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24 April 2024 Speech


I want to start by acknowledging the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the traditional owners of the lands on which we’re dining on today. 

I would like to acknowledge and celebrate those traditional owners, in what is now called Melbourne, the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. 

You do not build the longest, and I would argue the richest, continuous culture in the world without working together to ask profound questions of the universe about you… 

Without seeking answers through observing the natural world, the relationships between animals, plants, place and time… 

Without innovating and inventing and adapting and creating in an environment that can be extraordinarily harsh, and is, at all times, unpredictable and constantly changing… 

You don’t build that culture without refining and communicating those answers in ways that transcend generations and without acting on those answers to benefit future generations… 

When we talk about impact, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have set the standard for what we should be trying to achieve.   

I also want to honour and celebrate Australia’s philanthropic and service community. 

I am genuinely in awe of the work you do and the contribution you make. 

And I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for your commitment in seeing a need and responding with extraordinary energy and effectiveness. 

Thank you in particular to the Rotary Club of Melbourne for the honour and privilege of speaking today and for being able to offer my thoughts on Trust in Science as this year’s Thomas Baker Orator. 

Reflection on Thomas Baker’s legacy 

Thomas Baker was a remarkable man and of course his name lives on through the Baker Institute, and elsewhere, including at events like this.  

I’m truly humbled to be part of an event celebrating his contribution to our community and this city as a place of learning and science. 

Speaking at an event in his honour draws together a number of threads for me personally. 

Many of you would know before CSIRO I spent nearly 40 years at WEHI – the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute – another of Melbourne’s wonderful medical research facilities named in honour of another remarkable philanthropic family. 

The Hall and Baker families had a lot in common. Walter Hall and Thomas Baker were both born in the UK and emigrated to Australia in the middle of the 19th Century – Hall in 1856, Baker in 1865.  

Both emigrated for opportunity and seized it. Hall taking on a Cobb and Co coach franchise and investing in the Mt Morgan gold mine; Baker becoming a scientist, entrepreneur and businessmen and ultimately merging his photographic company with Eastman Kodak. 

Both men married incredibly strong and talented women - Eliza and Alice - and neither had children. Both gave back generously to their communities, not just establishing medical research institutes but also contributing to many grass roots endeavors. 

Both WEHI and the Baker Institute were founded by extraordinary generosity – their flourishing over the ensuing 109 years and 98 years, respectively, has required ongoing support from the Melbourne and wider Australian community.  

We can some times get nostalgic about the glorious distant past; however perhaps the greatest privilege of my time at WEHI was to meet with and be inspired by the supporters I met – supporters who were every bit as visionary, caring and generous as the Hall and Baker families.

That should give all of us cause for great hope. I know many of you are generous donors to the institutions you care about – thank you. Thank you for caring, thank you for giving and thank you for supporting important pillars in civil society. 

Today I want to talk about two things that I believe would have been in Thomas Baker’s mind from the moment he formulated a toothpaste called Coraline – and they are Trust and Hope. 

Before I do that though I’m conscious that while almost everybody here would have heard of CSIRO, not everybody would necessarily have a good sense of what we do. 

So, I wanted to take a few moments to explain. 


CSIRO is Australia’s national science agency – it’s full of smart, committed, creative people working hard to deliver benefits for the nation.

I have seen so many parallels between CSIRO and WEHI: almost to a person, staff are proud to be working for those organisations.

Almost to a person, staff are deeply, reflexively and generously collaborative.

Almost to a person, those who know the organisations are excited about their mission – the difference is that while WEHI was known to about 10% of the community – CSIRO is known to almost everyone – it has an organisational recognition that is enviable – in the Australian setting. In a word, it is beloved.

Until I took over as Chief Executive, I didn’t realise quite how beloved.

For those of you who know me – this attire is not my comfort zone – I am happiest in a t-shirt and hoodie, jeans or shorts, boots or runners and a cap.

Fortunately for me, CSIRO does merchandise brilliantly. 

Many work days, and on the weekend, I wear my CSIRO branded clothes and it generates conversations. I want to relay one of those conversations, because it captures why being CE of CSIRO is almost a sacred duty. 

