Australian Academy of Science Symposium

  • Speech, check against delivery

[Acknowledgements below]

I start by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and also acknowledge any other people or families with connection to the ACT and region.

I pay my respects to their Elders past and present.

And I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here this evening.

In 2020, as the pandemic grew, while most of us were restricted to our homes…

…Keeping our distance to keep each other safe…

…And trying to nurture sourdough starters in the hopes of baking bread…

…Scientists were working round the clock to develop a vaccine.

That process involved cooperation from scientists around the world, including, of course, right here in Australia.

The Peter Doherty Institute in Melbourne was the first place outside China to successfully grow the virus.

And through the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, CSIRO were part of the global pipeline for getting vaccines trialed and manufactured quickly and safely.

That included testing vaccine candidates including, as we know, the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine.

And the Indian Institute of Science's heat-tolerant vaccine, Mynvax.

The development process for most vaccines takes about five years.

But as we all know, the COVID vaccine took just eighteen months.

When faced with this huge, global challenge, countries worked together to make sure a vaccine was delivered equitably, and rapidly.

And ultimately, that saved lives, and it saved livelihoods.

It allowed the world to reopen, and for us to get back to normal – to be able to gather here today.

That process was a clear example of how, when faced with the really big problems of our times…

…No one can go it alone.

Not in any meaningful way.

Or as Foreign Minister Penny Wong has put it: we can only solve our biggest problems together.

There are a lot of these problems.

Despite the rapid development of a vaccine, COVID threw 124 million people back into poverty.

Humanitarian needs are growing.

The changing climate is an existential threat to the people of the Pacific Island countries, and is already affecting food security and water security in these countries, and around the world.

Geopolitical tensions across the globe are rife, and we've seen military build-up in our region escalate, without commensurate constraints.

Australia wants to see a region that is peaceful, prosperous and resilient.

A region that is predictable, and that operates within agreed norms, rules and international law.

And in all of this, we want Australia to be deeply engaged, and to share in the growing economic prosperity of this region we live in.

This doesn't just happen.

It requires us to invest in all dimensions of our statecraft – in diplomacy, development, defence, economics.

And science.

Science is how we succeed as a smart, skilled and productive nation.

Science is how we create new opportunities – through new jobs, new industries, and new technologies.

And, as Prime Minister Albanese has said:

“Science will ensure that Australia can shape the future – rather than letting the future shape us.”

The best ideas, the best work, the best solutions, come from an exchange of ideas…

…By sharing and learning side by side with other countries.

Like CSIRO's AquaWatch Australia mission, which they describe as a 'weather service for water quality'.

Water security is only going to become more vital as the world keeps warming.

CSIRO's program seeks to contribute to better water quality management by monitoring waterways and forecasting harmful events like toxic algal blooms, blackwater and runoff contamination.

AquaWatch has links with partners around the world, with pilots running in countries like the United States, the UK, Italy, Chile, Colombia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.

The vision is to support better water quality management across Australia, and the world – which will lead to better water quality and water security.

And that means that more people will have access to safe and clean water.

That aquatic ecosystems are healthier, benefiting the communities that rely on them.

AquaWatch is a great example of how collaboration can benefit everyone.

But taking a step back, there are limits to how we can collaborate.

As the symposium's title aptly notes, we do operate in a contested world.

And so, there are absolutely some areas where sharing is critical – like health security, water security, food security – issues that impact the security of the whole world, of every country.

There are also some areas where we can share very little, or nothing at all – like national security.

And there are plenty of cases in between.

Like most things in the world, it's not an all or nothing situation – and there's no one answer.

Most issues will fall somewhere in that in between space – and we should always be looking very closely at what we need to protect, and how we can collaborate where we can…

…For our shared interests, as well as for our own national interest.

As technological advances progress exponentially, shifting geopolitical realities are putting strain on our current models of global scientific, technological and economic cooperation.

Australia is working hard to prevent international scientific and technological policy and expertise being divided along geopolitical lines.

And it's clear that we need new regulatory approaches, built collaboratively, to build trust in this area – through transparency, accountability and fairness.

