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Address to the CSIRO Gala Dinner

Town Hall Melbourne

20 September 2016



I acknowledge all of the leaders from across industry, government and academia here tonight.

I acknowledge the other speakers and panelists.

And I welcome all of the delegates from the International School on Research Impact Assessment, and am pleased CSIRO is hosting this important forum for the first time.

I am honoured to have been entrusted with ministerial responsibility for science.

I delivered my first major speech as the new Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, on science, when I addressed the National Research and Innovation Alliance last month.

Tonight I’m delighted to be here to speak about CSIRO, our pre-eminent science institution.

This is an organisation of genius.

It’s an organisation with researchers and scientists who have collaborated with Australian universities and with industry to pave the way for inventions such as Wi-Fi, to develop the world’s first Hendra vaccine and to feed millions through agricultural breakthroughs.

And as great as it is, it can be even better.

As CSIRO begins its second century, I want to take this opportunity to set out my vision and make it absolutely clear that my aspiration is for CSIRO to become the world’s premier public research institution.

This is a decade long task, but it builds on the very areas in which CSIRO is a world leader.

1. Past

1.1 CSIRO’s origins

100 years ago our then Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, envisioned a national scientific organisation that could ‘solve problems that seemed insoluble’.

One that could create ‘a thousand new avenues for capital and labour’ and ‘healthier and better lives’ for all Australians.

A century since the establishment of the Advisory Council of Science and Industry—CSIRO’s precursor—science remains vital to capturing greater opportunities for our people.

1.2 Importance of science

Thanks to the skill and ingenuity of researchers in Australia and around the world, we have access to clean water, electricity, medicine to fight diseases and an adequate food supply.

Thanks to the curiosity and commitment of scientists, humanity has captured the beauty and wonder of our galaxy and beyond, from the molecular level to the expanding universe.

Science has been not just a driving force behind our technical progress, it has driven our very social and political structures.

The work of Charles Darwin was not just scientific genius, it was heresy in its day.

But it transformed our society.

And this journey continued down to the subatomic level.

Marie Curie’s research into radioactivity ignited another scientific revolution that has transformed our world.

1.3 CSIRO’s achievements

Back here in Australia, CSIRO has been focused on the biggest challenges facing our nation.

And it has delivered.

The ultrasound scanner, extended wear contact lenses, plastic banknotes and a highly nutritious strain of barley are just a few of CSIRO’s inventions that have improved our lives.

And of course CSIRO researchers invented the fast wireless local area network (WLAN), a technology that paved the way for Wi-Fi which is now used in more than five billion devices worldwide.

The British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects includes historical treasures such as a 5000-year-old clay writing tablet, the Rosetta Stone and the bronze head of Augustus.

It now includes CSIRO’s Wi-Fi technology as the 101st object.

For this and many other reasons, CSIRO is a national treasure and its inventions rightly stand in the pantheon of human history.

2. Present

2.1 CSIRO’s people

CSIRO’s century of achievement has been underpinned by its incredible staff.

We are indebted to O’Sullivan, Percival, Ostry, Daniels and Deane who took pioneering knowledge developed in radioastronomy and used it in the project to develop WLAN technology.

And their legacy is in good hands with the next generation of young CSIRO scientists.

Like Dr Lisa Harvey-Smith, who was awarded a 2016 Eureka Prize for her contribution to the Square Kilometre Array project and talent for explaining astronomy to the general public.

And Dr Lee Hubble, who received the 2015 John Philip Award for the Promotion of Excellence in Young Scientists for his research into next generation nanomaterial-based sensor systems.

And Dr Zhongkui Luo, who received the same award for his research into soil carbon and nutrient cycling, which benefits the environment and enhances agricultural production.

The CSIRO Board, chaired by David Thodey, guides the work of 5,000 staff with a wealth of expertise.

As does their CEO, Dr Larry Marshall, whom I congratulate on having been reappointed by the Board.

2.2 CSIRO’s economic value across many areas

Let me make it absolutely clear - the work that CSIRO does matters profoundly to modern Australia.

It matters because it deepens our knowledge of the world and improves the quality of our lives.

And it matters because it provides economic opportunities for Australians and generates billions of dollars a year in benefits for our economy.

In the area of farming, for example, CSIRO contributes to the global fight against rusts, which are a common fungal disease affecting many of Australia’s cereal and horticultural crops.

CSIRO’s research has provided the wheat industry with markers for more than 20 rust resistant genes to simplify the breeding of rust resistant wheat.

This has prevented crop losses, improved grain quality and increased yields for Australian growers, and is estimated to be worth around $380 million.

CSIRO has also worked with an agricultural research organisation, Birchip Cropping Group, to develop an internet service called Yield Prophet.

This provides grain growers with real-time information about their crops, helping them to make better decisions about inputs such as nitrogen application, crop varieties and irrigation levels.

The project has transformed the maximum yield per hectare of Australian wheat growers, and is estimated to be worth some $26 million.

CSIRO has also made ground-breaking advances in the field of health.

For example, in partnership with South Australian universities, CSIRO has conducted a two‑year research intervention comparing a low‑carbohydrate, higher protein and unsaturated fat diet against current best practice for people with type 2 diabetes.

This found promoting a low-carbohydrate, higher protein and unsaturated fat eating pattern at a national level could save $200 million a year by reducing expenditure on diabetes medication.

