March Director’s message

March has been a month of travelling to new places, establishing new networks, using our experience through CEAT to advise others and being proud of the achievements of others.

Over the past few years, it’s been a privilege to work with committed colleagues and industry partners as we have built CEAT.  Since 2018, the team has learned a lot about how to create enduring and impactful links between researchers and industry – links that lead to new collaborative R&D projects and/or commercialisation of university intellectual property – as well as how to collaborate with other areas of the ANU innovation ecosystem. With this in mind, it was a pleasure to travel with my ANU colleagues Kiara Bechta-Metti (Associate Director, ANU Research and Innovation Services) and Don McCallum (Business Development Manager, ANU College of Asia and Pacific) to the Center for Agricultural Innovation (CAI) at the Vietnam National University of Agriculture (VNUA) in Hanoi to share this experience with VNUA in support of its industry collaboration and commercialisation agenda. Our engagement with VNUA formed part of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Vietnam Aus4Innovation initiative which provides funding through CSIRO to address emerging challenges or opportunities in Vietnam’s innovation ecosystem and strengthen Vietnam-Australia partnerships.  Together, our goal was to draw on our experience of industry collaboration and commercialisation to help the VNUA develop its own industry-engagement strategy.  Over three days we: (a) met a wide range of researchers working at the interface of fundamental and applied biology; (b) learnt more about how they were leveraging their research expertise to create agri-tech spin-offs; and, (c) used SWOT and Theory of Change workshops to explore how VNUA could achieve further industry engagement and commercialisation success.  Key to the success of the trip was the wonderful support provided VNUA leadership, particularly Professors Pham Bao Duong (VNUA VP), Tran Duc Vien (Director, CAI) and Nguyen Viet Long (Vice Director, CAI).  In the coming weeks, we will finalise a report that will highlight some key opportunities for VNUA to consider, including how to build on their early success to create a broader framework of industry engagement. I am also looking forward to exploring ways to establish research collaborations between the ANU and VNUA, with one area of promise being exploiting genotypic variability in root traits to improve yield potential and yield reliance of crops.  My thanks also to Denise Higgins in the CEAT team for her support in delivering earlier online workshops with VNUA. 

A few days after I returned from Vietnam, I attended a SABRE Alliance event in Canberra. The ‘Science meets Parliament’ event brought together researchers from universities, institutes and industry with representatives from the defence and national security sectors to unpack a range of issues relevant to helping Australia’s defence institutions guard against future national security threats or risks.  A key goal of the event was to create interdisciplinary networks which could be drawn on in the future to prepare and respond to emerging threats.  As part of the event, I contributed to a discussion on how we could respond to a bioterrorism event – that being the arrival of a genetically modified pathogen capable of wiping out broad acre crops across much of Australia. There were excellent discussions on how biology, technology, regulatory policy and combinations of proactive and reactive investments could together enable Australia to avoid a food-security crisis caused by the pathogen.  I found it particularly interesting to consider how framing challenges in a defence/national security context could bring immediacy to issues such as food security and climate change – issues many see as problems for the future. I look forward to staying in contact with the networks established at SABRE.

The day after SABRE, Victoria Taylor (Chair, CEAT Governance Committee), Nadeem Samnakay (CEAT Fellow) and I attended a public hearing of the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Agriculture Inquiry into Food Security – the full transcript of our appearance is available here.  When developing the submission, CEAT benefited hugely from input from several of our industry Fellows; this ensured that the submission brought not just a university perspective but was also framed in light of the challenges facing Australia’s agri-food sector. Our key messages to the Committee were: that fundamental and applied research are critical components of how Australia can secure its food production systems into the future; that universities actually help pay for much of Australia’s agri-food R&D via a subsidy from student fees (see the 2019 EY Ag Innovation report); and that if Australia is to address food security challenges, our agricultural innovation and wider R&D system needs to be reimagined. For the latter, this included placing greater focus on system-level analyses and to use mission-oriented investments to address long-term, complex challenges facing the nation (e.g. our proposed National Mission for Future Crop and Community Resilience). 

March was also a month when DAFF released its snapshot of agricultural exports in 2022.  It was a record year for Australian agricultural exports, with grains exports continuing to lead the way. The update showed 2022 was a big year, with a record $78.1 billion of agricultural products being exported in 2022.  High export volumes and global prices both contributed to the bumper export total.  While China remains Australia’s largest single export market, there has been considerable diversification to other markets in the ASEAN and MENA regions.  However, while there is much to be optimistic about regarding Australian agriculture, we need to guard against a future likely to be marked by further geopolitical instability and rapid shifts in climate.  The latter was highlighted by a paper in Nature this month, outlining how acceleration of ice-melt in Antarctic has the potential to quickly alter the global ocean conveyer belt that moves heat from the hot equators to cooler high latitude regions of the globe.  March also saw the release of the latest IPPC report. Both highlight the speed at which change could occur, and how such changes are likely to impact not just the climate, but also the food system that we all depend on.  They also highlight the importance of outcome-focused R&D targeting the long-term and complex impacts of climate change on the food system.  While not cheap, such R&D more than pays for itself, as highlighted in a recent ABARES report authored by economist, Will Chancellor.  In his report, Will showed that $1 of agricultural R&D investment generates a return of $7.82 in agricultural gross value. 

My first visit to India also took place in March – not for work, but rather to see my son, Davis Atkin, debut for the Australia men’s hockey team in the India-Germany-Australia FIH Pro League tournament in Rourkela. Hockey in front of 22,000 vocal Indian fans was quite the introduction to international hockey!  I am super proud of Davis – not just for what he has achieved in hockey, but also because he has had the courage to be true to himself and use his success in sport to support others in the LGBTQ+ community.  You can read more about his journey in a nice article by Uthra Ganesan that was published in the Indian sports magazine, SportStar.

Finally, an update on our Innovation Hub. The extension of our Hub space is nearing completion. If you are a business with an agri-food focus who would benefit from unique access to ANU researchers and infrastructure to support your R&D and growth, please get in touch with the CEAT team at [email protected]

And make sure you read our CEAT newsletter!


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