CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, by his own admission, is not one for spending much time looking in the rear-view mirror. He’s been in the role for five years and both the organisation and the country has changed quite dramatically in that time.
But asked what he would do differently at the national researcher if he had his time again, and he says “not much”.
“I probably wouldn’t change anything, actually. Even the painful bit that we went through – you kind of have got to do that,” Dr Marshall told the InnovationAus Commercial Disco podcast. “If you don’t have some pain, or some crisis, then you don’t get the catalyst for change.”
The CSIRO is a culturally different organisation to the one that he took charge of in January 2015, and has been better able to respond in a faster and more immediately positive way to the specific issues brought forward by the coronavirus crisis.
“I might go harder in some areas than we did. But leadership is often disappointing people at a rate they can accept,” he said. “Sometimes you might exceed that and you’ve got to back off, because you have got to be able to take people on the journey with you. But there isn’t much that I would change.
Anecdotally right now there is tremendous goodwill in the community about the role of science and towards research. There has been a recognition that the sophistication of our science and research ecosystems had played a prominent role in Australia’s so far successful response to the health crisis.
“If you could bottle some of that good will that we’ve seen in recent months and take it with us into the good times as well as through the crisis, you would have a game-changer in terms of innovation in this country.”
In this interview, Dr Marshall covers a lot of territory, from the CSIRO’s role as a core research collaborator in the search to find a coronavirus vaccine and in preparing the way to manufacture this vaccine at scale, to the CSIRO’s international research relationships and the impact of geopolitical tensions on the ability to solve global problems.
It is an important moment for the national researcher, not least because its importance and profile is heightened during times of crisis. In fact, the origins of the CSIRO’s founding go back 100 years as Australia was emerging from the twin hardships of World War One and the Spanish influenza.
“That was sort of the catalyst that created the CSIRO in the first place. The thinking back then was ‘Hey, we have got to really embrace science and technology and engineering and try to use it to reinvent our situation to make the future better than the past’,” he said.
Coming out of this crisis – both the health crisis and the economic crisis it has spawned – would provide an opportunity to rethink the way the nation approaches innovation, and to “massively accelerate” progress. This would be especially true of the adoption of digital, and tools like AI and predictive analytics to drive new ways of doing things across different sectors of the economy.
The CSIRO in recent years had invested a lot in its manufacturing research division, including in biologicals and building a vaccine pipeline capability. (That effort has been done through its manufacturing division, rather than through its health division.)
“We recognised there was this ability to leap-frop to truly agile manufacturing using digital, using AI, using predictive analytics and using 3D printing, and even the biological and quantum biological process to grow structures that can be a part of manufacturing,” Dr Marshall said.
“The reason we did that vaccine pipeline capability in our manufacturing business and chose not to do it in our health business is because we thought there was a bigger story there about manufacturing becoming truly agile.
“You used to build a factory to make cars. Now you build a factory to make almost anything, and you have the equipment and the tech to rapidly shift from making one type of product to another,” he said.
“That’s the opportunity here, where we are able to come back from this crisis smarter.
“There will be a push to make commodity products because there is a sovereign source [issues]. But wouldn’t it be better if we could make anything we needed – in a pinch – but focus on the really high value, high margin products that are uniquely Australian to give us a differentiator?
“That’s where agile manufacturing supported by technology can really make a difference here,” he said.
Meanwhile, Dr Marshall said the depth and longevity of the CSIRO relationship with the Chinese Academy of Sciences had been immensely valuable in the early and uncertain days of the coronavirus pandemic.
The CSIRO has had a formal relationship with the Chinese academy for 45 years dating to the 1970’s. It was one of the first western institutions to formalise such a relationship. The CAS is CSIRO’s largest partner in co-authoring of scientific papers, Dr Marshall concedes the growing East-West tensions does complicate this.
“China, within hours of me reaching out to my counterpart [at CAS] to get information on the virus, they gave us all the genetics, genotypes, phenotypes – basically everything that we asked for – to help us to understand what we were dealing with and how to fight it.
“That’s an example of why having a really deep, long history of collaboration is so critical. And that got us right to the front of the line in fighting this disease,” he said.
“Science does tend to transcend the politics – or the geo-politics – because by definition if you’re working on a global problem, you can’t solve it if you’re not working with the global players.”
“We just have a to figure out a way to navigate this. Because we know the outcome will be better if we do [work together],” Dr Marshall said.