At the same time, the design, development, and use of critical technologies is a growing area of geostrategic competition.

So, the Government works closely with Australian industry, universities and the research community to strengthen cyber security capabilities, and build awareness of risks from foreign interference in Australian research.

And you'll all be familiar with the University Foreign Interference Taskforce, and the guidelines they've developed for – and in partnership with – the university sector.

Those guidelines emphasise that the Australian Government supports a sensible approach that's proportionate to the risk.

Because there will always be risks involved in collaboration – but when that is managed properly, we're able to achieve far greater outcomes, while maintaining our security prerogatives.

For example, a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Albanese and President Biden announced that we would cooperate on science and critical and emerging technologies, so we could build an “Innovation Alliance.”

That agreement included cooperation in defence and security, clean energy supply chains, and promoting advanced technology and space cooperation.

Of course, any sort of collaboration needs to be carefully thought out and carefully managed, which is why the space Technology Safeguards Agreement we've signed creates the potential for new space-related commercial opportunities…

…While providing the legal and technical framework to protect sensitive technology and data.

The Australia-India Cyber and Critical Technology Partnership is another good example of how we work collaboratively at the international level to make sure cyber and critical technologies are developed and used responsibly.

That partnership includes a grants program which supports Australia-India collaborative research projects to advance our shared understanding of ethical frameworks, best practice and technical standards for cyber and critical technology…

…To boost the responsible development and use of emerging technologies between our countries and in our region.

There are also many other cases where we can collaborate with a wider array of our partners.

Take Southeast Asia.

Australia and Southeast Asian states share a challenging region, but also one that is full of opportunity.

The recent report by Australia's Special Envoy for Southeast Asia, Nicholas Moore AO, titled Invested: Australia's Southeast Asia Economic Strategy to 2040 identifies ten priority sectors that offer the most potential for growth.

Those sectors include agriculture and food, resources, green energy transition, healthcare, and the digital economy.

These areas are fertile ground for science collaboration, with benefits for Australia, for Southeast Asian states, and for the region as a whole.

In green energy, through the Global Power System Transformation Consortium, CSIRO, with the Australian Energy Market Operator, are collaborating on power system management with Southeast Asia…

…Working with countries such as Indonesia to integrate more variable renewable energy into their grid.

Projects like these highlight the immense economic upside of collaboration for Australia – especially as we work towards our ambition of becoming a renewable energy superpower.

Every dollar of research the Australian Research Council funds generates $3.32 in economic output back into the Australian community, while more than 210 companies have been started using technologies developed by CSIRO.

As our Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic says, our government

“is a government that listens to science, that acts on the science, that believes in the power of science and believes in the fact that we can have a much greater presence on the world stage.”

Australia has vast critical mineral and rare earth reserves, which are key to our clean energy transition.

That's why this government has released a Critical Minerals Strategy to set out a vision for the future of the sector.

That strategy seeks to build our sovereign capability in critical minerals processing, and create resilient supply chains through international partnerships.

We also have vast reserves of talent.

This year's winner of the Prime Minister's Prize for Science, Professor Michelle Simmons, has been a pioneer in quantum electronics for decades.

Research which, to use Professor Simmons' own words, impacts “every industry that relies on data” – including industries that barely existed when she started working in the field.

Minister Husic released this country's first National Quantum Strategy in May this year, and our National Reconstruction Fund will target $1 billion towards critical technologies like quantum.

We know that science and research can be a long game, but we know that it's worth it.

And this Government will continue to support our scientists and researchers.

We'll continue to invest in every element of our statecraft.

And we'll continue to collaborate with our international partners, and encourage you to do the same.

Because yes, we do operate in a contested world.

And we do operate within certain constraints.

But there is so much we can still do in those constraints, and in this world.

And science, and scientific collaboration, does contribute, and will continue to contribute to a better world…

…For Australians, and for everyone.

Thank you.


[Acknowledgements – check against attendance]

  • Professor Frances Separovic AO FAA, Foreign Secretary, Australian Academy of Science
  • Professor Steven Chown FAA, Director, Securing Antarctica's Environmental Future, Monash University

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