CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
It’s a privilege to speak to you as part of this event and to be able to start by expressing my gratitude to you.
First, thank you for inviting me. It was an honour to become a fellow of this academy in 2010 and it’s an honour to be speaking to you tonight.
Second, thank you to the many of you who, over my 40 years as a researcher and research leader, have been such a generous part of my community, of our community – some of you as mentors, some of you as supportive peers, some of you as friends – all of you have enriched my life in ways that I could not have dreamed of as a 19-year-old starting out in the research world.
As a researcher, I have never had ideas alone nor taken an idea single-handedly from conception, through experiment, to paper, nor driven a discovery from the academic domain into the real world of the clinic.
Indeed, I am not sure I have seen anyone, no matter their brilliance and their hard work, do this alone – collaboration is everything.
And the best sorts of collaborations – the ones that are the most enjoyable, the most fulfilling and ultimately the most successful – are those that are long-term, occurring over the years that it takes for the community to see the fruits of research and development.
So, I want to say a special thank you to those of you who have been, and are, my collaborators.
Collaboration matters to me. Collaboration matters to CSIRO.
The ultimate collaborators are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the traditional owners of the lands on which the vast majority of ATSE members and CSIRO employees live and work.
I would like to celebrate those traditional owners and the traditional owners of the land on which we are dining, in what is now called Parkville, 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 – that to me is the ultimate act of collaboration.
As researchers, innovators, engineers, academics and leaders we have a lot still to learn about true collaboration.
The theme of my address tonight could have been collaboration, but I have chosen to focus on what I think is the most important ingredient of collaboration – whether that is collaboration between individual scientists and engineers, between research groups, or institutions or between the academy and the community – and that is trust.
In a world awash with conspiracy theories and “alternative facts”; in a world in which it sometimes seems the nuance of social discourse has been corroded to the point where it is only acceptable to hold one of two polar opposite views; in a world where doubt is seen as weakness and where changing your mind is seen as a broken promise, I want to talk about why trust in science matters.
In a world where community trust in many of our institutions continues to fall, I want to talk about the importance of nourishing a conversation with the community about science – what we do, why we do it and how it’s built on a foundation of integrity, ethics and transparency.
And in a world where the number of scientific papers published each year reaches truly mind-boggling proportions – one recent report estimated 2.8 million academic papers were published in 2022 alone! – I want to focus on the importance of the systems we have to assess the quality and accuracy of that research.
Because the community’s trust in science depends on us getting this right.
The community trusts us to be an active, trusted voice, bringing facts, models and data to debates around key issues – and that depends on us getting this right.
CSIRO – creating national benefit
Before I do that though, I’m conscious this is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to speak at an ATSE event wearing my new hat as CSIRO’s Chief Executive.
So, I wanted to take a moment to share some early reflections.
Four months into the role, I’ve found CSIRO to be exactly what I expected – a national science agency full of smart, committed, creative people working hard to deliver benefits for Australia.
As you would expect from passionate people, nobody is shy about offering their views about what we should be doing and how we should be doing it – and that’s fantastic.
My view is simple:
CSIRO exists to deliver research in the national interest and in doing so benefits for the Australian community.
And 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 builds a more resilient and diverse economy.
Research that drives productivity and sustainability in our small to medium sized companies.
And often under-valued, but no less important, research that inspires wonder and delivers hope. Goodness knows, in a world riven by conflict and environmental catastrophes, we need wonder and hope more than ever.
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.
What Kirsten Rose, a fellow of this academy and the fabulous acting Chief Executive of CSIRO between Larry Marshall’s departure and my arrival at CSIRO, calls 'humbitious' – a portmanteau of humble and ambitious. To succeed what we also need – and what all of you need – is to be trusted by the community.
Where science needs to be – in the arena
To be trusted we cannot sit quietly – CSIRO and science has to be in the public arena.
We need to be fearless, 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.
A good current example of that process in action is the GenCost report which CSIRO produces in collaboration with Australian Energy Market Operator - AEMO.
GenCost – facts without fear or favour
GenCost is Australia’s most comprehensive report detailing what the costs of generating electricity and hydrogen are expected to be in the future – out to 2050.
Like any good research, Gencost draws on extensive data and rigorous modelling, it’s transparent about the how conclusions are reached and it’s subject to feedback and review before publication.
The most recent GenCost findings show renewables continue to give Australia the best bang for its buck. Nuclear remains the most expensive.
For our part though, CSIRO is agnostic about the technology.
Our job isn’t to say what should or shouldn’t be built – that’s a decision for others.
Our job is to use a rigorous, verifiable, transparent scientific process to predict what the costs will be so that any investment or policy decisions on the road to net zero are founded on the best possible science.
