James Riley
October 4, 2019

Data61 and the new CSIRO role

Research

Data61 and the new CSIRO role

David Thodey: Artificial intelligence will be a key driver for different industry verticals

Australia’s home-grown technology sector is half the size of our global peers as a percentage of gross domestic product, four times smaller than the US (as a percentage of GDP), and is in the bottom half of OECD countries for innovation and R&D.

Our gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP is considerably less than one-third of that of the leader in this area – Israel – and our businesses spend less than half on R&D than businesses in countries like the US and Germany (and close to a quarter of that spent by Israeli companies).

Australia’s ICT sector as a percentage of Gross Value Add – our home-grown industry – has declined by about 30 per cent in the past 20 years.

These are the headline numbers of reports commissioned in the past couple of years, including two Alpha Beta deep dives into the digital innovation sector commissioned by the CSIRO’s Data61 business unit, as well as Innovation and Science Australia’s landmark 2030 report.

You would have to say the problems are well known and we can perhaps lay-off the writing of reports for a while.

The actioned response to those depressing numbers has begun and were in evidence at the D61+ Live event in Sydney this week.

D61+ Live is in its fourth year and has grown to become the most important – certainly the most credible – annual gathering of the different tribes of the tech sector in this country. It is an excellent resource, and you would have to hope the CSIRO continues to fund its operations.

Certainly D61+ Live is a legacy of Adrian Turner’s time as CEO of the organisation, and it’s a good one. It’s a couple of days a year but embodies the networked model Data61 has tried to build for itself as a data science resource across different industry sectors and other public sector research organisations.

The event brings together the different parts of the Australian tech ecosystem that have been so fractured. Straw polling at the event does suggest good numbers of public sector research, business and private sector, and government and policy makers.

These are the different parts of the industry that need to be in the same room. Now that D61+ Live has built toehold, it would be great to encourage an expanded participation from the entrepreneur and VC end of the private sector and get them out of the confected and sometimes insular startup bubble.

But that’s for next year.

This year, D61+ Live came at an awkward moment for Data61 and CSIRO. It’s founding CEO Mr Turner has stepped down and the organisation is in a global search for a new chief.

Data61 is currently being run by Canberra-based long-time CSIRO analytics researcher Simon Barry. Whether this is an interim or longer term appointment remains to be seen. But the departure of Mr Turner has prompted a structural rejig.

 

Where Mr Turner had been a member of the CSIRO executive team, as would make sense for a division that is designed to operate as a horizontal resource across all the organisations industry-focused verticals, this appears to no longer be the case.

We will have to wait and see. But you would have to argue that Data61 is a pivotal unit inside CSIRO and should be led in the day-to-day by a permanent head who has visibility and heft across the organisation as a member that executive team.

If the CSIRO believes that artificial intelligence and data science is key to accelerating and improving research across the rest of the organisation – and it certainly does believe this, according to it’s chairman David Thodey – then the functional division that delivers that expertise should continue to be treated as ‘special’.

“At CSIRO, we believe that digital technologies can accelerate the pace and scale of our research, and that every part of CSIRO, every area of domain expertise, can benefit from them,” Mr Thodey said.

“We have a phrase we use internally for the shift – we’re calling it Domain + Digital, or D+D,” he said.

“D+D is the connection of these emerging digital technologies with decades of expertise in areas like agriculture, health, energy, manufacturing, minerals and the environment.”

“CSIRO was created to solve the challenges facing Australians, and it’s important to always remember the simplicity of the things that matter most to our biggest customers – the Australian people,” Mr Thodey said.

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