UNSW academics have been awarded five of the 14 prestigious Australian Laureate Fellowships from the Australian Research Council (ARC), announced by the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan. UNSW received the most of any university and leads the state, receiving five of the six Fellowships awarded in New South Wales.

The scheme supports Australia’s highest quality researchers who play a significant, sustained leadership and mentoring role in building the country’s internationally competitive research capacity. The 14 Fellows will share $44.2 million to lead research projects over five years across Australia.

In a press release, Mr Tehan said, “Our government is strategically investing in research in the national interest, with a focus on turning ideas into jobs, productivity gains and economic growth.

“Our government is investing in Australian researchers who are doing world-leading work that is delivering a real benefit to the nation. I congratulate the recipients of an Australian Laureate Fellowship, who have been recognised for their innovative work.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor, Research, Professor Nicholas Fisk congratulated UNSW’s new Laureate Fellows.

“Laureate Fellowships are regarded as the pinnacle of achievement and highly coveted in the research sector,” Professor Fisk said. “No one is more deserving than these leaders in their fields, ranging from a highly advanced digital platform, to nanoparticles, AI, data regulation and world history writing.

“Having five successful candidates is the best result ever for UNSW, and testimony both to the calibre of UNSW’s researchers and a university environment supporting research excellence. I am particularly pleased to see the breadth of fellowships across five faculties, with UNSW securing three of the four Fellowships nationally in non-STEM areas.”

Scientia Professor Dennis Del Favero, Director of the iCinema Centre for Interactive Cinema Research at UNSW Art & Design, will receive $3,571,946 for ‘Burning Landscapes’. The project aims to demonstrate how globally distributed users and artificially intelligent visualisation systems can collaboratively depict unpredictable scenarios, such as the recent wildfire landscapes, in real-time and at 1:1 scale. Anticipated outcomes include a cutting-edge digital platform that provides life-like experiences to understand the spatial dynamics and the increasing uncertainties such wildfire situations pose, for dissemination through creative industry applications to optimise engagement and impact.

Scientia Professor Martina Stenzel, in the School of Chemistry at UNSW Science, will receive $3,372,617 to develop a toolset that allows the design of very small nanoparticles that display enhanced biological activity. The project will provide an in-depth understanding of the relationship between the underpinning polymer structure and nanoparticle properties, which is not only important for nanomedicine, but areas such as catalysis and sensors.  

“The administration of therapeutic drugs is often unsuccessful as the drug is quickly cleared from the body,” said Professor Stenzel. “Nanoparticles have been shown to enhance the efficiency of the drug administration, as evidenced by the increasing number of nanoformulations on the market, although commercially available products currently have a range of shortcomings, some of them related to their size.”

Professor Stenzel will use her Laureate fellowship to strengthen her existing collaboration with researchers from medicine and to establish a larger network in the field of nanomedicine.

Scientia Professor Toby Walsh, in the School of Computer Science and Engineering at UNSW Engineering and CSIRO’s Data61, will receive $3,137,608 to understand how to build AI systems that humans can trust. Increasingly, we are handing decisions over to machines to determine, for instance, who gets welfare, who is shortlisted for a job or how to divide up water rights between farmers. This project will study how to build and verify that an AI system makes decisions which are fair, can be explained and audited, and are respectful of people’s privacy. Outputs will include tools to build trustworthy AI systems as well as policy recommendations to complement the technical tools. The project will provide significant economic and societal benefits to Australia as high-stake decisions in both the public and private sector are automated.

Professor Alison Bashford, in the School of Humanities & Languages at UNSW Arts & Social Sciences, will receive $2,801,473 for a project aiming to capitalise on Australia’s place in the Asia Pacific, to lead a distinctively regional perspective on how population policies emerged, and what their present legacies are. Comparing Australia, Japan, India and China, the project will analyse highly diverse polities, challenging Europe-outward theses on modernisation and development.

“As the planet approaches 8 billion, international debate on population will be ignited again,” Professor Bashford said. “This project promises a much-improved historical model to better assess the enduring population-environment-economy nexus well into the 21st century. It should energise a new form of world history writing, boosting Australia's reputation as a leader in big-idea histories.”

Professor Bashford joined UNSW from the University of Cambridge in 2017 under the UNSW Strategic Hires and Retention Pathways (SHARP) scheme.

Scientia Professor Ross Buckley, inaugural Chair in Disruptive Innovation and Law at UNSW Law, will receive $2,634,900 for a project to make Australia’s legal and regulatory systems fit to deal with the transformative rise of data and its algorithmic analysis. It will identify reforms to laws and regulatory approaches to reap the benefits and limit the major risks of this transformation.

“We are at the beginning of a data revolution which will have a far bigger impact than is generally recognised,” Professor Buckley said. “This project’s findings will inform law reforms and changes in regulatory approaches. By global standards, Australia is well placed to benefit economically from this transformation. Our government’s leadership on open banking and the consumer data right more broadly is highly innovative. As always, though, it is the law and regulation that struggles to keep with the pace of technological change, and this is the focus of this five-year project.”

Belinda Henwood