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COVID-19 and the economic challenges left in its wake will shape our country for generations to come. Heavy losses appear unavoidable and Australians are preparing for the worst.

Confidence in our future and investment in what that future will yield might seem anathema to our mindset, and the natural inclination is to batten down the hatches.

But there is so much to gain by embracing change and there’s a clear role for science and technology to play in driving our recovery from this pandemic-led recession and building future resilience to put the nation in a much stronger position.

For more than 100 years, CSIRO’s purpose has been to solve the greatest challenges — without agenda or fear, but for benefit — and there are many.

A few years ago, we set out to predict where the future challenges would arise and how we could turn them into opportunities to create new industries and jobs. We looked at six key issues: food security and quality; health and wellbeing; resilient and valuable environments; sustainable energy and resources; future industries; and a secure Australia and region.

Tackling these issues requires focus and collaboration, so in August, we announced a plan to co-create a program of missions that are granular steps to addressing these six great Australian challenges. The missions we are developing in partnership with industry, research organisations, government and communities are unashamedly ambitious —planning major science and technology breakthroughs to overcome the roadblocks to success. They are projects that:

  • Aim to capitalise on our existing global advantages and set us up for the future. Building a clean and competitive national hydrogen industry, for example, is not a small task but it’s one that could create 8000 jobs, generate $11b a year in GDP and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Anticipate global trends and position us to take advantage of these, such as ensuring we are developing new sources of protein that are additive to the meat industry, to feed a global population that’s expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050.
  • Address the country’s longstanding challenges, including drought.

To achieve any of this, we need to take a “Team Australia” approach by engaging in true co-design and development with government, industry, researchers and communities. Missions alone won’t solve our challenges, and missions won’t be all that CSIRO does.

But missions will create a rallying point to come together, to make an impact and focus our collective attention where it matters most — on delivering real solutions from science (in essence, making science real).

COVID-19 and the devastating bushfires experienced last season have driven home the need to work together.

Here are the missions that CSIRO is co-designing with partners; many of them are interconnected.

The challenges

  1. Food security and quality
  2. How do we give our exports an unfair global advantage and achieve sustainable regional food security? Our missions in development in this area aim to:

    • Boost export earnings of Australian-grown food The world trusts and loves our homegrown food. Building trust in the safety, quality and provenance of our agrifood exports could enable the agriculture industry to grow export premiums by $10b by 2030. Working alongside government and businesses across the supply chain, we plan to build the tools and technologies — such as a national food provenance data infrastructure to support traceability — that will ease regulatory burdens and enable locally grown food to be exported to more places.
    • Increase regional resilience against droughts More frequent droughts are forecast to significantly impact agricultural profitability, harm regional communities socially and financially, and threaten the security of town water supplies. We can use innovations, engagement and new options to boost productivity in times of drought and build regional resilience through better decision-making tools and risk management.
    • Capture high-growth protein markets The world’s population will reach 9.7 billion by 2050, fuelling the demand for high-quality protein. Australia is a major producer and exporter of protein products and we can help grow this industry by $10b by 2025 — creating jobs in agribusiness, food processing and advanced biomanufacturing across regional Australia.
  3. Health and wellbeing
  4. How do we enhance the health of Australians? Our missions in development in this area aim to:

    • Increase the nation’s capacity to detect, treat, respond and recover from emerging infectious diseases As we’ve seen, the emergence of infectious diseases such as COVID-19 have the potential for devastating impacts: on human health, including loss of life; immense economic hardship; and destabilisation of global financial markets, trade networks and supply chains. This mission aims to deliver the information and tools the country needs to tackle current and future emerging infectious diseases.
    • A future where antibiotics still save livesBacteria are increasingly resistant to the drugs designed to kill them. If we do not act against antibiotic resistance, we will return to the dark ages of medicine where currently treatable infections and injuries kill once again. This mission supports the creation of an integrated system of AMR (antimicrobial resistance) surveillance and decision support through to intervention and remediation technologies and services. This system will determine where best to intervene to have the greatest impact from a health and economic perspective — ensuring governments, policymakers, regulators, clinicians and businesses can make informed decisions about how to most effectively manage and solve the problem.
  5. Resilient and valuable environments
  6. How do we make sustainability profitable so industry and environment become partners rather than competitors? Our missions in development in this area aim to:

