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19 October 2023 Speech


Thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today. 

I’d like to start by acknowledging the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples, the traditional custodians of these lands. 

I want to recognise their continuous connection to country and pay my respects to their elders, cultural heritage and spiritual beliefs. 

Thank you also the InnovationAus team for the very valuable contribution you make to the exchange of ideas around key issues for our country, and for our future.  

CSIRO is proud to be a contributor to this year’s Capability Papers, recognising the vital importance of a live national debate about investing in our future including by building our scientific capabilities across the economy.  

Capability in action

It’s always timely to talk about the capabilities Australia needs for the future. 

And we must constantly be investing in our people to ensure we are a sustainable and prosperous nation.

We want to be globally competitive, economically; and internationally collaborative, scientifically.

But just a handful of weeks from the official start of summer, it’s timely to be talking about our capability because today, we need to invest in our capability not to keep pace with our peers, but with our planet.  

Flying here yesterday it was hard not to notice how quickly the country is drying out. 

We’ve just come through Australia’s driest September on record and already the green is rapidly turning brown. 

CSIRO is in the process of designing new proposed premises in western Sydney near the new airport, a site that recorded temperatures over 35 degrees twice last month, in the first month of spring. 

Unfortunately, all the indicators point to the prospect of another bad fire season. 

But fire services this season will have a new tool in their arsenal. 

The NSW Rural Fire Service will this season use a new fire modelling system that uses AI and data from CSIRO’s Canberra fire lab to map and predict the spread of bushfires and automatically detect the lives and properties that may stand in a fire’s destructive path. 

What makes the Athena system particularly powerful is that it can predict what a bushfire might do, drawing together live weather data from the Bureau of Meteorology, the slope of terrain, the type of vegetation fuelling the fire, and the ignition point. 

With these predictions at hand, firefighters can optimise where resources go and where they’ll be most needed in real time. 

Athena’s fire prediction capabilities are partly underpinned by CSIRO’s fire behaviour model, Spark, which uses data gleaned from decades of controlled incineration experiments conducted by the Bushfire Behaviour and Risks team over at CSIRO’s Black Mountain facility. 

Together with field work, the lab helps create the foundational knowledge necessary to improve our operational models that organisations like the RFS can use.

Once only useful for mocking up theoretical fires or planning hazard reduction burns, data from Spark is now ready to help map live bushfires.  

I tell that story because we wouldn’t have this powerful new tool to fight the powerful age-old enemy if we – both CSIRO and other agencies - hadn’t invested in continual growth in building capability.  

Year after year. 

Fire season after fire season.

Not for a moment have these teams stood still. 

For 70 years we have been working collaboratively in bushfire-research, understanding the fire behaviours, modelling the impacts, improving the infrastructure. 

Athena and Spark have transitioned from research tools to risk assessment tools, to now being operational tools on the front line. 

That is impact for community benefit – and why CSIRO was formed more than a century ago. 

Role of CSIRO

When CSIRO was first created in 1916, Prime Minister Billy Hughes called for a national science agency that would ‘make the desert bloom like a rose’, among other bold and visionary ambitions.  

One of CSIRO’s first collaborative missions – a precursor to the program of missions we run today – was to work with state governments to eradicate the scourge of the invasive cactus prickly pear, which was laying waste to our agricultural lands.  

There’s no denying science has come a long way in the century since that pest was uprooted , but it’s important to know that when it comes to scientific capability – much like the prickly pear – from little things, big things grow.  

The core scientific and collaborative capabilities that rid us of prickly pear still underpin CSIRO’s continuous investment in agricultural research, and today have delivered results like the world’s highest yield crops of cotton, all grown in Australia and all grown from CSIRO varieties. 

This focus on investing in tomorrow’s research capabilities was part of our DNA in 1916 and remains to this day. 

Capability investment today

As CSIRO's Deputy Chief Scientist, one of the most exciting projects I get to work on is helping decide the capability we invest in today to help Australia secure breakthroughs tomorrow. 

