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13 February 2018 Speech

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Ngunnawal people as the Traditional Owners of the land that we're meeting on today, and pay my respect to their Elders past and present.

Thank you Alan [Chief Scientist Alan Finkel] , for a great scene-setting opening speech. We're very lucky to have such an eloquent advocate for science in our Chief Scientist.

Thank you also to Science and Technology Australia, or STA, for having me today, and for all the great work you do in creating events like Science meets Parliament.

It's wonderful to have such a diversity of people come together around a common passion for the power of science to improve our lives.

Of course, we have a lot of work still to do to really see diversity in STEM, although it's great to see so many of the STA's Superstars of STEM here today.

What a fantastic initiative to address the long-standing imbalance in the faces we see represented when it comes to science.

I've been a Male Champion of Change for STEM for just over a year now, and the more I learn, the more committed I become to trying as many new approaches and talking to as many people as possible to tackle this challenge.

It's not only a big challenge because of the embedded historical and systemic biases we have to dismantle, but because as a culture, we're so quick to make assumptions about people.

It's so easy for us to put people in boxes – scientists over here, politicians over there – and we forget that our greatest strength as a nation is our diversity, so bringing people together from all kinds of backgrounds and professions is where the real magic of innovation happens.

Diversity has always been the compass to guide us through the ambiguity of innovation.

When I first came back to Australia after 26 years in the US, and I was appointed the Chief Executive of CSIRO, I was a bit surprised to find out that meant the media only expected me to comment on science, and not other topics, like business.

It didn't seem to matter that I had run a number of businesses for several decades – being back at CSIRO meant I could just talk about science.

So it's really wonderful to be here today and see you all stepping out of your "just a scientist" boxes.

And of course, great to see so many here today who aren't scientists, but see the value of science outside of a lab or a research institute.

CSIRO science off the lab bench

Taking science out of the lab and into the world is really what CSIRO has been about since it was formed 100 years ago. Let me briefly mention two of the ways we do that:

  • By socialising our research; and
  • By opening up our national facilities to everyone.

So how do we socialise our research?

All of CSIRO's world-class research is not just scientifically innovative, it's socially innovative – because if the solution doesn't touch people, it doesn't work.

Consider CSIRO's large-scale environmental interventions, which stretch back to tackling the invasive prickly pear plant in 1916. We also introduced Myxomatosis to tackle pest rabbits and dung beetles to tackle livestock waste. More recently, our GISERA research includes attitudes to gas exploration and our eReefs system provides digital models of Great Barrier Reef data.

They are all at their heart physical science meets social science, because people can see, feel and understand the improvement to their lives.

Our solutions must make people's lives better, otherwise we have no social licence to operate.

The second way we take science out of the lab is to open up our facilities.

As the national science agency, we not only bring some of the world's finest scientists together to tackle Australia's Grand National Challenges, we also maintain world-class national facilities for everyone to access.

For example, it's not just our space scientists who study the universe through our national network of telescopes, but small and medium Australian businesses who are seizing the opportunities of a rapidly growing Australian space industry.

By partnering with us, they can leverage CSIRO's unique relationships with NASA, and ESA, and use our unique facilities like ASKAP, and our space supercomputer Pawsey.

Another example is our Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, or AAHL.

It's not only at the forefront of preventing infectious disease threats like Hendra and Ebola, but is an active part of the global One Health network. One Health brings together medical professionals from all fields to form an interconnected and multi-faceted approach to human, animal and environmental health.

20 years ago, you were a vet if you healed animals, and a doctor if you healed people. But today, the pandemics wiping out populations don't differentiate. Diseases like Ebola, Zika and Avian flu crystallise a clear need for a One Health approach.

These are critical facilities we manage for the nation, not just in the interests of growing the sum total of human knowledge, but in growing our economy, like through the space sector, and protecting our way of life, starting with our health.

Talking about CSIRO science

So I've talked about how CSIRO science is taken off the lab bench and put into real people's hands, but what I want to focus on today is how we talk about our science.

It's a great time to be talking about science in Australia, and the power it has not only to change people's lives for the better, but to inspire them to think differently.

A couple of weeks ago, Innovation and Science Australia launched their 2030 Strategic Plan, titled 'Prosperity through Innovation'. I'm sure this audience is familiar with the five imperatives for action, and there's no question that the fifth imperative around strengthening Australia's culture of ambition and innovation is going to be the most challenging one.

In order to strengthen this STEM culture, the report calls for National Missions around which we can rally.

Everything we do at CSIRO is targeted towards using science to solve Australia's Grand National Challenges, so 'national missions' are our bread and butter.

