidisciplinary in addressing the challenges of achieving net zero emissions.  Indeed, we are in a time and a world where universities – from undergraduate teaching to our most entrepreneurial research leaders – are critical to driving success.

A combination of approaches will be required, from ground-breaking discoveries through to disruptive technologies. Universities also play a critical role in educating the next generation and delivering creative, evidence-based solutions to inform policy reforms.

For decades, Australian researchers have been leading the world in developing solutions to decarbonisation, such as increasingly efficient solar cells, advanced wind power, hydrogen fuel cells and electrolysers, and battery technology which have come out of universities. With further research, these technologies will become more efficient, and cost-effective and play an increasingly important role in a sustainable future. Indeed, our universities are at the forefront of these and other innovations, conducting research that pushes the boundaries in sectors including agriculture, construction, mining, healthcare and others.

University science lays the foundations for research that is adopted and translated by business. With continued support, our research and industry collaborations will grow and are poised to play a pivotal role in addressing the energy transition and net zero emissions challenges. University science is the incubator for technical innovation that provides the evidence base for future policy and transformational change.

Our science faculties drive the knowledge that will advance the transition to a net-zero emission economy, not only through research outcomes and impact but also through developing a capable and innovative workforce for the future. This includes ensuring students have critical competencies in science and mathematics, a global perspective of current and future challenges, and an appreciation of entrepreneurship and the pathways to research impact. Scientists trained in university labs and classrooms will be enabled to design the renewable energy systems of the future, develop new materials that reduce environmental impact, and innovate in ways we have yet to imagine.

Of course, achieving these outcomes starts well before university, as emphasised not only by Dr Finkel but also by his predecessor, Professor Ian Chubb, and the current Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley. Universities also play an important role in supporting secondary schools through outreach and professional development programs. The central role of science in addressing climate change and the energy transition is clear. It’s not just about advancing scientific research; it’s about shaping the minds and skills of the next generation of engineers and scientists who will carry forward the mantle of sustainability.The path to a sustainable future is complex and will involve diverse players working across disciplinary boundaries. But with science at the helm of training our next generation of skilled technologists, innovators, and policy-makers, we have a fighting chance.

The role of university science has never been more vital.

[i]Solar Sunshot for our regions | Prime Minister of Australia (

[ii] The Coalition wants nuclear power. Could it work – or would it be an economic and logistical disaster? | Energy | The Guardian

[iii] The Banana in the Room | Dr Alan Finkel – Universities Australia

Photo by Zbynek Burival on unsplash