There is an innovation dividend in rescuing the Great Barrier Reef

Bill Ferris AC, Chair of Innovation and Science Australia, published this opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review.
Portrait of the author Bill Ferris AC

Bill Ferris AC, Chair of Innovation and Science Australia

Bill Ferris AC, Chair of Innovation and Science Australia, published this opinion piece in the Australian Financial Review.

The innovation challenge

Really big problems present opportunities for innovation, and nowhere is that more apparent in an Australian context than in our efforts to restore and protect the Great Barrier Reef.

It's well documented that we are already seeing the consequences of one degree  of global warming through more extreme weather and rising ocean temperatures.

Climate change has resulted in the reef coming under attack from global bleaching events that have killed an estimated 50 per cent of coral in the northern section of the GBR.

There's worse ahead if we can't limit global warming to 1.5 degrees compared with the current trajectory towards 2 degrees or more. Of course, only a global response to emission controls including an orderly transition to cleaner and lower emission energy can ultimately address this challenge.

But we should not sit like frogs in a pot of warming water expecting a global response to fix such matters fast enough for the reef to be saved. By being proactive, Australia has an opportunity to buy more time for the reef through resourcing its world leading scientists, engineers and innovators to develop new technologies and solutions enabling corals to cope, to adapt and evolve with increasing ocean temperatures.

The recently approved Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program (RRAP) is one way our innovators are getting on with this already.

In January, the government provided $6 million to undertake a concept feasibility phase for the RRAP as part of a 10-year program to develop new technologies to assist reef recovery and adaptation.

With a further $100 million of the government's total $443 million allocation to the reef (via the Great Barrier Reef Foundation) announced in April 2018, the RRAP is being led by some of our great science and research institutions.

Ambitious joint project

These include the Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and CSIRO, in partnership with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, James Cook University, the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology.

It is an ambitious joint project that complements the government's existing reef protection plan focused on other threats including the crown of thorns and damaging pollutant run-offs.

While inspection of the government funding allocation via the GBRF is understandable, we shouldn't allow politics to stop progress of the RRAP which has, at its core, the goal of creating a possible recovery and protection strategy for the reef beyond 2030.

Behind the scenes of this work are some of our brightest and best people, including oceanographers, ecologists, marine biologists and engineers. Australia needs them to be able to get on with their jobs with unequivocal support.

There are no guarantees, but if the RRAP succeeds in developing innovative and effective new reef technologies, it will prolong the life of a multitude of reefs that constitute our remarkable Great Barrier Reef.

It will also demonstrate innovation in action, harnessing the excellence of our own science and implementation skills. And it will lead the world with breakthrough technologies for reefs globally.

In our report Australia 2030: Prosperity through Innovation released earlier this year, Innovation and Science Australia highlighted the challenge of building a national culture of innovation.

To encourage this ambition, we called out a role for the government to lead national missions – large-scale and ambitious undertakings to address major challenges and opportunities now faced by the Australian economy and society.

Culture of innovation

Missions such as restoring and protecting the reef which, if tackled collaboratively by our world leading scientists, entrepreneurs and innovators, would help stimulate a culture of innovation.

Another such national mission, the Genomics and Precision Medicine National Mission – which will help to deliver better disease prevention and novel treatments for all Australians and one day make Australia the healthiest nation on the planet – is already under way.

Restoring our iconic reef, the world's largest living organism and a contributor of $6.4 billion each year to the economy and 64,000 full-time jobs, would be another tremendous demonstration of the power of Australian science and innovation.

The work of the RRAP will build on Australia's world-leading science capability and marine research infrastructure, particularly in tropical marine sciences.

Along the way, this work will leverage existing and new intellectual property to help with the creation of new products and niche industries in areas such as coral nurseries, aquaculture and aquarium technology, bioactive surfaces, bio-materials and autonomous reef inspection devices and sensors.

Enabling innovation on a nationally grand scale requires and deserves re-invigoration of that rarest of species in Australia, sustained bi-partisan support.

About the author

Bill Ferris AC is a pioneer of venture capital and private equity investing in Australia and Chair of Innovation and Science Australia.

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