I live about an hour outside Melbourne, so a few months ago, when I had a 9.00 am radio interview in Southbank, I left home nice and early and got in around 7.00 am to prepare.

I found myself a café that was just opening. 

The proprietor who was a chap in his 30s saw my CSIRO cap and beamed. 

He said that in another life he would’ve worked for CSIRO. 

He’d trained as an engineer in Iran, his qualifications were not immediately recognised here so, being entrepreneurial, he opened a café. 

He loved his café and his staff and wouldn’t change it for the world, but then he said something that will stick with me forever. 

He said he had a 4-year-old daughter and he wanted her to work for CSIRO when she grew up. 

A few weeks into my role as CE, this left me profoundly moved – it sheeted home to me the responsibility of leading Australia’s national science agency. 

So, what does this beloved Australian institution do?  

My view is simple:  

CSIRO exists to deliver scientific and industrial research in the national interest and to benefit the Australian community.

The scientific and industrial is important – although we are free to work on any problem, we have a positive legislative requirement to work with industry. 

When I talk about “research” it’s shorthand for the entire pipeline – from breakthrough discoveries and Eureka moments, through development of those discoveries, prototyping, testing and refining them into something that has a positive impact.

When I think about the benefits the Australian community want, they are many and varied:

Research that improves understanding of our environment and protection of our fragile biodiversity;

Research that addresses acute global challenges like pandemics and trans-generational global challenges like climate change;

Research that improves health;

Research that connects with industry and helps builds a more resilient and diverse economy, driving productivity and sustainability in our small, medium and large companies;

And often under-valued, but no less important, research that inspires wonder and delivers hope and goodness knows, in a world riven by conflict and environmental catastrophes, we need wonder and hope more than ever, and I’ll come back to that a little later. 

CSIRO has the people, the capabilities and the intention to help deliver all of these impacts for the nation, but we cannot do it alone - we also need to be a generous collaborator with the other players in Australia’s research and innovation system. 

To succeed – to deliver benefit to the Australian community - CSIRO and science more generally - also needs an absolutely crucial ingredient - the trust of the community and its elected representatives. 

Where science needs to be – in the arena 

But to be trusted, science cannot be demure – CSIRO and science has to be out in the public arena. 

We need to be fearless. 

We need to be contributing facts and models and data to the important debates and conversations Australia is having on the key issues that will shape our future. 

As scientists we must be able to communicate in a way that allows people to accept the science and debate the policy, rather than rejecting the science out-of-hand to justify a particular policy position.  

Recent criticism of science has distracted from an important truth, and one that I have seen overwhelmingly: the Australian public has confidence in science, and recognises the intrinsic value of scientists. 

In fact, nine in 10 Australians think science and scientists are crucial to solving Australia’s biggest future challenges.  

Importantly, four in five Australians also say they want to hear more from scientists about their work. 

This enormous trust in Australian science is built on the long track record science has of advancing national interests and creating benefits for our country. 

Corrosive conspiracies 

But not for a moment can we take any of this for granted.  

As we have seen in the aftermath of the terrible incidents in Sydney in the last couple of weeks, we live in an era shaped by misinformation and conspiracy theories.

We live in a time where calculated efforts are made to erode public confidence in the critical pillars of civil society including scientific organisations, independent electoral commissions, the courts and the public service.  

We live in an age where undermining public confidence in crucial pillars of civil society is the business model of some media and social media companies and, at least overseas, the reflexive position of some prominent and powerful politicians. 

This is a time where the nuanced exchange of ideas is too-often overshadowed by polarised narratives, a time when distrust pervades public discourse and where doubt is seen as weakness and changing your mind is seen as a broken promise. 

As a practicing scientist, this is the antithesis of my world and my life - doubt is the lead singer of the band inside my head.  

Whenever I have an idea or think of an experiment or approach to tackle a problem, whenever I interpret data  - I am thinking: "How might I have this wrong?'.

As a scientist, when all of the evidence points in the same direction, I am thinking: "How could this be misleading me?" and "How could I disprove this with a different experiment?". 

And when it all looks consistent and I am seeking to publish my findings, whether in a paper or a report, I submit the work to the review of peers - who are in reality my toughest critics - and invariably it’s improved by the changes suggested.  

