Professor Cairns received his PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia) in 1987. He worked at the University of Iowa (1986-1998) before taking up a prestigious 5-year Senior Research Fellowship at the University of Sydney, one of only 20 awarded over all research fields. He is Australia's national representative to both the ICSU Committee on Space Research (COSPAR) and IAGA.
Nationally Professor Cairns is the past Chair of the Australian Academy of Science's National Committee for Space Science. As such he led the development of Australia's first Decadal Plan in space science, published by the Academy of Science in 2010.
Professor Cairns's primary interests are in the theory, simulation, and observation of plasma waves, radio emissions, shocks, and associated space weather produced in the solar atmosphere, inner solar wind, planetary magnetospheres, the distant heliosphere, and the local interstellar medium.
As well as these interests, Professor Cairns is also taking major leadership roles in two University of Sydney spacecraft projects, i-INSPIRE and a subsequent cubesat as part of the European-lead QB50 project.