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Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade References Committee
05/12/2012
Australia and the countries of the Indian Ocean rim

BELL, Mrs Juliet, Executive Manager, Global Engagement, CSIRO

YUNCKEN, Ms Liz, Europe, India and Middle East Adviser, International Development, CSIRO

CHAIR: Welcome. The committee has received your submission, which has been listed as submission No. 11. You have indicated that you do not wish to make any amendments or alterations to your submission. Would you like to make an opening statement?

Mrs Bell : CSIRO welcomes the opportunity to appear at this hearing of the inquiry into the Indian Ocean region and Australia's foreign trade and defence policy. CSIRO's mandate is to generate benefits for Australia by assisting Australian industry, furthering the interests of the Australian community, and contributing to the achievement of Australian national objectives. CSIRO is responsive to government priorities and direction and supports these through its own direction setting and the decisions made about the allocation of resources.

Increasingly, the challenges facing Australia do have an international dimension. This international dimension takes three main forms. Firstly, environmental, oceanographic and climatic systems are inherently global in nature, so CSIRO carries out research into global systems to identify how they will affect Australian industry and the Australian community, and, consequently, how our actions may affect other regions and countries.

Secondly, economic and political structures are increasingly interlinked across the world. Australian industries and services are competing and collaborating with their international peers, and decisions affecting Australia are made by international bodies, so CSIRO supports Australian industries to be competitive in global markets. CSIRO also represents Australia on a variety of international bodies to ensure Australian interests are represented.

Thirdly, science and innovation are and of course always have been global pursuits, and Australia needs to be part of this global scientific discussion, so CSIRO plays a role in bringing ideas, information and innovation back to Australia.

Consequently, CSIRO has a global dimension to its activities, and this global dimension is managed in a manner consistent with CSIRO's policy of prioritising our research investments in the important areas of national interest. And, of course, we have a responsiveness to government priorities and directions. As an example, addressing global food insecurity is an essential development objective for Australia's aid program. The Australian government explicitly identifies research for development as a path to impact for lifting agricultural productivity in developing countries. In this vein, through the National Research Flagship for Sustainable Agriculture, CSIRO is directing Australian science to help deliver on Australian government priorities internationally.

CSIRO also recognises that many benefits do flow back to Australia and to the CSIRO from building research for development partnerships internationally, including of course around the Indian Ocean rim. These include direct scientific discoveries or development and refinement of our scientific methods; indirect development of skills and capabilities within CSIRO staff; the attraction and retention of staff, who are often motivated by the research challenges involved in this type of development activity; and of course improved regional security.

As a further example, CSIRO is a member of the Australian Consortium of the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program. This membership provides high-level access to the globe's largest and most effective international geoscience program. Results from drilling within Australia's marine jurisdiction provide understanding of: the ocean state under past climates, the range of oceanographic and biological responses to climate change, the role of the deep biosphere in shaping oil and gas deposits, the hydrothermal and igneous processes involved in ore genesis, and of course some of the world's earthquake and tsunami-generating processes.

CSIRO has significant research collaboration interests in the Indian Ocean region, including bilateral connections with India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore; multilateral connections with East Africa; and roles in several international commissions in the region. We see the Indian Ocean region as vital and important for research, collaboration and development work to address global challenges that also affect Australia directly.

Finally, our role today in appearing before the committee is as international relations practitioners and authors of our submission. We facilitate and assist in the management and design of international collaboration. Whilst we are not technical experts we are of course able to take more technical questions on notice. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much indeed. I will begin the questions by asking you about CSIRO's work within the Indian Ocean Rim. In your submission, you state that 'CSIRO has significant research collaboration interests' around the countries of the Indian Ocean Rim, 'including bilateral connections with India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, multilateral connections with East Africa and roles in several international commissions'. Could you give us some examples of the kind of research you are carrying out with various countries around the rim and how engaged you feel CSIRO is in general terms with these countries?

Ms Yuncken : Sure. I will give you a couple of examples. In India we have been carrying out joint work on agricultural related research for decades, mostly around crop development—developing new varieties of crops that are more suited to their climate and to our climate. In East Africa, we have a global food security initiative with several partners across several different countries in that part of Africa. We are working with them to increase food security in that part of the world. In terms of the international commissions that we are part of, most of those are related to fisheries, climate and oceanography.

Mrs Bell : I might add one other example which I feel encapsulates the real benefit of collaboration in the Indian Ocean, which is our work with Indonesia on fisheries. That started out as what you would define as a research for development collaboration—so capacity building—but over 20 years that has grown into a genuine example of research excellence and partnering where we manage a resource, pelagic fisheries, that is of direct tangible economic benefit to both Australia and Indonesia and is critical to the region.