Through all of this though, one thing is certain – CSIRO will take some flak for the report from those engaged in the policy debate.
We’ll cop it from some parties for going too far.
From others for not going far enough.
There will be contention.
There will be criticism.
There will be questions in Senate Estimates.
That’s all par for the course and none of it will change the science.
And in many ways, when we cop the contention, criticisms and questions, it is a great sign because it means we are relevant – engaged on the issues that are important to the community.
Why trust matters
This matters profoundly because for our community to navigate the difficult path ahead, science has to be in the arena, answering the questions and explaining and defending both the outputs of science and the process of science.
As a community, we’re making – or will make – big decisions on everything from climate change to the loss of biodiversity, from how we use AI to how we respond to pandemics.
Navigating those challenges, and making the best decisions, depends on public attitudes so it’s important the community understands that science is different from religion or politics or opinion or social media and that it trusts the advice we provide.
And for that to happen, as I said earlier, we have to lift the bonnet on science and show how the engine works, show how we’ve gathered the data we have, how we’ve drawn the conclusions we’ve drawn, and help to shine a light on the right path.
Trust is built on the rigour, integrity and solid ethical frameworks on which good science sits.
So, the question I want to turn to now is: is our house in order?
I want come at this by giving you some background, a very sobering example, look at what’s in place and then what might be improved.
Science progresses when scientists publish their results and proceeds when the results of one study form the foundations upon which the next study is built.
Science has impact when its results can be relied upon by those developing ideas to bring about benefit for the community.
For this to occur, work must be planned and executed ethically and in a manner that minimises bias, whether in traditional academic papers, communication with collaborators, patents or reports to stakeholders – it must presented in a manner that has integrity.
What does that mean?
The results must be representative of the research that was done.
They must not be exaggerated and conflicting data must not be withheld.
Enough detail must be provided to enable its replication by others.
And any potential or actual conflicts of interest must be declared.
So, it is the data that is key to integrity. If the interpretation of the data is wrong, that’s no sin – scientists are free to interpret data in different ways – indeed, that’s part of good scientific debate – but the problems arise when the data is not what it seems.
How often does scientific falsification, fabrication or exaggeration happen?
How often does shoddiness confound the ability of others to reproduce science and push forward?
The answer is we don’t really know, but I would argue that the null hypothesis is that we are no different to other professions – politicians and public servants, doctors and lawyers, accountants and journalists, clerics and car salesman.
The difference is that if we truly believe that science provides the compass by which we will best be able to navigate humanity's greatest challenges, then the consequence of unethical behavior, or a system that does not transparently address unethical behavior, is catastrophic – a loss of public confidence in science at a time when we need it the most.
That is not some theoretical problem – confidence in science matters profoundly, as we saw in countries that distrusted infectious disease research and epidemiology during the pandemic.
People died – more often the most vulnerable in the community – in their millions.
Confidence now also matters to future generations – as a nation, as a global community, if we lose trust in climate and environmental scientists, in meteorologists, in renewable energy innovators, we will leave a catastrophic mess to our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren – a mess from which we may never recover.
So – in Australia – I ask the question, do we have safe-guards in place that promote integrity at the institutional level? And as a sector, do we have a robust system in place that will give the community confidence that we can deal with breaches of integrity in a meaningful way?
Like all Australian research organisations, at CSIRO our approach to integrity is underpinned by the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of research and by federal and state legislation.
We ensure that best practice guidelines for research planning and publication are promoted, that our human and animal research is subjected to rigorous, independent ethical review and we provide integrity training to staff, peer support through our research integrity advisor network and confidential reporting mechanisms for raising concerns.
An additional aspect of CSIRO’s approach to maintaining trust that I really admire is the commitment to robust internal review of papers that won’t be peer reviewed externally.
This is something very different to most organisations and means our research goes through a rigorous risk management process including careful ethics, integrity and intellectual property checks before anything is published or released publicly. I think this is something every research organisation might consider.
The community should be comforted that Australian institutions are committed to maintaining integrity but, in a system with around 200,000 researchers publishing over 120,000 papers per annum, there will inevitably be errors made and ethical boundaries breached – how we deal with these errors will impact public trust in science more than the errors and breaches themselves.
I want to relate to you a sobering reminder of what can go wrong in a beloved national research treasure using an example from overseas – from Sweden – which in some ways couldn’t be further away from Melbourne – but in other ways couldn’t be closer to home.
When it all goes wrong – The Karolinska
Many of you will know this story, so I hope you’ll indulge me a short summary for those who don’t.
The Karolinska is the major Swedish medical university and medical research institution. It is internationally renowned, the institution whose academics select the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, enormously prestigious.
