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27 June 2024 Speech


I want to begin by acknowledging and celebrating the Ngunawal people, the traditional owners of this place we now call Canberra. 

You don’t get to be the oldest – and I would argue the richest – continuous culture in the world without the ability to adapt and create and innovate in an environment that can be extraordinarily harsh and unpredictable. 

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

I also want to acknowledge Melinda Cilento and her team and thank CEDA for the important role you played over the last 60 years, and continue to play, catalysing many of the crucial conversations that have shaped our nation. I would argue that now, more than ever, we need pillars of civil society, like CEDA, like CSIRO and like all the organisations, companies and agencies that are represented here today. 

So how do we build a more innovative economy?  How do we set up Australia to be an “innovation nation”?  That question rolls off the tongue very easily but has proven to be a wicked problem. 

Despite many fora like this, despite some of the smartest people putting their minds to solving this problem, despite many creative initiatives  when we look at multi-factor productivity since the mid 90s, measures of business dynamism and turnover, or economic complexity, where we have slipped from a global ranking of 50 in the 1990’s to #93 today – over the last 30 years there has been a remorseless decline.  

Like the Prime Minister, I am optimistic that despite that seeming intractability of the problem we can make headway.

First, we have an Industry and Science Minister (and also a Shadow Science Minister) who understand the problem, and a Secretary and Department that get the problem.

We are preparing for a strategic examination of our research funding system, announced by Minister Husic, which will look at how our current investment is being used and gaps that need to be filled.

Second, through the great work of Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, we have a new set of draft national science priorities. 

We are also breaking down barriers, and building coalitions. For example, the two major funding bodies for health and medical research, the NHMRC and MRFF, are working more closely together and are considering an overarching health and medical research strategy for the nation. I think this will give direction and purpose to one of the five draft national science and research priorities and the trick will be to do this for all of them. 

So I have optimism, but the question remains: Why, as a nation, have we struggled to innovate, to take discoveries or inventions and turn them into real-world impact?

I think we have problems with the what, the how and the how much.

Today, to start the discussion, I only want to touch on the how.

As researchers in universities and government, we sometimes don’t understand the problems that industry is trying to solve and we end up shopping our solutions around, like answers looking for questions.

On the flipside, industry often struggles to frame their problems so that researchers can answer them, and we end up in the land of glacial and incremental innovation rather than doing ground-breaking R&D.

We also have a system that generally supports research at small scale, for short and interrupted periods and which pits researcher against researcher, groups against groups and institutions against institutions in a 'Hunger Games' of funding, recognition and rankings. Part of what’s missing is the mindset, framework and incentives for collaboration.

I think in research and innovation, there is growing recognition that there are alternatives to the system, in which every child gets a small prize or where we want to back a single winner.

I think there is a more sensible and strategic middle ground.  

I had the privilege, some years ago, of sitting at a lunch in Canberra, sandwiched between Bart Cummings and Anh Do. They were interesting company. Bart Cummings, who died nine years ago and is widely regarded as Australia’s most successful racehorse trainer, is famous for his 12 Melbourne Cup winners. He is not famous for his 77 Melbourne Cup losers. 

Cummings’ success came from the fact that every one of his horses that entered the Melbourne Cup had a track record of success, was well trained in a state-of-the-art facility using modern techniques, had a good diet, great veterinary care, an excellent jockey and a plan. Every horse was prepared to win.

We need to think about our national research and innovation portfolio in the same way – we don’t want to be laying bets – we want to be training horses.  We need to be clear headed about the problems we want to tackle as a nation. The teams we assemble to tackle these problems need to be well prepared, multi-disciplinary and funded to succeed – both in terms of scale and time. 

In my experience, this does not mean funding a single person in a university department or even a small group around a star academic. It means bringing together 50, 100 or 200 researchers for 5, 10 or 15 or more years. Whether we are talking about a new medicine, the energy transition or protecting our biodiversity, it means considering the entire pathway from discovery, through to prototyping or testing, to delivering benefit at scale to the community. It means communicating with the public, building a social license to operate and maintaining trust in the process of science.

If we tackle 89 problems, and we win big on 12 of those, we can expect all manner of lesser but meaningful impacts from the other 77. It is not all or nothing. 

So, what do these horses look like in the R&D world?

Fifty years ago, Australian cotton farmers had a real problem.

To stay competitive in a marketplace rapidly turning to synthetics, they needed to increase crop yields and introduce new varieties that produced fibres better suited to a new generation of spinning and weaving machine technology.

Part of their response was to reach out to CSIRO. The solution they co-designed included establishing cotton research facilities in Narrabri, Geelong and here in Canberra to improving the sustainability, productivity, fibre quality and distinctiveness of the Australian cotton crop.

Fast forward to today and Australia now has the highest cotton yields in the world, and we export $2.5 billion of cotton each year. And our collaboration continues – driving productivity through innovation does not have a use-by date.

We need to get better at forming coalitions with industry to identify and co-own the key problems, and then fund and deliver both the research, the development and the pathway to impact. 

There’s also another pathway. And that is researchers identifying an opportunity to change the world – that’s what the founders of BioNTech did as a private company developing mRNA vaccines.

That’s what our universities, generations of researchers and increasingly, companies, have been doing with quantum for 25 years. Those teams are doing beautiful fundamental science but they’re also doing it in a way that will lead to the creation of a quantum computing industry here in Australia.

We know that mRNA vaccines have and Quantum computing will change the world – in the same way that AI, social media and cancer immunotherapy has changed the world. 

We need an Australian research and innovation system that allows both to make these breakthroughs and build companies that are going to be at the heart of a new industry, employing Australians in high-skilled and high paying jobs, driving productivity and ultimately allowing us to flourish as a community.

I am confident that if we can work together across research, industry, government and NGOs and if we can bring the community along – we can succeed.

My invitation to you, whether you work in the private sector, at one of our fabulous universities, in government or at NGO, is come and talk to us at CSIRO or if we knock on your door, please give us some time – as well as being Australia’s national science agency, we want to become Australia’s national research collaborator.



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