Interview with Kieran Gilbert, Afternoon Agenda, Sky News

Kieran Gilbert
Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex; NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirection Test; Optus Data Breach; National Science Priorities; Productivity Commission Interim Report; National Reconstruction Fund.

KIERAN GILBERT: Joining me live in the studio now is the Science and Industry Minister, Ed Husic. He was out at NASA’s Canberra deep space telecommunications station at Tidbinbilla. Thanks for being with us. There were dozens of Australians involved in this as well.

ED HUSIC: Yeah, 85 out at Tidbinbilla that are working there working with the CSIRO on behalf of NASA – in particular, the software and the engineering nous to make sure we could keep track of what is going on. It’s a big deal and it is terrific to be part of that global effort led by NASA. I just want us to recognise the smarts that are there within the CSIRO making a contribution on something that is truly, it is a literal world-first, trying to divert a celestial body in the way that they did using spacecraft from 11 million kilometres away. Just huge.

KIERAN GILBERT: Yeah, and it could well be a lifesaver down the track who knows? We’re expecting more pictures, because those pictures we saw in that report were incredible, but we’re expecting more pictures to be brought back in the next 24 hours

ED HUSIC: That is right. Well, hopefully in the next 24 hours. Might be slightly longer, but there’s a separate satellite that detached and followed to be able to take pictures of that spacecraft as it impacted. You saw some of the stuff in the cameras today in the NASA livestream as it was going. And it was funny – the confidence with NASA and CSIRO, because, you know, the question is, “Will it miss?” “No, this is going to hit.” And it’s largely because from about four – off the top of my head, I think it was about four km out it just sort of went into autopilot effectively, algorithms guiding – if you can imagine a heat‑seeking missile – the algorithms guiding in that spacecraft, and it is very important work to be able to get our act together, and it’s the first time it’s ever happened.

KIERAN GILBERT: Well, the whole mathematics involved and the timing – an object so far away; it is hard to get your head around.

ED HUSIC: Well, you’re flinging – effectively that satellite is the size of a large fridge travelling at 6.6 kilometres a second at an asteroid that’s about the size of a pyramid, and it’s all being done from 11 million kilometres away. The aim is to try and change the orbit and – to slow it down, change the orbit and we will find out – 

KIERAN GILBERT: How will they know that’s happened?

ED HUSIC: They’re waiting for that data to come back so they’ll basically process that over the next week, and they will be able to indicate. Can I just say, the other thing – I mean, obviously everyone’s expecting that there will be a huge probability of success, but even if it doesn’t happen, this is just the first step. It’s the first time it’s been done. It’s the first step that’s been taken and it’s important to develop work from there on in on stuff like this where when you look at the globe and what’s been impacted by similar asteroids hitting the earth, it can play potentially longer term a very important role in helping protect us.

KIERAN GILBERT: And, as you said, credit to those 86 CSIRO people who were involved in that. You’ve just announced today as well not completely unrelated, but a review of our nation’s science priorities, the national science priorities, to be led by the Chief Scientist, Cathy Foley. What are you hoping to achieve with that?

ED HUSIC: So, our nation’s science priorities haven’t been updated since 2015. A lot has obviously happened since then. Immediately you look at what’s happened with the global pandemic but also the effects of climate change as well. We’re saying we need a modernised framework to help guide the effort here in this nation and to make sure that we’ve got a fit-for-purpose set of priorities. So, the Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, will lead the work.

KIERAN GILBERT: How long will that take?

ED HUSIC: We’re hoping that will happen over the course of the next year. I’m always wanting stuff to be done sooner if it can be done sooner fantastic. The other thing too, Kieran, is we want to engage our science and research community and involve them in that process as well. It’s not going to be something driven from the top down. We’ve got a lot of smart people. This is the big thing we want to do. We see the huge value of science in improving not only the way the economy works but our national wellbeing, and we’ve come in as a new Government, committed to, one, believing in the value of the science and putting it to work for national wellbeing.

KIERAN GILBERT: On another front, it’s been a busy few days, in fact, in the industry and in science, we see the Productivity Commission interim report; they do five-yearly reports on productivity. Bit of a worry though; we’ve got such a small number of companies that are actually world leaders in innovation. How do we get that number up?

ED HUSIC: What’s concerning – what we saw in the Productivity Commission, I think it reflects that we have as a nation taken our eye off the ball and we’ve had a decade where we’ve needed to focus this in a concerted and consistent way, I would say. So, we’ve seen effectively out of that interim report the suggestion that only two per cent of our firms contribute to global knowledge development. We need to do better. The refresh of the science priorities is one part of that work. Being able to also, you know, reinvigorate faith in Australian ideas, putting that to work, is really important. And we’ve got our National Reconstruction Fund to rebuild particularly industry and manufacturing capability in the nation because it’s going to be important longer term. For the success of the country and its wellbeing, it’s going to be really, really important to get this right.

KIERAN GILBERT: And the whole thing about productivity driving wages as well.

ED HUSIC: Absolutely; improving secure work, better wages. But also, I think it – I want to get – 

KIERAN GILBERT: Get people taking more risks in business?

ED HUSIC: I think there are a number of things. There’s an element of that and there’s an element of needing new business dynamism, seeing new firms come in and sort of agitate the environment a bit and push larger firms to get their act together. The other thing is, if I may say, it’s not just about making a buck; it is about making a difference. I think we’ve seen the way science can save lives during the course of the pandemic and improving the way we live and the quality of our national wellbeing; I think that’s something worth pursuing as well. If you look at most of the scales or the measures, economic complexity, we’ve fallen down the international ladder; global innovation index, we’ve fallen down the international ladder. You’ve seen this Productivity Commission report that says we don’t have enough of the heavy lifting being done. So, we need to unite people, get a common sense of purpose on that.

KIERAN GILBERT: On the Optus breach, a huge breach. Shouldn’t telcos be leading the way in terms of cybersecurity? I would have thought they’d be on the frontline.

ED HUSIC: To be frank with you, I think that’s a fair expectation. It’s one we would be expecting out of those big firms like that. It’s a reminder – this is a wake‑up call across business. What we need to do to make sure that people’s data is protected. I think the community has a rightful expectation the data they give is looked after properly and treated responsibly, and you’ll see from us – and Minister O’Neil has flagged – further reforms to give people confidence about the security of their data and it couldn’t come soon enough.

KIERAN GILBERT: Ed Husic, Industry and Science Minister, thanks.

ED HUSIC: Good on you.