CHAIR: That is very good to hear. You obviously, interestingly, have connections with countries around the Indian Ocean, which shows an awareness of the existence of the potential there. That is quite interesting because not everybody has that awareness. Could you provide us some more information about the global research alliance—the work it does and how this work increases relationships between research organisations and countries?

Mrs Bell : The global research alliance was created around 10 years ago as a method for research organisations similar to CSIRO but not necessarily identical—applied research organisations—to work together in a multidisciplinary way but also to form a community where we could each be benchmarked in terms of our operations and our mode of conduct of research. For instance, one of the projects that we have engaged in through the global research alliance is in Zambia, looking at wireless broadband connection.

So there are a number of ways in which we work as a community to explore projects that are research and development in nature. 'Global research for global good' is the by-line of the community. The principles of the Global Research Alliance, which includes the head of each organisation—in CSIRO's case, Dr Megan Clark—meet together on an annual basis to discuss research issues of concern and ways to better exchange information and look for areas where we can collaborate.

CHAIR: That is an example of how broad CSIRO is. You are involved in broadband and wireless communication. That sounds very good. In its submission, CSIRO mentions collaborative work done with funding from AusAID and ACIAR. Can you tell us about the projects that might be involved? What other assistance does CSIRO get from government projects focused on the Indian Ocean Rim?

Mrs Bell : Broadly, we have a fantastic partnership with AusAID and ACIAR. We have worked with them for a number of years in countries all around the region, including India, Bangladesh, Africa and Indonesia. For instance, some of the work we have undertaken with AusAID has been funded through our Research for Development partnership, which we have with AusAID. Some of the funding has come through smaller grants—the Public Sector Linkages Program, now known as Government Partnerships for Development. The good thing about the funding mechanisms from AusAID is that they are fit for purpose. Some of the research we undertake is capacity building in peer public services around the region. That is where the Public Service linkage grants have come into their own. For instance, in Africa—and I will let Liz expand upon this—we are undertaking program management for AusAID through the African Food Security Initiative, where we conduct research, but we also disperse some of the funds to African peers and partners. It is a program manager in that way. Liz might be able to extrapolate.

Mrs Bell : I was going to mention the funding that we support that we receive from the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, which is run by the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education. That is focused specifically on India, and we have carried out quite a number of collaborative projects with Indian partners with funding from the fund. Obviously, the work that we do with India can often be taken to other markets as well, including other areas around the Indian Ocean Rim.

CHAIR: Can you give us examples of what you have done there?

Ms Yuncken : Yes. There are a few. At the moment we have one on mining that they are doing with one of the CSIR India institutes, looking at how mines are constructed to make them safer for the people who are working in the mines and to make them more efficient. We have several applications in for more funding on a range of areas. We also work with India on some clean water projects. There are tele-health and tele-medicine projects that we are doing with India. There is quite a wide range of areas in which we collaborate with India.

CHAIR: Those kinds of projects sound as though they could be transferable to the Gulf, East Africa and so on.

Ms Yuncken : Absolutely.

CHAIR: That is very interesting as a template. DFAT's submission notes that Australia's role in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation is as an observer, with some provision of assistance targeted to that organisation's objectives. The submission notes:

In 2010, Australia provided A$1 million for a joint SAARC-CSIRO Food Security and Agriculture Project. Future work with SAARC is currently being explored.

Could you provide us with some more information about the Food Security and Agriculture Project?

Ms Yuncken : I do not have that information to hand, but I would be very happy to send you some more information after the hearing.

CHAIR: That is fine. Is CSIRO working with DFAT on the future of SAARC in promoting its objectives and organisation?

Mrs Bell : No, we are not working proactively with them, but we are very, very engaged increasingly with that South Asian group. For instance, we have recently entered into quite a large partnership, called eWater, with AusAID and about nine other government agencies. It will not just be about India, it will be about transferring a lot of the water technologies and processes that CSIRO developed, for example, in the Murray-Darling Basin. As you said, a lot of these solutions are now very transferable to many other parts of the region, and the water challenges facing South Asia and that SAARC will need to grapple with as a community are very, very interesting.

CHAIR: It sounds fascinating. Does CSIRO work with DFAT on other projects in other countries? Are you actually doing that or is it all just potential?

Mrs Bell : The relationship with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, other than with AusAID with whom of course we have a strong partnership and with ACIAR, is that we seek counsel from them and provide counsel to them about our in-country strategies. For instance, CSIRO is developing a much deeper relationship with Indonesia at the moment and, indeed, with many African countries. We do that with guidance and counsel from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

CHAIR: That is quite interesting.

