Our science challenges

Queensland faces many challenges and opportunities and it is important that we focus on those that provide us with a distinct advantage, not only in developing scientific expertise, but in delivering real-world and commercial solutions.

Solutions that benefit all Queenslanders and can be exported to the rest of the world.

Previous investment by the state government has made a significant difference to our science infrastructure, people and projects. However, the challenge now is to unlock the value of our research and make our big ideas happen.

To make a real future impact, we need to create strong and lasting collaborative partnerships between researchers, industry and government. Together we can focus our efforts, attract funding and build our research and development expertise.

There is a disconnect in the supply chain of most food products that leads to inefficiency with limited scope to optimise and drive value-add and cost efficiency gains. The collection of data is becoming an increasing feature of management of the Australian agriculture industries. In the beef sector, data is collected for medication, traceability, genetics, production techniques and features including site monitoring and behavioural studies. Capturing this information and using it for marketing and product quality purposes will significantly improve product differentiation and add value in the eyes of the consumer.

Differentiated product with provenance, romance, and history provide reasons why consumers should support it in the market place. Deftly marketed product, such as fine wine, adds value along each step of the supply chain. True to the statement by Michael Ossipoff, Director of Capability and Innovation, Telstra 2015 "In today's global world you can compete in two ways, one is on price, the second is on information...". We will need to be creative in the way in which such information is derived, managed, and used - with platform technologies such as advanced sensors, big data analytics, and block chain ultimately playing a huge role in creating this value-add. A successful bid to create the Food Agility CRC with potential for a node in Queensland would support this focus area, particularly the second imperative to demonstrate provenance of Australian safe and sustainable food while cutting the cost of red tape for business.

The content collated, managed, and shared on e-platforms is open-ended, and the application of such systems are diverse. For example, the Atlas of Living Australia aggregates biodiversity data from multiple sources and makes it available and usable online, adding far greater value than would occur otherwise. The need to develop as a priority a 'platform for humanities, arts, and social sciences' was identified in the 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, to bring together multiple data sets from many social science disciplines that will enable harvesting and re-use of data for research purposes. Interoperability of existing portals and facilities, and leveraging next generation technologies would facilitate delivery of a greater degree of integration across state, national, and international institutions, which will enable revolutionary and harmonised platforms for Indigenous research. Consideration could be given to the types of e-platforms QLD should lead and develop.

The largest abandoned mine site in Queensland is the former Mount Morgan Gold Mine, which has significant environmental issues from acid mineral drainage and seepage of water from tailings dams and sulphide mineral dumps. It is estimated that the acid mine environmental issues occurring at Mount Morgan are also occurring at approximately 600 abandoned mine sites within Australia, and 6,000 legacy mine sites worldwide. Remediation of acid mineral drainage and seepage is costly, estimated at $100 million per mine site on average. There is strong investor interest in financial instruments which support mine remediation according to a respected investment manager in Australia. Queensland has a significant base of knowledge and experience in mine remediation through the METS Growth Centre (METS Ignited), CRC Ore, Sustainable Minerals Institute, and Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation. The opportunity is scalable, with the potential for a significant benefit, and builds on Queensland's strengths.

Renewable energy deployment within urban and industrial developments has the potential to offer sustainable economic development across Queensland offering new drivers for housing affordability, lifting productivity and providing benefits of localised renewable generation.

We are on the cusp of a robotics revolution which will change our lives and transform farming, construction, defence, mining and environmental management (emergency response). Unmanned aerial vehicles and sensor networks will safely conduct surveillance, search and rescue, and monitor fire outbreaks. Personal robots will become an everyday fact of life. Autonomous vehicles will become the norm and will navigate successfully in a range of environments. Factory robots will streamline processes and robotic trains will transport us. UAVs will investigate disaster situations - like fires - and report on details, reducing the risk to first responders. Our workforce is ideally placed to be leaders in the use of robotics technology statewide in order to maximise our productivity and use of vast and geographically distributed resources.

Building on recent investments in transport infrastructure, Queensland has the opportunity to strengthen its leadership role in the transport sector in the South East Asian region. The transport system is critical to economic growth - it moves goods and services, and connects people to economic activity. Unreliable or unsuitable transport systems hinder productivity. Growing populations increase pressure on transport, and limited funds and scarcity of land make difficult the continued expansion of transport capacity. Transport must become smarter. Advances in sensors, micro motors, and data communications provide exciting opportunities to track, coordinate and control the transport system, and create significant productivity gains that could be emulated around the world.

We live in an increasingly digital age - 90% of today’s data was created in the last two years. ‘Big data’ - data sets so large and complex that they are difficult to process using traditional data processing applications - is an increasingly complex universal problem. The global big data technology and services market is expected to grow from US$6 billion in 2011 to US$24 billion in 2016. However, we face a global skill shortfall which will constrain this. (By 2018 it is predicted that the US will have 200,000 fewer skilled ‘data wranglers’ than necessary.) To keep up with the market, we must make use of the data we generate, invest in our future capability, embed research into business and develop a sensing and analysis network which integrates big data across sectors and subjects.

Each year, inefficiencies and waste cost the Queensland healthcare system hundreds of millions of dollars. Continued double-digit growth in health expenditure is unsustainable. Queensland’s population is growing and ageing, chronic disease is prevalent, costs of care are escalating and patient expectations are rising. Scarce public funds need to be prioritised to achieve the best possible health outcomes. We need to do more with less. We need a health system that is affordable, sustainable, continually improving and providing quality care that enhances the health outcomes for Queenslanders. To do this we must find innovative solutions that enhance the ways in which we organise, manage, finance, and deliver high quality care; and that reduce medical errors and improve patient safety.

