CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, in his recent address to the National Press Club, issued the call to Australia to rally around a set of national missions that aim to solve challenges and drive Australia’s economic recovery and future resilience. Here is the text of his presentation.
THERE ARE MOMENTS in time that shape generations – the generation who harnessed electricity; the generation who saw humans walk on the Moon; the generation who sw itched on the internet.
Moments driven by science.
This generation is living through a perfect storm of bushfires, pandemic, and recession.
Never in our lifetime has a country – or the world – turned to scientists in the way they are now.
This is our moment. Our moment in time that will shape our generation.
History will judge us by what we do next, and our children will live with the consequences.
Science has the unique and wonderful ability to unite people around a mission to achieve things that were once thought impossible.
The 1969 Moon Mission galvanised the public, inspired rafts of other inventions we now use in our everyday lives, and achieved something no one thought possible when it was announced.
The rocket may have launched in the United States, but Australia enabled the mission through our Dish in Parkes, which was listed on the Heritage Register this week, and NASA tracking stations across Australia.
The 1988 Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched a global mission to eliminate polio, and by 2016 reduced the number of people paralysed by 99.99 percent.
Again Australia was a leader in this global mission, becoming polio-free 16 years earlier in 2000, the same year Sydney hosted the Olympics.
Today we have that same opportunity to rally research, industry, and community, around a new mission enabled by science – a mission of recovery and resilience.
Do we do things the same way as we did before this moment, or do we forge some bold new ground?
Science helps us see into the future to understand what that ground might be, and to prepare for future threats.
COVID-19 and the devastating bushfires of last season have brought into sharp focus the role of science in national preparedness, and in our ability to weather future crises.
But it’s important to understand that this doesn’t just happen – it involves foresight, planning, and investment in the right areas.
The reason CSIRO was able to hit the ground running on COVID-19 was because our research and modelling foresaw the threat of a pandemic four years ago, and weprepared for it.
We shifted to a ‘One Health’ model that recognises the complex interactions between humans, animals and our environment, and put it into action at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, the only high bio-containment facility in the southern hemisphere.
We invested in data modelling and Artificial Intelligence to reinvent the way we do our genetics research.
And we expanded our global and domestic ties in infectious disease with partners like CEPI, the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, as well as local disease experts at James Cook University, the University of Queensland, The Doherty Institute and many others.
We also foresaw the need for agile manufacturing and invested in developing this capability for Australia.
This gave us an advanced biologics manufacturing facility to scale-up vaccine candidates, like we did with the University of Queensland, as well as the capability to scale-up a pilot facility to overcome the shortage of crucial safety products like face masks.
Last week that pilot facility became Australia’s first accredited face mask testing facility, meaning local manufacturers can test critical medical supplies here rather than sending them overseas for accreditation.
We also foresaw the threat of a warmer, dryer climate and invested in adapting our bushfire planning to incorporate climate change projections.
This, together with our expertise in modelling and 70+ years of expertise in bushfire research, meant we were on the front foot to monitor, analyse and advise when the catastrophic bushfires hit.
And Australia is in a stronger position to build back better as a result.
MOMENTS SHAPED BY PEOPLE
Preparation of our facilities and our research was, and continues to be, critical – but the moments that really mattered were shaped by people.
Like the researchers who have attended every major fire event in Australia since Ash Wednesday in 1983 to better predict fire behaviour and help keep our fire fighters and residents safe.
Like the textile manufacturers who worked with scientists to repurpose their factories to fill the desperate need for personal protection equipment against COVID-19.
Like the environmental scientists who transferred their expertise in water pollution to start testing wastewater to locate virus hotspots.
And in Geelong, a city where streets are quiet today with residents back in lockdown, at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, the CSIRO staff who returned from retirement to lend a hand as we work around the clock on a COVID-19 vaccine.
I want to pause here to thank the CSIRO team who have been working tirelessly on this since January, the bushfires team who have been working tirelessly since September, and all the other 5000 people in CSIRO who back them up.
I also want to thank our partners at Australia’s 39 universities, across countless government departments and in industry who have stepped up to play their role.