Ms Yuncken : We also have some engagement with the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation secretariat or the group within the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade who coordinate it.

CHAIR: Please tell us about that.

Ms Yuncken : There are three projects at the moment, all three of which are funded by AusAID that incorporate involvement from the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation member states. One is based around seasonal forecasting of agriculture, one is looking at ocean forecasting, which is a very new one and has not started yet, and the other new one that also has not yet started is around the impacts of climate on island nations.

CHAIR: A very important subject.

Senator FAWCETT: There has been a fair bit of discussion about reinvigorating the concepts of the Colombo Plan to reach out in the region. Some of the work you are doing appears to be doing that anyway. Are you bringing people from the region here to participate in research and learning, or are your predominantly working with them in their own institutions? How might your work fit in with an expanded Colombo Plan concept?

Mrs Bell : It is both for us. One of the core tenets of CSIRO's international strategy is around the exchange of talent. That means getting our people over there and bringing as many people to Australia as we can. Throughout the year we would host hundreds of delegations, many of them from the countries around the Indian Ocean rim. Wherever possible and appropriate we use those delegations and the more formal exchanges of postdoctoral fellows and research fellows to build institutional-scale partnerships because that is where the rubber really begins to hit the road in building capacity.

Senator FAWCETT: In developing the capacity to meet the food task in many of those countries, clearly, it is a very tropical or a very arid environment for many. Are you investing in areas of Australia? In Northern Australia, for example, we have the Ord River scheme with plenty of water, but it is a very tropical environment and certain crops have failed in the past. Are you investing effort there with a view to leveraging that into other parts as well as into our own industry?

Mrs Bell : Very much so, and that is the great thing about Australia. I think we have a unique role to play in the region and particularly in those parts of Africa where European research agencies have traditionally been dominant and active. We are big and we range from tropical savannas to wet tropics to dry land and to arid agricultural constraints on our systems. We have many areas of research that we have invested in and continue to do so so that it can be dragged, dropped, tailored and contextualised.

Senator FAWCETT: If you could hazard a forecast, what do you think the potential is for that northern tropical band in Australia to be turned into a far more productive and intensive agricultural food production area, not only for Australia's benefit, but also to be clearly part of meeting the food task in the coming decades for the world and particularly for the Indian Ocean rim?

Mrs Bell : I am afraid, as non-agricultural scientists, we can only give the glib answer that we think there is enormous potential. We would love to take that question on notice and provide the committee with a more detailed brief.

Senator FAWCETT: That would be good. Do you also work in the health area? Clearly, the health impacts for people living around those regions have a huge bearing on the productivity development and quality of life et cetera. Are you working on those areas—for example, in tropical medicine, tropical preventative health—in Australia or are you predominantly trying to partner with people in other countries?

Mrs Bell : Two things that CSIRO does not do, really, in a broad sense is clinical medical research and nuclear. In the medical space, one of the interesting problems we are looking at is disease vectors and the way in which that will change under different climate regimes and population flows and so on, so there are a number of things we are doing. We are also partnering with industry on novel medical devices and so on that will really ramp up people's capacity to respond to different types of medical crises and situations that occur around the region—rapid-treatment assays and so on.

Ms Yuncken : We take a broad view of medicine and health as well. For example, our ICT area is doing quite a lot of work in ways to make the delivery of health services more efficient and more effective. We work in quite a lot of different areas, telehealth as well, so there are quite a lot of areas that could have the potential to be very useful to countries around the Indian Ocean rim.

Senator FAWCETT: Do you feel as though your budgets for research and development are adequate, given the potential of the task, or is that an area you would like to see both private sector and government—are there areas at the moment where there are constraints because of either a lack of private sector investment or government investment?

Mrs Bell : One thing that CSIRO has moved towards over the past few years is less fragmented work internationally and to larger partnerships that allow us to do exactly that. We have increased the size of the budget on projects that we are looking at. For instance, we have a partnership with GE that includes healthcare, so that is an industry example. With AusAID our partnership, to date, has been far more around agriculture but we are looking at bringing health into the mix there.

Senator FAWCETT: Does AusAID fund you for research that you do in Australia, that will have a benefit overseas, or is one of the constraints that the work must actually be done overseas?

Mrs Bell : No. It is quite a relevant question. Hypothetically, some of the work we do—for instance, around agricultural modelling—on a project in East Africa or India or Bangladesh may involve a strong component of desk based research in Australia and then a foray into the field.

Senator STEPHENS: Have you dealt with the University Mobility in the Indian Ocean Region yet?

Mrs Bell : No, I am not aware of that, I am sorry.