At the moment, CSIRO is refreshing our Future Science and Technology Plan, looking ahead to 2040 to the science that will be transformative in solving Australia’s greatest challenges.  

The plan seeks to articulate key areas of scientific advancement relevant for CSIRO’s future, and the environment and culture where these scientific advancements will occur.  

We’ve identified 12 key areas, which are all strongly aligned with the draft National Science and Research Priorities informed by a review led by CSIRO’s former Chief Scientist  now Australia’s Chief Scientist – Dr Cathy Foley, and released for consultation last month by Minister Husic.  

I won’t list them all today as they’re still in draft form, but a couple of them are illustrative for different reasons.  

AI and Computation 

The first one is AI and Computation

AI is not new, but its power and capabilities are evolving rapidly.  

Already it is quietly devouring mountains of data, increasing the power of our cities, protecting us from cyber-attack, shaping medical research, boosting manufacturing productivity and many other things. 

Yet for all the amazing things AI can already do, this is only the beginning. 

AI will be embedded in the way that we live in 2040.

Used at scale, by everyone, not just experts.

Traditional engineered systems - like manufacturing and classical computing - will interact with AI, ML, computation.

Combining algorithms, big data and AI will transform techniques for engineering biology and more. 

But for all of that, the only thing that is certain about AI is that nobody is certain about what it will be capable of in the future. 

But what we do know is that AI in 2040 will not be the same as the AI that underpins the Athena technology I mentioned earlier or that I developed in 2006.

The other example I want to briefly mention is an area where CSIRO believes we have to go back in time to move forward.  

Indigenous science 

You can probably tell from my accent that I wasn’t born in Australia.  

But as a scientist, I couldn’t imagine a greater privilege than to be able to work with Australia’s first scientists – arguably the world’s first scientists – and learn from more than 65,000 years of culture and knowledge.  

CSIRO is investing in Indigenous science as a future capability in recognition of the vast amount we can learn about our country and our world from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples.

This includes scientific research endeavours that involve Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, communities and organisations on matters that are important to them. 

This includes the Indigenous Graduate program which is aimed at attracting Indigenous graduates into STEM careers to build up the workforce of the future and increase our capacity for Indigenous-led science. 

It is an approach that is shifting CSIRO away from a “science push” approach to a model incorporating Indigenous leadership and control, underpinned by co-design and long-term partnerships, with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. 

The Indigenous Science and Engagement Program also enables CSIRO to lead our nation’s science through an Indigenous knowledge and science lens to deliver: 

  • Science solutions prioritised by Indigenous Australians. 
  • Pathways that embrace Indigenous leadership in how we deliver our science. 
  • Talent that is inspired and equipped to make a difference for the nation.  

We also recognise that Indigenous perspectives and ways of knowing, being and doing can further enhance capability across the breadth of our organisation, and this is an ambition also reflected in the Government’s Statement of Expectations to CSIRO.  

Our future capabilities

So AI and Indigenous Science are just two of the future capabilities that CSIRO believes we will need to fulfill our purpose as the national science agency which includes areas discussed in the Capability Papers such as quantum and biotech.  

If I can leave you with one impression today, it’s not a hope that you’ve memorised a list of technologies.  

It’s an openness to constant reinvention, and a willingness to collaborate and partner,  so that we welcome new ideas and opportunities as they arise and harnessing them to our own national interests.  


Let me conclude by saying a century ago, CSIRO was formed to solve our greatest national challenges, and that’s still our focus today. 

We invested in capability year on year, to restock our knowledge shelves and year on year we solved challenges with the latest advancements in science, and grew industries and opportunities from those breakthroughs.  

We were part of the coalition that abolished prickly pear and today we sustain a globally-leading cotton industry by continuing to invest in new research.  

Yesterday fires were fought using hand-drawn maps but today today firefighters can unleash the smarts of AI to get ahead of increasingly intense and severe fires because we continued to invest in new capabilities and work with key agencies. 

It’s a bold scientist who claims to know the future, but through our investment in future capability, we can have a red hot go at inventing the kind of future we want.  

I believe we’re more than capable of that.  

Thank you very much. 


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