I already mentioned our role in delivering large-scale environmental solutions, in growing Australia's space industry, and in protecting Australia's national health.

In some ways, it's easier to talk about your science when you're part of a grand national challenge, because there's an existing narrative you can plug into.

But we also recognise that smaller teams, and indeed individuals, can develop innovations with the power to shift the course of the nation.

That's why CSIRO now runs Australia's national sci-tech accelerator, called ON. It's an intensive program, open to researchers from all Australian publicly-funded research agencies, and it aims to turn a scientist's idea into a prototype, a business plan, and a pitch.

When scientists come out the other side, they tell us they thought a pitch was something you do to win customers and make money. What they learn is if you bring the science and the benefit to the front, your work will sell itself. You just have to create the space to let it.

Now, Kylie gave me a clear brief before I came today, and she said these two days are not about lobbying; they're about building goodwill.

I tend to think if you don't build goodwill, you'll never succeed in lobbying – but we have to walk before we run. So I'm not advocating you go into your meetings with a pitch.

Instead, I want you to remember that as scientists, we're on the safest ground when we talk about what we believe – the power of science to change lives. It's not about our own personal agenda – and for most scientists, it never is anyway – it's about a national agenda.

Not your agenda, and not your science.

Connecting on the question

So I've mentioned how we take CSIRO science off the bench through social innovation and open national facilities, and I've shared a bit about how we talk about our science at CSIRO – that is, we let the science do the talking.

The last point I want to make is about reading your audience. And I want to start by sharing a personal learning of my own.

When I started as Chief Executive three years ago, I told our scientists I wanted them to understand their customers better.

Unfortunately, the word 'customers' can be a bit ambiguous, and some people thought I meant everyone had to commercialise their science and sell their work.

What I actually meant was I want us to be better at understanding who benefits from our work. CSIRO's biggest customer is the Australian people, and we're not trying to sell them anything. We're trying to show them how hard we're working for them.

When we could all agree that the challenge was demonstrating our impact, it didn't matter if I called them customers, Australians, partners or clients. We were all trying to answer the same question.

Building a connection is all about finding the common 'big questions' you want to ask. It's ok not to have the answers, it's enough to share a common interest in the challenge.

Be comfortable not having the answers yet, and don't oversell your work – don't promise what you haven't yet delivered – but don't forget that science invents the future. Wielding science can even help predict the future.

For example, one question that many minds are focused on, in Australia and around the world, is what impact scientific advances like AI and automation are going to have on our jobs.

What will the jobs of the future be? How will we ensure every one of every ability has meaningful work?

CSIRO is at the cutting-edge of applying AI to a lot of our research – from digital agriculture to smart energy grids to safer, more efficient manufacturing – and a lot of these new and emerging industries will create new jobs of the future.

And we also run a number of outreach programs in schools to support STEM skills in our future leaders, so they can have opportunities in these industries of the future.

Australia's universities are among the best in the world – no wonder they're our third largest export industry. CSIRO works with every Australian university to continue strengthening the pipeline of STEM talent graduating from our universities to realise their talents in the Australian economy.

That's how we'll build an innovation ecosystem like Silicon Valley's, or like Israel's, by fostering these strong connections between academia, research and industry.

When you have a wellspring of ideas and talent, you can build everything else you need around it to get innovation – but without that wellspring, you have nothing.

So investing in research into AI ensures Australia stays at the forefront of job creation in new industries, predicting and preparing for them before they emerge.

But not everyone will be a scientist, and not everyone will be a digital native. So how do we talk about AI in a way that asks the big national questions, but doesn't over promise?

I may be a scientist and a business man and a chief executive, but JFK remains a better wordsmith.

JFK – inventing our future

In 1962, when JFK committed Americans to reaching the moon, he said this:

"For space science, like nuclear science and all technology, has no conscience of its own.

"Whether it will become a force for good or ill depends on man, and only if the United States occupies a position of pre-eminence can we help decide whether this new ocean will be a sea of peace or a new terrifying theatre of war."

JFK was saying we cannot choose our own future if we do not have a hand in inventing it.

If we wait for others to pursue these questions, we will be left with their answers.

Each of you is here because you're passionate about your own science, but as a collective, we all have the same responsibility that comes with the power to innovate.

A responsibility to take our science off the lab bench and make people's lives better; to share our science in a way that resonates; and thus to shape our own future.

You have a unique and powerful opportunity to tell some incredibly compelling stories over the next two days, I hope you will use that responsibility to help us shape a great future for Australia.

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