    • Change the way we make, use, recycle and dispose of plastics Each year, 90 billion tonnes of primary materials are extracted and used globally for plastics, but only nine per cent are recycled, with the rest posing challenges for our environment. Tackling this will require behaviour change and a whole-of-system shift, including creating internationally competitive circular economy products, services and jobs in waste innovation and incentives.
    • Establish a ground-to-space water-quality monitoring system Water is the planet’s most vital resource. The health of our inland waterways and coastal environments is essential for maintaining safe water for drinking, use by primary industries and preserving our natural environments. In partnership with SmartSat CRC — a government-funded consortium of industry, universities and other research organisations — we are working to create the AquaWatch Australia system, using space technology to deliver real-time data for monitoring and managing our valuable freshwater resources and coastal environments. AquaWatch will help build local space manufacturing industries, as well as grow the downstream “big data” analytics services sector, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and high-tech jobs. It will be a step change in the country’s national water-quality information delivery. As well as monitoring the health of our inland rivers, dams and waterways, the AquaWatch system will also have potential application for environmental monitoring of coastal wetlands, aquaculture farms, riparian vegetation and terrestrial biodiversity, along with mine sites, mangroves and coral reefs.
  7. Sustainable energy and resources
  8. How do we build energy security and competitiveness in the region while lowering emissions? Our missions in development in this area aim to:

    • Build Australia’s clean hydrogen industryIt is estimated that a clean hydrogen industry will create more than 8000 jobs, generate $11b a year in GDP and reduce greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to a third of Australia’s current fossil fuel emissions by 2050. Using the latest technological breakthroughs, we’ll help support the scaling of demand and drive down the cost of hydrogen to under $2 per kilogram. We can work with partners to deliver analysis and advice to de-risk investments and projects while developing science and tech solutions and analysis that will remove barriers to scale-up and adoption — generating jobs, exports, environmental benefits and increased energy security and resilience.
    • Create tech pathways for low-emissions resource industry and agriculture Supporting Australian companies as well as state and local governments to achieve their emissions reduction goals and capture growth opportunities in the low-carbon economy is key. The Towards Net Zero mission will also develop and demonstrate effective high-abatement potential technology with industry partners to ensure we can reduce emissions while capitalising on our many natural advantages to export technology, low-carbon products and carbon offsets, in addition to helping our trading partners reduce global emissions.
    • Creating more value from our energy transition metals The global energy transition will depend on the sustainable supply of dozens of metals and related minerals. A recent World Bank analysis revealed how annual demand for lithium and graphite — critical battery elements — could increase by as much as 500 per cent by 2050. Australia is well positioned to capitalise on this surging demand given our strong resource base. But we can realise even greater economic benefits through sustainably producing refined metals, precursor chemicals, alloys and high-end engineered products.
  9. Future industries
  10. How do we create new high-value Australian industries and reinvent old ones so our children enjoy even better lives than we have? All missions are focused on creating sustainable jobs and future industries that will help solve each challenge. SMEs are a critical part of this, so we have a cross-cutting mission under development in this area that aims to:

    • Power small and medium-sized enterprise growth by improving access to Australian R&D Science and innovation are key enablers for businesses to adapt, reinvent and grow through times of disruption. Developing new products and services, accessing new markets and linking with existing complementary businesses can create new market opportunities. However, many SMEs lack the resources and knowledge to pursue these. By creating stronger pathways for them to access Australian research, we can develop an internationally competitive, resilient sector with high-skill, high-value jobs and sovereign capabilities.
  11. A secure Australia and region
  12. How do we safeguard Australia from known risks? The mission under development in this area aims to:

    • Help Australia measure, adapt and transition in response to climate risks Scientists know the climate is changing dramatically and business leaders know they need to act — but there is a knowledge gap between the two. If left unaddressed, the viability of our insurance, banking and superannuation systems is under threat within the next five years, with direct consequences for Australian households. We’re developing resources to support businesses in understanding how climate change impacts on business models and customers, as well as tools to transition and adapt to those changes.

For more information on the CSIRO’s missions program and how to tackle Australia’s big challenges, visit the CSIRO here