And CSIRO is addressing environmental challenges through a five year public-private collaboration focused on the Great Barrier Reef.

The eReefs project is developing a real-time information system to protect marine ecosystems, make tourism more efficient and deliver sustainable aquaculture growth.

In areas as diverse as farming, health and the environment, as well as manufacturing, mining and energy, CSIRO is providing economic value to Australia and positioning us for the future.

3. Future

3.1 Vision

a) World's Premier Public Research Institution

As we celebrate CSIRO’s 100th anniversary, we also need to position it for the future.

As I said at the outset, I want CSIRO to become the world’s premier public research institution.

This is an ambitious goal - but it is achievable over the coming decade.

It’s about pursuing pure public good research as a foundation stone for our knowledge and capabilities.

It’s about emphasising the importance of long-term climate science from our unique place in the southern hemisphere.

But the genius lies in applying these insights to improve the basic conditions and quality of life for all, as well as realising economic outcomes.

I am therefore working with CSIRO and the scientific community to prepare a new and elevated statement of expectations.

I hope this will form the basis of CSIRO’s operations for the next two decades.

I have already written to key stakeholders and members of the scientific community seeking their input into the development of this new Statement.

I want to ensure that Australia gets the maximum benefit possible from CSIRO’s research, and this will only be possible if leaders from across the scientific community have a stake.

b) Pure public research and commercialisation

Let me say clearly: pure public research matters. Climate science research matters.

The new Statement, along with existing legislation, will emphasise the importance of pure public research.  The Statement will form the basis of CSIRO’s future work.

And I invite all of you here to contribute.

Equally, commercialisation of that research is not something we should dismiss.

It’s about delivering the immense benefits of that very same research to people throughout the world.

Commercialisation brings the benefits of science to millions of people. 

Imagine a world where Wi-Fi never left CSIRO’s laboratories.

Taking pure science to commercialisation brings the magnificent research to the public and the people who need it most.

And to help take research to the people, I am pleased to announced that this week 39 teams from Australian universities and CSIRO will receive support to commercialise their science and technology innovations through the National Innovation and Science Agenda.

CSIRO aims to serve as a catalyst for Australian innovation, and CSIRO’s ON Accelerator is the first and only national accelerator focused on complex science and technology research innovation.

It will enhance collaboration between researchers, entrepreneurs, investors, start-ups and established companies, helping to commercialise more of our amazing research.

c) Collaboration and students

CSIRO has a long history of partnering with Australian and international universities.

A key element of the vision I want to encourage is how we can add more life to the work of the organisation through a greater student presence.

Part of the broader collaboration with universities has helped produce things such as a molecule that enables bone marrow stem cells to be collected from blood in an hour.

This can be used for treatment of leukaemia patients and came from the work between CSIRO scientists and Monash University.

Students bring life and energy to any institution.  In the case of CSIRO, they offer both brilliant young researchers and the energy to challenge and engage our more experienced scientists and researchers.

I want to work with CSIRO to consider how best we can engage with the young scientific community to give greater life to the organisation over the next century.

3.2 Mechanisms

To give effect to this vision, we need mechanisms to deliver.

At the highest level, we are delivering $10.1 billion to support R&D in Australia in 2016–17.

This is an increase of 3.55 per cent on the Budget Estimate of $9.7 billion in 2015–16.

CSIRO’s annual budget will increase by over $100 million from the current year to 2019.

And CSIRO’s staffing levels are on track to increase by over 200 by 2019-20.

As part of this expansion, one of my priorities is to encourage private investment in science through venture capital.

The Government has set the ball rolling by establishing a $200 million CSIRO Innovation Fund and a $500 million Biomedical Translation Fund, each based on a 50/50 contribution from the public and private sectors.

These provide a great opportunity for the private sector to co-invest in commercialising our publicly funded research.

And if this is successful, we can do more. And so I am exploring the opportunities for a broader innovation fund.

3.3 Blue Sky Future

Tonight I am also pleased to announce CSIRO’s six new Future Science Platforms, which will position Australia at the cutting edge of our next wave of big science infrastructure.

CSIRO will invest $17 million in the next year in these platforms, and aims to increase its blue sky science investment to $52 million per year by 2019–20.

The six platforms are environomics, synthetic biology, deep earth imaging, digiscape, probing biosystems and active integrated matter.

I would like to be able to say that I identified these topics, but I didn’t. It was you—CSIRO staff and researchers—who can claim the credit for that.

This is your future, and therefore it is our future.

These platforms offer opportunities for researchers to work on frontier science, and will deliver dividends for Australian industry and the broader science community.

For example, digiscape will improve agricultural productivity and provide environmental policymakers with decision tools such as data visualisation and artificial intelligence.

This will be criticial for environmental management in the Great Barrier Reef catchments, helping to minimise loss of sediments and nutrients while maintaining the profitability of farms.

Environomics will use new scientific approaches such as next-generation DNA sequencing and evolutionary biology to unlock genetic knowledge about Australia’s biological systems.

This will enable us to identify evolutionary hotspots, explore biochemical pathways that have industry applications and better understand adaptive traits such as drought tolerance.

It will potentially generate genetic and evolutionary information to manage whole ecosystems.


In conclusion, these great new fields of endeavour are part of the direction for the next 100 years.

The last 100 years have been extraordinary. The next 100 can be even greater.

Ultimately, I envision CSIRO becoming the world’s premier public research organisation.

I want to work with you to make that happen on our watch.