And of course, all Australia’s frontline workers over this difficult year – the fire-fighters and SES, the doctors, nurses and all healthcare workers – whose daily burden we try to ease.
We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play in shaping our future.
History has shown us that when we work together to harness the power of science, we can overcome incredible challenges.
100 years ago, we were a nation ravaged by Spanish Flu, cut off from the world by oceans, andsuffering in the aftermath of World War 1, pandemic and recession.
But Australians stepped up to build our fledgling nation, and together we emerged and prospered.
Around the same time, the invasive cactus known as Prickly Pearwas choking an area of Australia’s richest farmland the size of the United Kingdom.
Farmers were abandoning their properties, livestock and wildlife were injured and dying, and our national food bowl was turning into a desert, threatening our very ability to feed ourselves.
A newly formed CSIRO – created to use science to redefine our future – was given its first national mission.
Scientists worked with farmers, government departments and communities on a biological control response, and identified a solution in the brown-grey Cactus Moth, which soon nibbled the problem into oblivion.
As CSIRO grew, its purpose quickly became clear: to solve Australia’s greatest challenges through innovative science and technology.
It’s a purpose we’ve never wavered from, and in 2020 our purpose has never been clearer or more important.
As we look to the future and our road to recovery, there are some big challenges we must take on that are larger than any one group or organisation. We can only tackle them together, as Team Australia.
Efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19 and ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the disease have sparked unprecedented levels of collaboration between research, industry, government and communities all working in their own way to achieve a common goal.
If we can harness this level of collaboration and goodwill and fo cus it on a mission of recovery and resilience, we can accelerate our recovery, create new jobs, and grow our economy.
We are at one of those rare moments in history where the decisions we make now have the power to change the course of our future.
Decisions that could be the difference between the future we want, or some other kind of dystopia.
It reminds me of the Back to the Future movie series, only unlike Marty McFly and Doc, we don’t have a time machine.
We can’t go back and change the past, and we can’t fast forward to see how our decisions will play out.
We are living in a real-life, high stakes scienceexperiment, and we need to use evidence to make our next move.
CSIRO has been working on that evidence for some time.
I mentioned that four years ago we made changes to prepare for a pandemic and for bushfires – that’s because part of CSIRO’s role is to stay ahead of both threats and opportunities for Australia.
We produced a series of industry roadmaps that informed our preparation, and last year these culminated in the landmark Australian National Outlook report – the first time science has been used to plot a path to prosperity for an entire nation.
In addition to forecasting a bright future for Australia if we make the right investments, it also predicted the slowdecline of our great industries if we don’t reinvent them.
Critically, it detailed the six great challenges we face as a nation if we are to secure our wealth and way of life.
- Our environment – how do we make sustainability profitable, so industry and environment become partners, not competitors?
- Our food security and quality –how do we give Australian exports an unfair global advantage?
- Our health and wellbeing – how do we prevent more Australians from joining the 11 million currently suffering chronic disease?
- Our future industries – how do we create new, high-value Australian industries, and reinvent old ones so our children even enjoy better lives than we have?
- Our energy – how do we navigate Australia’s transition to zero emissions, without derailing our economy?
- And our national security – how do we protect Australia from risks like cyber viruses and biological ones, so we can grow in both the digital and real world?
These are big, broad themes – but we don’t need to look any further than this year’s drought, bushfires, pandemic, and now recession, to see they aren’t just abstract ideas.
And so today, we are announcing a new program of missions to support Australia’s future.
They will help us deliver on our six great challenges and accelerate the pace and scale at which we can address each one, focused on outcomes that lead to positive impact, new jobs and economic growth.
Each mission represents a major scientific research program aimed at making significant breakthroughs, not unlike solving Prickly Pear, curing the rabbit plague, inventing the first flu treatment, or creating fast WiFi.
But let me stress, these are not just CSIRO’s missions.
Their size and scale require us to collaborate widely across the innovation system, to boldly take on challenges that are far bigger than any single institution.
We are working with government, universities, industry and the community to co-create and deliver these missions.
Some will be led by CSIRO, and some will be led by others, but all will have the collective focus of our science, technology and investment.