This voice of doubt in my head only begins to quieten, to be become part of the backing chorus, when other scientists have independently validated what I found.  

This is the “R” in CSIRO – this is real research – so when I am talking with someone, whether an MP, or one of my family members, or a random member of the community – who disagree with scientists and they say: "but I have done my research", as if spending time googling online or reading the articles that come up in a social media feed is somehow equivalent to careful years or decades of reading and experimenting, and formulating and testing and re-testing hypothesis and doubting – I call bullshit – and I hope you will join me in doing so too whenever you see that happen. 

We can have faith in science not because scientists are smarter or have gone to Group of Eight or Ivy-League universities or are less subject to human frailties, but because of the processes that underpin science.   

In an era like this, it is critical we do everything possible to protect trust in science.

If we are to navigate the profound challenges that confront us, the community must have faith in scientific evidence, high-quality information and advice. 

We have seen this quite strikingly in the US, where there has been a continued decline in public trust in scientists in recent years, and the share of Americans who say science has had a mostly positive effect on society has fallen precipitously and continues to fall.  

A recent example of this dynamic in play is in Florida, which has been tackling a measles outbreak. 

Disturbingly, the state’s surgeon general – a vaccine sceptic – has ignored and indeed decried patently uncontroversial and sensible public health practices that could mitigate the problem. This has cost lives.  

The subsequent exchanges about the issue on social media – including many troubling and often patently false anti-science conspiracy theories – are utterly corrosive. 

Those voices supporting the evidenced-based, medically-prudent course of action are lost in the sadly all to familiar and increasingly mainstream, counter-claim world which throws up theories like the earth is flat, 5G networks cause COVID-19, and billionaires are microchipping humans. 

If that continues, then with it goes many of our reasons for hope and optimism. 

Trusting in the rigour of the process 

Science can be extremely complex, but the fundamentals are simple. 

The scientific process depends on an open and transparent discussion of data, careful observations, models, methods and conclusions.  

That means scientific debate – internal within the minds of scientists, with close collaborators, and with peers internationally - is central to scientific progress.  

In contrast, distortion, disparagement, and dog-whistle rejection of the scientific process or “the science” or a scientific organisation to justify a particular policy position, rather than discussing the merits of policies themselves, begins the race to the bottom.  

There is a very important difference between debating the merits of a policy direction based on established facts and seeking to undermine those facts to suit a particular position.  

As scientists and as rational actors in our community, we cannot cede the field - we must demand our policy makers debate the policy without denigrating the science and corroding the public’s trust in science generally; and when that happens, it must always be seen as a red line, and called out.  

I see that as a central part of my job.

And I hope that every one of you see that as an important principle in your lives – not necessarily on the front pages of newspapers or on radio or in social media, but in the quiet but crucial conversation of your daily lives.

Please stand up and be counted.

Hope – a personal reflection

I want to finish my remarks today by coming back to the often under-valued but still critically important idea of hope and wonder.

For me, as a 19-year-old, finding and then working with people whose goal was to understand blood cell formation was like falling in love.

I experienced that again a decade or two later, when I wandered into the Australian National Insect Collection and was shepherded into the amazing worlds of entomology, taxonomy and systematics.

Science for me has been an extraordinary journey – one that growing up I never expected to find, an ever-evolving blend of interest, obsession and intense passion.

Science for me is the community in which I have never had to explain or apologise for myself – where I am accepted, where I fit.

It has been an incredible gift, way beyond anything I could have conceived.

Science matters to me but it also matters more broadly because we find ourselves standing together as scientists, as a community and as a nation at a crossroad.

As we look back, we can see behind us hundreds of millions of years of tectonic, climatic and evolutionary change.  

That history that has created our breathtakingly diverse and beautiful environments, shaped our unique biological diversity, and created environments and biological diversity worthy of not just celebration but of documentation, discovery, understanding and protection.  

To have been able to travel in those landscapes looking for plants and collecting insects with family, colleagues and friends, has been an incredible privilege for me personally. 

As we look back, we can see the incredibly rich tapestry of Indigenous knowledge, language, art and science which come together to form the world’s longest continuous culture – a culture that is also surely worthy of the greatest celebration.   

