Team Australia: CSIRO’s multimillion-dollar post-coronavirus plan

Salinity in the Western Australian wheatbelt at Quairading, WA.


Image: CSIRO

Australia has a new program of missions aimed at solving some of the country’s challenges so it can emerge from COVID-19 in a resilient way

The plan, known as Team Australia, will be comprised of large scale, major scientific, and collaborative research initiatives. It will be led by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

Speaking at the National Press Club on Wednesday, CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall said the nation has the opportunity to rally research, industry, and community around a new mission enabled by science, one he said that is a “mission of recovery and resilience”.

“This generation is living through a perfect storm of bushfires, pandemic, and recession,” Marshall said. “Never in our lifetime has a country — or the world — turned to scientists in the way they are now.

“Science has the unique and wonderful ability to unite people around a mission to achieve things that were once thought impossible.”

He said science helps to see into the future and prepare for future threats

CSIRO will commit at least AU$100 million annually to the co-creation of missions under the plan. Marshall asked for partners to join the “Team Australia approach to solve our seemingly unsolvable challenges”.

“Each mission represents a major scientific research program aimed at making significant breakthroughs, not unlike solving Prickly Pear, curing the rabbit plague, inventing the first flu treatment, or creating fast Wi-Fi,” he said.

“But let me stress, these are not just CSIRO’s missions.

“Their size and scale require us to collaborate widely across the innovation system, to boldly take on challenges that are far bigger than any single institution.”

Marshall said CSIRO is working with government, universities, industry, and the community to “co-create and deliver these missions”. Although the load is to be shared, Marshall said they will have a collective focus of science, technology, and investment.

“The missions under development for Australia imagine a future where we use science to amplify Australia’s global advantages and strengths,” he said.

One of the outcomes CSIRO is hoping to achieve with its new program includes increasing Australia’s resilience and preparedness against pandemics.

According to Marshall, the reason CSIRO was able to “hit the ground running” on COVID-19 was because the organisation’s research and modelling foresaw the threat of a pandemic four years ago.

“And we prepared for it,” he said.

“We shifted to a ‘One Health’ model that recognises the complex interactions between humans, animals, and our environment, and put it into action at our Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, the only high bio-containment facility in the southern hemisphere.”

CSIRO will also invest in data modelling and artificial intelligence (AI) to reinvent the way it conducts genetics research.

Following the devastating Black Summer bushfire season Australia experienced at the start of this year, the program wants to also mitigate the impact of disasters such as drought, bushfires, and floods.

“We also foresaw the threat of a warmer, dryer climate and invested in adapting our bushfire planning to incorporate climate change projections,” Marshall told the National Press Club.

“This, together with our expertise in modelling and 70-plus years of expertise in bushfire research, meant we were on the front foot to monitor, analyse, and advise when the catastrophic bushfires hit.

“And Australia is in a stronger position to build back better as a result.”

See also: Nearmap documenting the recovery post-bushfires and floods across Australia

The program will use technology to navigate Australia’s transition to net zero emissions, safeguard the health of waterways by monitoring the quality of water resources from space, and double the number of small and medium-sized businesses benefitting from Australian science to become a “collaboration nation”.

It will also see the creation of a hydrogen industry to generate a new clean energy export industry; the acceleration of the transition to agile manufacturing for higher revenue and sovereign supply; the creation of a national climate capability to navigate climate change uncertainty; new industries being stood up that transform raw mineral commodities into unique higher-value products like critical energy metals; efforts be made toward ending plastic waste by reinventing the way plastic is made, processed, and recycled; and further help provided for farmers.

The plan additionally will see a focus on helping overcome the growing resistance to antibiotics.

On the development of a vaccine for COVID-19, Marshall said CSIRO is “working around the clock” to make that a reality.

“Efforts to find a vaccine for COVID-19 and ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the disease have sparked unprecedented levels of collaboration between research, industry, government, and communities all working in their own way to achieve a common goal,” he said.

He was asked for a timeframe when a coronavirus vaccine could be made available, given finding one for the mumps took four years.

“A lot of things have changed since mumps, particularly things like artificial intelligence which can simulate many cycles of laboratory experiments to leapfrog you to a faster result,” he said.

On a specific timeframe, however, Marshall said he wasn’t allowed to answer that question.

Marshall said that when CSIRO was stood up, its purpose was to solve Australia’s greatest challenges through innovative science and technology. He said in 2020, its purpose has never been clearer or more important.

“As we look to the future and our road to recovery, there are some big challenges we must take on that are larger than any one group or organisation. We can only tackle them together, as Team Australia,” he said.

“If we can harness this level of collaboration and goodwill and focus it on a mission of recovery and resilience, we can accelerate our recovery, create new jobs, and grow our economy.”

“This is our moment. This is our time. This is our future,” Marshall said. “It’s time to leap.”

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