We will commit at least $100 million annually to this program, and we are calling for partners to join us in a Team Australia approach to solve our seemingly unsolvable challenges.
The missions under development for Australia imagine a future where we use science to amplify Australia’s global advantages and strengths.
A future where we save the 170 billion of export dollars we already create from coal, LNG and iron ore by building an Australian hydrogen industry to reduce the emissions but not the profits from a key pillar of our economy.
Where we transform Australian mineral commodities into unique, higher-value products like critical energy metals that deliver higher profit and sovereign supply.
Where we become a collaboration nation by doubling the number of Australian small and medium businesses utilising Australian science by 2025, so the tech jobs grow here, not elsewhere.
A future where we safeguard the health of our waterways and monitor the quality of our water resources from space using AquaWatch, by 2026.
Where we grow our trusted agriculture and food exports to $100 billion in this decade, by recapturing billions of dollars lost as others fraudulently trade on Australia’s reputation for food safety and quality; by protecting billions of dollars in helping our farmers overcome drought; and in generating billions of dollars in new industries, like in sustainable protein.
A future where we enhance the health and wellbeing of every Australian, regardless of where they live in this wide brown land.
Where we overcome antimicrobial resistance to ensure antibiotics keep saving lives despite the rise of drug-resistant superbugs.
Where we have infectious disease resilience built in to everything we do.
A future that makes protecting the environment not just important, but profitable.
Where we end plastic waste entering our environment, by reinventing the way plastic is made, processed and recycled.
Where we leap towards net zero by establishing the first net zero emissions region in Australia.
And of course, all these missions imagine future industries augmented and accelerated by technology.
For example in manufacturing, where humans work with machines to create something better than either could do alone.
A future where artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, controlled by a skilled Australian workforce, enable truly agile manufacturing, where a factory can produce unique high margin products in good times, but rapidly switch to supply critical needs in a crisis.
These missions build a future where our children have rewarding and sustainable jobs, in unique and resilient industries, that secure Australia’s wellbeing and prosperity for generations to come.
Not every part of CSIRO is reflected in these mission areas – but every part of CSIRO is working on Australia’s future resilience.
We remain committed to our existing programs of work, in areas like bushfires, preserving the Great Barrier Reef, in disaster resilience, and of course the many ways we are fighting COVID-19, and catalysing greater translation of research into economic benefit.
The missions are about preparing for things that haven’t happened yet, and getting the right structures, programs and partnerships in place to tackle them before they do.
There are a lot of smart people in Australia. We are reaching out to them each and every day to help us get this right. You’ll hear more from us and them as each mission is ready for launch.
While this program of missions is new, the use of science to reinvent and differentiate our industries is not.
Science has been doing this for years.
We are still a small population, but we are a smart one. We cannot compete on size or scale – our future must be about differentiation.
Science has the power to revitalise our industries, but you might say at times our science itself is just a commodity.
As brilliant as we are, we still ship it off overseas like a raw material: to be commercialised there, not here; to grow the economy there, not here; to grow jobs there, not here.
But we are changing.
We’ve been reinventing ourselves from a food bowl for Asia to a delicatessen for the world – developing uniquely Australian plants that produce omega-3 fish oil, or used as protein alternative to meat.
We’ve been turning mineral sands worth only pennies per pound, into unique titanium ink worth hundreds of dollars per pound, and using that ink to 3D print custom biomedical devices to save lives, which are priceless.
These are some of the existing breakthroughs that lay the foundations for our missions today.
Missions identify areas where a Team Australia approach can help us use our natural strengths to differentiate our industries and give Australia an unfair advantage in a competitive world.
COLLABORATION, PARTNERSHIP AND IMPACT
By working together, by aligning our efforts, and by pushing each other further for a common cause, we can achieve more – and we can achieve it faster.
We stand shoulder to shoulder with every government department, including with the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, who are represented here today and heavily involved in missions related to climate change, drought, agriculture and biosecurity.
We work with researchers and professors from all Australian universities, including Nobel prize winner, and Vice Chancellor of ANU, Professor Brian Schmidt, who couldn’t be here today but is watching.
