CSIRO boss says Australia must face ‘unpleasant truth’

Australia has lagged behind in innovation but must be bold and face the “unpleasant truths” that lie ahead, according to the head of the national science agency.

CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall said Australia was at a “turning point”.

“A tidal wave of destruction is on the way, and it is critical that we take steps now to get ahead of it,” he said.

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

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

“This inaction is an inconvenient and costly truth.”

Heat-related deaths in Australia are expected to rise by 60 percent by 2050. Perth will suffer the most: in this city alone, 1,400 people die every year.

However, the world has missed its chance to limit dangerous climate change this century, said Dr. Marshall.

“We will have to wait until the beginning of the next century to see the benefit of the emission reductions we are doing today,” he said.

“Therefore, we must adapt to a changing climate while we wait for the world to cut 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 per capita wind and solar capacity of any developed country, and a wealth of critical minerals for low-emission technologies, Australia has the potential to become a “clean energy superpower”.

However, the country has failed to invest and seize this opportunity to move beyond its dependence on fossil fuels.

Dr Marshall said that while Australia is just beginning to address its “innovation problem”, much more needs to be done.

“Thirty years of continuous economic growth has not spurred us on to innovate and look for new waves of prosperity that we can really lead,” he said.

“We fell behind while others raced ahead.

“While investment in research and development has risen worldwide, investment in Australia has been declining for decades.

“But far worse than that, it’s a problem with innovation.”

He mentioned Wi-Fi and low-cost solar designs as evidence of Australia’s ability when it comes to invention.

But the nation was still “far behind” when it came to turning ideas into “something real that could really change the world.”

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

“Instead, the study was commercialized by the US and China, respectively, which now dominate those markets worldwide.

“We have a history in this country where we didn’t support ourselves. We have a deadly fear of making mistakes and being abandoned.

“But the alternative is the same as sitting on the sand or waiting for the water level to rise and cover us, and in the end we will be thrown anyway.

“We need to change course.”

The CSIRO’s once-a-decade report, released on Wednesday, identified seven “global megatrendsthat highlighted the challenges and opportunities ahead.

It addressed issues such as resource scarcity, drug-resistant superbugs, the disruption of global trade, and an increasingly unstable climate that threatens our health and lifestyle.

Marshall said these disruptions fall on Australia, but the country can rely on science for solutions, as it did during the pandemic.

He added that the nation must innovate, adapt and “do it on a massive scale.”

“Our megatrends have shown us the future, and Covid-19 has shown us what we can achieve by working together,” said Dr. Marshall.

“By supporting ourselves and investing in Australian innovation, and building on the trust in science that has fueled the response to the pandemic, we can make the impossible possible.

“It’s a huge task. But then again, that’s how it was with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We could eliminate our innovation problem, and when we did, we could solve any problem the world wanted to throw at us.”

Originally published as Australia must face the “unpleasant truth” and innovate to deal with the challenges ahead, the head of the CSIRO said.