CSIRO CEO Doug Hilton's speech to CEDA's 2024 State of the Nation

Thank you so much, Melinda that was fantastic.

And thank you for the privilege of representing the 6500 CSIRO staff at this wonderful event.

I want to begin by acknowledging and celebrating the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, the traditional owners of the 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 an ability to adapt, create and innovate in an environment that can be extraordinarily harsh and unpredictable.

And I think when we talk about impact and innovation, it's our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander colleagues and people who set the standard for what we should be trying to achieve.

Melinda, I also want to acknowledge you and your staff and thank CEDA for the important role you've 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 of the organisations, enterprises, companies and agencies that are represented in the Great Hall today.

So how should 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 some of the smartest people putting their minds to solving this problem, despite many creative initiatives, when we look at multifactor productivity since the mid ’90s, or measures of business dynamism and turnover, or economic complexity where we've slipped from a global ranking of 50 in the ’90s to 93 today, over the last 30 years there's been a remorseless decline

Despite that, like the Prime Minister, I'm optimistic.

I'm optimistic that in my nine months at CSIRO, I've been struck by the creativity and passion of our scientists and especially our young scientists and their entrepreneurship.

But also, the people we collaborate with, people like Sam, who will speak after me.

I've also been struck that we have an Industry and Science Minister in Minister Husic and a shadow minister in Shadow Minister Fletcher, who understand the problem and we have a secretary in the department that get that problem too.

We're preparing for a strategic examination of the research funding system that's been announced by Minister Husic, which will look at how our current investment is being used and the gaps that need to be filled and through the great work of Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Cathy Foley, we have a new set of draft National Science priorities.

There are also examples where we're breaking down barriers and building coalitions, and one of those is that the two major funding bodies for health and medical research, the NHMRC and the MRFF, are working more closely together and are considering an overarching health and medical research strategy for the nation.

And I think that will give direction and purpose to one of the five draft National Science strategies and the trick, I think will be to do that for all five of them.

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

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

And I'm only going to touch on the how today.

As researchers, whether in universities or government agencies, we sometimes don't understand the problems that industry is trying to solve.

So there's a disconnect and we end up shopping solutions around like answers looking for questions.

On the flip side, industry often struggles to frame their problems in a way that researchers can tackle them and answer them, and we end up in the land of glacial or incremental innovation, rather than doing groundbreaking 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, institutions against institutions in a hunger games of funding, recognition and rankings.

So part of what's missing is mindset, framework and incentives for collaboration.

I think in research and innovation, there's a growing recognition that there are alternatives to the system which can be characterised in some ways, either as every child gets a small prize, or where we want to back a single winner.

I think there's 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 – interesting company.

Bart Cummings, who died nine years ago, is widely recognised as Australia's most successful racehorse trainer, famous for his 12 Melbourne Cup winners.

What he's not famous for is his 77 Melbourne Cup losers.

Cummings success came from the fact that every one of his horses that entered into 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, 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 for the benefit of the community.

The teams we assemble to tackle these problems need to be well prepared, multidisciplinary and funded to succeed, both in terms of scale and time.

In my experience, this doesn't mean funding a single person in a university department or even a small group around a star academic.

It means bringing together 50, 100, 200 researchers for 5, 10 or 15 years or more.

Whether we're talking about a new medicine, the energy transition, critical minerals, or protecting our biodiversity.

It means considering the entire pathway from discovery through the prototyping and testing, and then delivering benefits at scale.

It means communicating with the public, building a social licence to operate and maintaining trust in the process of science.

If we tackle 89 problems and we win big on twelve of those, we can also expect all manner of lesser but meaningful impacts from the other 77.

It's not all or nothing.

So what do these horses look like in the research and development world? 50 years ago, Australia's cotton farmers had a real problem to stay competitive in the marketplace that was rapidly turning to synthetics.

They needed to increase crop yields, introduce new varieties that produce fibres better suited to a new generation of spinning and weaving technology.

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

Fast forward to today, Australia now has the highest cotton yields in the world.

We export $2.5 billion of cotton each year and our collaboration continues because 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 pathways to impact.

There's also another way, and that is researchers identifying an opportunity to change the world.

That's what the founders of BioNTech, a company that was established in Europe, 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 the last 25 years.

Although it seems very new, it's been beautiful, fundamental science, but they've also done 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 has, social media has, cancer immunotherapy has.

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

I'm confident that if we can work together across research industry, government, 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 an NGO, is come and talk to us at CSIRO.

Or if we knock on your door, please open it.

As well as being Australia's National Science agency, we want to become Australia's national collaborator on innovation.