Senator KROGER: Just going back to your overview statement, you mentioned that CSIRO was involved in food security projects in East Africa. Could you expand on that? Are they soil improvement related projects or water projects? What kinds of projects were you referring to?

Mrs Bell : I can provide a brief overview. They are all of the above. It is quite a holistic approach to sustainable agriculture in the region. It is the farming methodology. It is the cropping. It is the soil improvement. It is almost a paddock-to-plate look at how to improve agricultural practices in the region. The sustainable agriculture flagship—which, again, we are looking at the transferability of what we have done in Australia and contextualising it in East Africa—is looking at not just improving productivity but also reducing the carbon footprint, so preparing nations who are participating in this will not just improve their agricultural productivity but also it will open up trade options for them.

Senator KROGER: Okay. And who actually funds CSIRO to do that?

Mrs Bell : AusAID.

Senator KROGER: So is that a project that AusAID contracts out? Did AusAID contract that out to CSIRO to fulfil various requirements of a particular project? Is that what happens?

Mrs Bell : Yes. That is right.

Senator KROGER: Can you trust take me through that process. Do you have to report back? What reporting mechanism is in place for that?

Mrs Bell : We might need to take that on notice, but I can give you a very brief overview.

Senator KROGER: Yes, please do.

Mrs Bell : There is a very comprehensive reporting-back process because we are acting as program managers for funds. So we are doing some of the research and there is reporting on the research content, but of course as program managers we also have reporting around accountability for the funds and so on.

Senator KROGER: As project managers on those particular ones, for instance, do you engage local partners to deliver on the ground?

Mrs Bell : Yes.

Senator KROGER: Am I kind of going down the right track—

Mrs Bell : Yes.

Senator KROGER: or am I totally off the mark here?

Mrs Bell : No, you are totally on song. There are two major partners in Africa, both very, very well established research agencies and institutes. In West Africa, which I know we are not looking at, it is CORAF/WECARD, and in East Africa it is BecA—too many acronyms!

Senator KROGER: That is okay. So are they African based?

Mrs Bell : Yes.

Senator KROGER: That is what I am trying to ascertain—whether they are local organisations or whatever you want to call them.

Ms Yuncken : Yes, they are regional organisations that take in several countries within that area of Africa.

Senator KROGER: So they are NGOs?

Mrs Bell : No, research agencies.

Senator KROGER: Under the structure of governments?

Mrs Bell : I am not sure who the East African research agency, BecA, is with. We can take that on notice, though, and certainly provide you with the information.

Senator KROGER: That would be helpful. You might have to take this on notice too: in terms of what CSIRO does, the extraordinary work that it does, how many people would be engaged in the Indian Ocean rim holistically in terms of activities? Apart from those in East Africa and India, are there any others that would be focused on the rim—even if it is as a proportion of the work CSIRO does, like five per cent or 30 per cent? I am not trying to be too specific; it is just to get an indication of what the priorities are.

Ms Yuncken : Can I first just clarify that we do not actually have any staff in those countries permanently. All of our staff are based in Australia, and we spend some time over there.

Senator KROGER: I appreciate that. So, of the overall activities, how many would be currently dedicated to in that region, whether based here or there? As I said, I am just interested in getting a rough idea, an understanding, of the focus that is applied to the area.

Mrs Bell : Yes. We will certainly take that on notice. I suspect it would be quite a big—

Senator KROGER: It does not have to be too accurate; that is what I am saying—just a rough guesstimate.

Mrs Bell : Okay.

Ms Yuncken : No problem.

Senator KROGER: Thanks.

CHAIR: Senator Fawcett.

Senator FAWCETT: I wanted to follow up on one of those questions. The funds from AusAID—is that a direct government-to-government contract, or do you have to tender for that and bid against, for example, universities or the private sector to do research? Is it on a competitive basis?

Mrs Bell : We would need to take on notice the actual genesis of that particular contract with Africa. Our partnership with AusAID—the broader partnership; I am not referring to the East African work—is a co-investment arrangement to which CSIRO contribute some funds and AusAID contribute some funds as well. To date, that has been the way it is structured.

Senator FAWCETT: Sure. If you could take on notice, not just for the African one but for any of those others, other than your partnership, whether you compete for that or whether that is just a part of the partnership that is sort of extrapolated on a case-by-case basis.

Mrs Bell : Yes.

Ms Yuncken : The Pacific Public Sector Linkages fund, which we mentioned earlier, is absolutely a competitive fund, so we are competing against other organisations across Australia for that. We will take the others on notice.

Senator FAWCETT: Thank you.

CHAIR: Thank you very much for appearing this morning. It has been very helpful.

Mrs Bell : Thank you.

Ms Yuncken : Thanks to the committee.