But in 2010 it had a problem – it was slipping down the rankings compared to other elite universities, especially those in the US.
To address that, rather than embarking on a long rebuilding program where talent is developed and nurtured over five or 10 or 15 years, they decided to recruit “star” researchers.
One of the “stars” Karolinska recruited was Paolo Macchiarini.
Macchiarini’s research was focused on stem cells and regenerative medicine. He also had a post at the Karolinska’s Hospital where he performed natural and synthetic trachea transplants.
After every operation and research paper, Macchiarini talked about the success of his procedures in the press and described life-saving operations in scientific publications and presentations. He was a wonderful science communicator, a celebrity.
If he were active in 2024, he would almost certainly be a science star on X and Threads, Instagram and TikTok, the sort of person research organisations love to have on staff.
All, however, was not well.
Patients receiving transplants actually did poorly – of the 20 patients who received experimental artificial tracheas, 17 died.
In June 2014, four years after his appointment, a Belgian researcher reported Macchiarini for scientific misconduct.
The case was investigated internally by the Karolinska’s Ethics Council, which nine months later cleared him of the allegations.
Between June and August 2014, two separate reports of scientific misconduct were filed against Macchiarini by four doctors at Karolinska University Hospital, who charged that he had incorrectly described the postoperative status of the patients.
The four doctors were also researchers at Karolinska and three of them were co-authors on some of the papers.
Four to six months after receiving the second set of complaints, the Karolinska assigned another internal investigator to hear the allegations.
Six months later, in May 2015, the investigator of the complaints submitted his report to the Karolinska, concluding Macchiarini had engaged in scientific misconduct.
Three months later the Karolinska again acquitted Macchiarini of all allegations and extended his contract.
In January 2016, Vanity Fair published an article in which Macchiarini was accused of fabricating his CV and in the same month a three-part expose was broadcast by the Swedish equivalent of Four Corners.
The documentary, which closely tracked Macchiarini and his work, showed how patients had suffered and died in connection with failed operations, and raised numerous issues concerning care and research ethics.
The fierce public response to the series caused a crisis of confidence in the Karolinska and in Swedish science.
In February 2016, an external inquiry was mounted into the entire case – into the veracity of his CV, into why the medical procedures were performed as routine care and not research and hence received little ethical oversight, into the scientific misconduct and the Institutional response to whistleblowers.
The findings were scathing.
Shortly after, the Vice Chancellor resigned.
The previous VC resigned her position as Chancellor of the Swedish University system.
Four members of the Karolinska’s Nobel Committee resigned.
The entire Board of the Karolinska was either sacked or resigned.
The reputation of the Karolinska with the Swedish public was in tatters.
Police began investigating Macchiarini for manslaughter and medical malpractice and he was recently sentenced to two and half years’ jail.
The Karolinska example is at one end of the spectrum, but there are Australian examples that, while not quite as egregious, come shockingly close.
Lessons to learn
What lessons can we learn from this affair?
The first is that we should not risk public trust in science on anything, least of all pursuit of short-term metrics – like impact factors of journals, research income or institutional rankings.
The second, and I think the most important in the Australian context, is that we cannot afford the self-indulgent luxury of allowing our research organisations to investigate their own.
When it comes to politicians, there is an almost universal community – and I include the research community here – acceptance (and indeed insistence) that an independent mechanism for investigating corruption is essential if trust in our democratic system and our system of public administration is to be maintained.
Remarkably – and this still happens regularly, and I am still gob-smacked – I have had it articulated passionately to me that an independent mechanism for investigating research misconduct is not only unnecessary, because we are smart enough and objective enough to investigate our own, but that it will erode trust in science by making misconduct public.
I call bullshit here.
Just substitute politicians for researchers and hear how ludicrous it seems.
Imagine a political party – rather than a university or research institute – stating that its members are better than other people and are objective enough to assess allegations of corruption in-house and that, anyway, if allegations of corruption were investigated independently and transparently, that investigation process – not the corruption itself – would imperil public trust in democratic intuitions!
Independent investigation of allegations of research misconduct must become the norm in Australia just as it is in the UK, US, Canada, Japan and China and in 20 European nations, including recently Sweden.
This could be achieved in many different ways: from being established by groups of institutions, overseen by the learned academies or under the auspice of government.
As the Chief Executive of the government science agency, it would be inappropriate for me to advocate for a particular model, but I will passionately advocate for the principle.
What I ask of you is that you consider adding your voice to the call, that you consider advocating for this issue, that you think about actions like writing to former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, who is working creatively and doggedly to elevate this issue nationally.
It is not just trust in our individual institutions that are at peril, it is trust in science and our ability to help the community navigate the deep challenges ahead for the benefit of future generations.