But also as we look back, to our more recent past, we see things that are a source of shame and alarm, and we need to acknowledge that as much as we celebrate the good.  

I am someone who arrived in Australia from Britain a little over 50 years ago, as part of a relentless 250-year stream of immigration, exploitation and dispossession, that in some respects continues to this day. 

That any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person or group is willing to engage with western science - as occurs in CSIRO at the level of the Board, our leadership and throughout the organisation - is to me a miracle which speaks to a profound generosity and grace. 

As we look at our more recent past, we also see that Australia now has more foreign plant species than native ones. 

We see that Australia has lost more mammal species to extinction than any other continent.  

We see climate change is an existential crisis, and that the number of ecological communities listed as threatened has grown by 20% in the past five years, with many places literally turned to ash after catastrophic bushfires.   

We see that right now the Great Barrier Reef is in the grip of another mass coral bleaching event driven by global heating – the fifth in eight years. 

As we look back on the last 250 years of misunderstanding, negligence and exploitation we see that we have transformed this environment from a place of richness and resilience to a place often frayed, frail and fragile.  

If we continue down the path we are on, we will surely be handing the next generation a grossly impoverished world.  

But, as I said, we are at a crossroad – in one direction is despair, but down the other path is hope.  

For a host of reasons, I am genuinely optimistic that we can take the better path. 

If we look at what the community, especially younger Australians, think are the most important, it’s the environment and biodiversity. Australians care!  

That gives me hope. 

We have a renaissance in citizen science, through a host of platforms like iNaturalist and eBird and renewed interest in community science through initiatives like BushBlitz.  

That gives me hope. 

As researchers, we now have tools and facilities, which even 10 years ago, we could have only dreamed and CSIRO, on behalf of the nation, manages many of them. 

They include the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness in Geelong, our research ship, the RV Investigator and, in Canberra, a new state-of-the-art building is taking shape to house the 12 million specimens of the Australian National Insect Collection and the Australian National Wildlife Collection. 

Those biodiversity collections are an irreplaceable resource for science.  

They allow us to travel back through deep time and across place to understand the natural world, some of which is now lost forever. 

That we have this treasure trove, and that we understand its significance, gives me hope. 

We are exploring digitisation and machine learning approaches to help make science more accessible and to make outcomes more impactful across a full spectrum of science and research disciplines. 

That gives me hope. 

When I am working at any of CSIRO’s facilities or visiting research collaborators and partners I am struck by the passion, verve, determination and optimism of the incredible undergraduate, PhD and postgraduate researchers and the accomplishment, continuing enthusiasm and mentorship of our more senior researchers.  

All of that gives me enormous hope. 

From hope to momentum 

So what do we need to do to turn this hope into momentum to take us along a new path? 

I think there are a number of ingredients. 

First, we need a high-level vision that the community and their elected representatives can understand, be inspired by, and ultimately fund.  

Not in a piecemeal, short-term way – but in a trans-generational manner befitting the urgency and gravity of the challenge.  

Every MP and senator, and every parent, indeed almost every person I have met is unified in the desire for their children and grandchildren, the next generation, to have it better than them.  

But what does ‘better’ mean?   

I think we would all agree on health.  

We almost all agree on the economy and the opportunities and safety nets that flow from that.  

We also need to agree on biodiversity and a healthy environment and to make that a national priority.   

That we want our children and grandchildren to experience the same environmental richness that we have, is a compelling imperative and great rallying cry.  

We need a series of tractable, but ambitious goals, that will allow us to deliver on the vision and CSIRO is doing a lot of that thinking right now. 

But no community, no researcher, no research organisation, no matter its size, can work effectively in isolation.  

So, we need to continue to collaborate - including with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people whose insights, knowledge, approaches and creativity are built on 65,000 years of doing science on this continent, with researchers across the ecosystem in other government organisations, in universities and research institutes in Australia and overseas, with colleagues in state and federal government departments and agencies, and with members of the community.    

I am genuinely optimistic that with the energy and passion of our individual scientists and their love of collaboration, with coalitions of institutions coming together and with the trust of the community and help of everyone in this room, science can help us take the better path.  

Thank you again for the invitation to be here today. 



CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Doug Hilton delivers the Thomas Baker Oration at the Rotary Club of Melbourne.

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