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Commercial benefits won't flow without commitment to long-term research

Australia reached a significant milestone last week, passing the 5 gigawatts of installed solar power across the country. According to solar energy consultancy SunWiz, that represents enough solar power to light up 1.25 million Australian homes – the equivalent of every household in Brisbane and Perth combined.

Nationally solar now accounts for 9 per cent of total electricity generation, according to analysis of data from the Renewable Energy Certificate Registry. While much of the recent growth in solar energy generation has come from larger facilities, rooftop solar continues to play a significant role, and in Canberra, 16,000 homes now have panels on their roof. A major new industry has emerged thanks in part to the rapid advances in solar panel efficiency and the lowering of costs.

Yet in the same week Australia passed that impressive milestone, the head of the powerhouse behind many of the country's most promising innovations, the CSIRO, was attempting to convince staff that the loss of 350 jobs would be good for the organisation.

Many of the deepest cuts are set to come from the climate modelling and monitoring areas, with chief executive Larry Marshall explaining that after 20 years of work in that area it was time to move on to other priorities.

Mr Marshall is correct when he says that the notion of a customer is often a new one for scientists. There is a growing attitude that in order to pay its way, research must be linked to tangible, commercial outcomes.

Yet impressive milestones like wide scale take-up of solar panels do not happen without the pure science that lead to technological advances. As has been noted elsewhere, some of the CSIRO's most commercially important breakthroughs like wireless internet technology have been accidents discovered while conducting research in other areas like radio astronomy.

Australian scientists and researchers can hold their heads high as some of the best in the world. This week we heard for the first time what gravitational waves sound like, thanks in part to the involvement of Australian National University researchers. Would this breakthrough, that after 100 years validates one of Albert Einstein's most important theories, have happened, had those researchers been pushing for a commercial outcome?

It will be impossible for Australia to benefit from commercial breakthroughs unless we continue to support research for research's sake in fields like climatology that help us improve our understanding of our world. If, as former prime minister Kevin Rudd said in 2007, climate change is the great moral challenge of our generation, how can we hope to solve it while cutting hundreds of jobs from the bodies charged with researching it?

2800 scientists from nearly 60 countries have now signed an open letter to the CSIRO stating, "The capacity of Australia to assess future risks and plan for climate change adaptation crucially depends on maintaining and augmenting this research capacity.

"Without committing to the continued development of next generation climate monitoring and climate modelling, billions of public investment dollars for long term infrastructure will be based on guesswork rather than on strategic and informed science-driven policy. "

Despite the legislative and political uncertainty around renewable energy, Australia has managed to claim a place at the forefront of innovation. Whether we are able to maintain that position in the coming years will be an issue CSIRO management will have to think deeply about as they set their future priorities.

Source: The Age

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