We work with multinationals like Fortescue and Microsoft, and state governments like NSW, all of whom are heavily involved in our missions.
And we work with all major Australian industries and thousands of businesses, including small and medium businesses right across our country, like V2Foods, a new company formed using CSIRO science, investment from the CSIRO Innovation Fund, and in partnership with Competitive Foods, to be part of Australia’s growing alternative protein industry.
Partnerships like these are the life blood of our missions, and we will not create impact without them.
Impact is the key word here, because we can’t stop until we put a real solution into the hands of real people who will use it to solve a real problem.
Australia has great research capability and potential to lead in future industries, but we have to get better at translating that research.
If we don’t, our science will continue to be a raw commodity, shipped offshore to create wealth and jobs elsewhere.
We can do it, and that’s not just a hope – it’s a fact, because we’ve done it before.
It’s said that Australia was built on the sheep’s back, and it’s true that wool was once our greatest industry.
But it only became so because Australian science reinvented wool itself.
Before that you couldn’t weave wool, wear a wool suit, or even wash it – Australian science changed all that with a weaving machine to turn wool into clothes for the world.
Today Australia produces some of the world’s best cotton, but 50 years ago cotton wouldn’t grow here – Australian science had to reinvent it.
Then synthetics threatened to replace cotton, so we reinvented cotton again, and strengthened an industry that today employs thousands of Australians and supports rural communities.
The last 30 years of economic growth have lulled us into a false sense of security, and over time business investment in R&D has fallen. But there’s nothing like a crisis to snap us back into action.
Ironically, this recession may be the greatest opportunity for innovation-led growth we’ve had in decades.
TRAVELLING TO THE FUTURE
Even when it ends with a giant leap, every mission begins with one small step.
Small, but innovative breakthroughs in space exploration had been made before we decided we'd go to the Moon – but we had to dream big to get there.
Other diseases had been conquered before we tackled polio – but it took a global push to conquer a new, debilitating disease.
Our world-class Australian science has been inching us forward in exciting steps for years – but it will take big, bold visions to leap forward and realise the vision of our missions.
Our Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder, or ASKAP, and the supercomputers that support it, already process vast amounts of data– so it’s not hard to imagine a future where our children’s jobs could be anywhere in the world, but they choose to live in Australia, supported by fast communications systems conceived right here.
We have already demonstrated liquid renewable fuel from hydrogen – so it’s not hard to imagine them driving to the beach on the weekend in zero-emissions cars fuelled by hydrogen made in Australia.
We can already 3D print food – so it’s not hard to imagine our children 3D printing high-value foods from home, based on their personal health profiles, preventing cancer, diabetes, and improving overall wellbeing.
We have already grown lungs in lab and demonstrated telehealth – so it’s not hard to imagine them accessing top-quality healthcare in their homes, and replacing any troubling organs with personalised replicas, grown in Australian labs.
When you add up each of these small steps, together they become a giant leap.
Australian businesses are already turning these visions into reality using Australian science, from giants like Fortescue investing in hydrogen, a thriving spin-out called Coviu transforming telehealth.
It’s a bright vision – but like Marty and Doc in the DeLorean, there is an alternate vision as well, one we might wish we could undo by returning to this moment.
Our Australian National Outlook and industry roadmaps predict the decline of each of our great industries if we don’t reinvent them, and our six great challenges identify areas where we need to invest tosecure our future.
Missions are the way we will do that, but we must act now, with purpose and resolve, to have impact.
COVID-19 will continue to disrupt, but Australia can harness this disruption to build a stronger, more resilient country in the process.
This is important, because there will be more pandemics and more disruption.
As we head into National Science Week in a few days, there has never been a more important time for science, and its power to unite us around big, visionary programs that make the impossible, possible.
We have an opportunity to treat 2020 like a call to action – albeit a dreadful one – to come together as we did 100 years ago, and focus our collective efforts and resources on solving our future challenges to secure our jobs, wealth and way of life.
Others have harnessed electricity, walked on the Moon, switched on the internet.
This is our moment. This is our time. This is our future.
It’s time to leap.