CSIRO’s Data61 and the sense of urgency

James Riley
Editorial Director

The CSIRO’s specialist business unit Data61 celebrated its third birthday this week. It is worth noting the milestone. The organisation is structurally very different from its early days, and acts as a fulcrum for leveraging different parts of Australia’s national innovation ecosystem.

It is organised as a network, rather than strictly as an institution, even as it provides the kind of horizontal domain expertise in digital and the data sciences that can be applied to the other CSIRO research units, ranging from agriculture and food to astronomy and space and everything in between.

Data61 chief executive officer Adrian Turner is one of Australia’s best thinkers on the structural complexities of the national innovation ecosystem, and as a member of the CSIRO executive leadership team has been a key driver of change.

As the organisation turns three, Mr Turner has been mapping its progress, and is rightly full of numbers. Data61 has about 550 researchers on staff, in addition to its network of researchers and PhD students from its network of 32 university partners.

At any given time, Data61 is involved in about 60 research projects across its network of partners. About one-third of the nation’s PhDs are under scholarship in the Data61 network.

In this podcast interview, Adrian Turner outlines specific opportunities for Australia that are underpinned by the data sciences, and discusses the role that Data61 plays.

This is a powerful conversation that is both optimistic and alarming. It is an honest assessment of the Australian innovation ecosystem, warts and all. Ultimately optimism wins – it must, otherwise we’d all pack up and go home – but there is a frankness about Australia’s circumstances that should set off alarm bells.

The organisation has introduced new methodologies to identify projects of value to the nation, and new structures that enable it to quickly scale-up cross-disciplinary research teams – and sometimes to build teams of teams that each address different parts of a problem – and introduced new frameworks for driving new commercial outcomes.

“We have a mechanism internally where we make decisions about what (projects or technologies) we invest in,” Mr Turner told InnovationAus.com. “What we are focused on is in areas that can have an impact up into Australian industry.”

“This means things like cybersecurity [which is] fundamental: There is a national imperative to be good at cyber to really protect the economy on the one hand, but also cyber is an emerging industry in its own right,” he said.

Data61 has also put significant resources into blockchain projects. It’s earlier in the lifecycle than the work Data61 does in cybersecurity, but Mr Turner says blockchain tech has the potential to “be as disruptive on industry and the economy as the internet and the web.”

As a proof-point on capability, Mr Turner says recently published data on the most cited articles on blockchain technology showed as a nation, Australia ranked second in the world, while CSIRO’s Data61 was ranked as the number one research organisation in the world in blockchain on this measure.

Data61 is bringing the innovation ecosystem together on the 2nd and 3rd of October for D61+ LIVE, Australia’s premier science, technology and innovation event.

The free two-day forum and exhibition will feature international keynotes and showcase cutting-edge research projects from Australia’s national science agency. You can register for the event here.

In the past three years, Data61 has quite radically overhauled its business development and commercialisation capability with quite sophisticated mechanisms for translating what outside collaborators need, with signals back into the research done within the unit.

It has introduced the NASA-inspired Technology Readiness Scale that had been developed to better measure and understand mission-readiness in the space program.

Data61 has invested significantly in building it internal research engineering capability, and uses the TRL scale methodology to better understand what role Data61 plays within the system in relation to any given technology or project.

Mr Turner said this gives Data61 a much clearer picture of how to accelerate research through that TRL framework, and to drive larger scale outcomes.

“We have got a mechanism that allows us to rapidly assemble research teams around areas we want to invest in and where collaborators want us to invest – or where our team thinks its important to invest [for national impact],” he said. “So there is flexibility there.”

There are challenges for Australia, clearly. There are gaps in the innovation ecosystems. On the industry side, the business expenditure on R&D numbers are dismal. “We’re just not in the game.”

But if you look at other markets – successful innovation markets like the US or Israel – about 75 per cent of their R&D investment is direct, through grants or other direct funding mechanisms.

“So [those countries] have a national point of view that says we need to be the best in the world at this,” Mr Turner said.

“It could be robotics, it could be in the future synthetic biology or it could be quantum, but as an economy to seed new industry, these are important areas where we want to be best in,” he said. That is the kind of thinking where an economy is allowed to have a point, and to make active decisions about where R&D support is best directed.

Adrian Turner is an optimist, like entrepreneurs everywhere. After a career in Silicon Valley, he thinks there is a future for Australia within the global system.

But we need to be more strategic and more precise in allocating resources and talent into the areas where we have an existing competitive advantage, or where it will deliver the greatest national benefit.

If there is a single ingredient that is missing in Australia, Mr Turner says, it is a sense of urgency. And this is not a small issue.

Australian innovation system already has significant gaps. Communications between different parts of the ecosystem are imperfect, whether it’s between geographies or between sectors, and this directly impacts the efficiency of the system.

This is not the time to be lacking a sense of urgency about build capability and capacity.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

Leave a Comment