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Australia must face ‘uncomfortable truths’, CSIRO boss says

Australia has fallen behind on innovation but needs to be brave and tackle the “uncomfortable truths” which lie ahead, according to the chief of the nation’s science agency.

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall said Australia was at a “pivotal point”.

“There is a tidal wave of disruption on the way and it’s critical we take steps now to get ahead of it,” he said.

Dr Marhsall said it took a pandemic to get Australia to turn to science for solutions as the country fell behind “while others have raced ahead”.

“We spent 50 years understanding climate change, but we haven’t invested in the large scale transformative change we now so desperately need to limit its impact,” he told the National Press Club on Wednesday.

“This failure to act is an uncomfortable and costly truth.”

Heat related deaths in Australia were tipped to arise 60 per cent by 2050. Perth would be worst hit, ensuring 1400 lives lost each year in that city alone.

Yet the world had missed its chance to limit dangerous climate change within this century, Dr Marshall said.

“We will need to wait until the beginning of the next century to see the benefit of emission reduction that we do today,” he said.

“So we must adapt to a changing climate while we wait for the world to reduce its emissions.

“We need to adapt our healthcare system, our critical infrastructure, our settlement patterns and our disaster preparedness.”

With a skilled workforce, the highest wind and solar capacity per capita of any developed nation and a wealth of critical minerals for low emissions technologies, Australia could become a “superpower in clean energy”.

Yet the nation had failed to invest and seize this opportunity to move beyond its reliance on fossil fuels.

Dr Marshall said while Australia was beginning to address its “innovation problem”, there was a lot more to do.

“Thirty years of uninterrupted economic growth hasn’t motivated us to innovate and find the new waves of prosperity where we can actually lead,” he said.

“We’ve fallen behind while others have raced ahead.

“While investment in research and development around the world has gone up, in Australia, investment has gone down for decades.

“But much worse than that, is that innovation problem.”

He referred to Wi-Fi and low-cost solar design as a testament of Australia’s capability when it came to inventions.

But the nation was still “well behind” when it came to turning ideas into “something real that can actually change the world”.

“We had the dawn of two new global industries in the palm of our hands but as a country, we lacked the market vision and the courage to back ourselves,” he said.

“Instead, that research was commercialized by the United States and China respectively, who now dominate those markets globally.

“We have a history in this country of not backing ourselves. We have a mortal fear of being wrong and getting dumped.

“But the alternative is like sitting on the sand or we wait for the water level to rise up and cover us and eventually we get dumped anyway.

“We need to change course.”

A once-in-a-decade report from CSIRO, released on Wednesday, identified seven “global megatrends” which revealed the challenges and opportunities ahead.

It explored issues including resource scarcity, drug resistant superbugs, disrupted global trade and an increasingly unstable climate threatening our health and way of life.

Dr Marshall said these disruptions bore down on Australia but the country could rely on science for solutions, just as it did during the pandemic.

I have added the nation had to innovate, adapt and “do it on a tremendous scale”.

“Our mega trends have shown us the future and Covid-19 has shown us what we can achieve when we work together,” Dr Marshall said.

“By backing ourselves and by investing in Australian innovation and by building on the trust in science that the pandemic response has grown, we can make the seemingly impossible become possible.

“It’s an enormous task. But then again, so was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We could obliterate our innovation problem and when we did that, we could solve any challenge the world cared to throw at us.”

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