Queensland has a very active and productive research community, however, translation of ideas and innovations into commercial outcomes remains extremely low. Queensland researchers have taken some ideas to market – like cancer vaccine Gardasil – but too often great research isn’t translated into commercial outcomes. With the exception of a few industry heavyweights, Australian medical device companies are typically young and small and trying to compete globally with large multi-national companies. In 2012, Australia’s share of the US$340 billion global advanced medical technologies market (medical devices, medical imaging and patient monitoring) was just 2%. Improving our translation of ideas and inventions into commercialised products will benefit patients world-wide and generate significant income for Queensland. (For example, the stent graft commercialised by Cook Medical generates AU$100 million in exports annually.)

There exists an opportunity in Queensland environment that would allow researchers and inventors to: tap into industry resources to drive the translation of ideas into economic returns; connect research to commercial end users; turn ideas into action; and connect with local and global support networks. Existing networks between universities, commercial partners, and support industries could be leveraged to achieve real outcomes in medical technology and to maintain momentum built by leading local companies.

To keep up with population growth, global food production needs to rise by 75% by 2050. Food trade is also tipped to increase dramatically due to increased Asian imports of meat, vegetables and fruit. Food safety is a key issue – and reliable international food suppliers will profit. North Queensland has the necessary land and water resources to expand Queensland agriculture, but new technologies and approaches need to be deployed to drive productivity growth and ensure success. Modest volume and value improvements are not enough to be globally competitive. Transformational change and new technologies such as genomics are needed to speed up release of high quality, high value products.

The retention and performance of students in STEM subjects is critically important for our future. Over the past decade, Queensland’s demand for STEM skills in the workforce has increased significantly, however, the number of students studying these subjects at school and university has fallen. The performance of our students in these areas lags behind those of their national and international counterparts, and many of our teachers feel ill-prepared to teach these subjects. It is imperative that we implement strategies to increase enrolment numbers and improve teacher and student outcomes. We want Queensland to become home to academic excellence in STEM subjects and a community that is engaged with and values science and its contribution to the world.

Extreme weather events have an enormous social and economic impact on Queensland. In the last four years, hundreds of lives have been lost across Australia as a result of bushfires, heatwaves, floods and cyclones. Insurance claims, infrastructure repair, and lost productivity have cost the economy tens of billions of dollars. Scientists warn that Queensland is likely to be increasingly affected by climate variability. We must develop a series of interconnected adaptation measures to limit the devastating impacts extreme weather events have, like infrastructure which is robust and capable of withstanding extreme weather events, and mining, agricultural and tourism industries which are resilient and can recover quickly.

Coal currently provides 40% of the world’s electricity needs and is the fastest-growing global energy source, driven by the economic growth of developing economies like China. At current extraction rates, Queensland’s coal resources – a key part of our economy - will last for another 120 years. However, coal will become increasingly unsustainable in the current drive towards an international low-carbon economy resulting from tougher environmental regulations. There is an opportunity to develop advanced coal-to-liquids facilities that manufacture coal into high value, non-fuel products such as polymers. It is possible that this process will be substantially cheaper than existing coal production methods, and produce far less carbon dioxide – making it an attractive alternative the world over.

Water is our most vital commodity and will become increasingly important into the future. New activities, such as coal seam gas, and increasing demand from established industries can significantly impact local water resources. The Queensland Government goal to double agricultural production by 2040 will require additional water use and affect downstream water quality and quantity. To minimise conflict over water, and ensure we do not suffer reduced agriculture production and economic losses, we must understand how different uses interact and impact upon our water resources. Current research responds primarily to existing issues, but to ensure water sustainability it is vital to develop proactive and integrated responses to future water issues.

The development of innovative advanced manufacturing industries in Queensland is hindered by profitability issues (e.g. high price of labour and cost of inputs), declining multifactor productivity, and poor collaboration. Transformative technologies - such as nanotechnology - lead to new industries. We must enhance research and development in manufacturing to encourage the development of profitable new products, services and industries for Queensland.

The Queensland construction industry was responsible for generating $60 billion worth of activity in Queensland in 2013-14. As a major employer and contributor to Queensland’s economy, action is needed to ensure Queensland’s building and construction industry is innovative, progressive and prosperous.

An emerging innovation is the Digital Built Environment – a digital modelling technique - which can be used to plan, design and manage every aspect of our buildings, services and cities to deliver better outcomes quicker, at less cost and with lower risk. Queensland has the opportunity to become a leader in Digital Built Environment technology, to increase productivity and underpin a developing industry capability across the building and construction supply chain that will serve to enhance the future global competitiveness of the building and construction industry.

The Australian Mining Equipment, Technology and Services (METS) sector and the mining industry generally face significant challenges. In Queensland we need to mine deeper and lower grade ores in more remote locations; community demands regarding safety, environmental management and social impacts are increasing; and growth is impeded by skills shortages, difficulties attracting investment capital and declining commodity prices. Mining is becoming increasingly knowledge-intensive with growing research and development and innovation. Information technology is key to this sector – it forms the basis for innovation in data acquisition, modelling of ore bodies, mine sites and production operations. The growth of the METS sector could have transformational opportunities for Queensland and more widely.

Queensland has globally significant unconventional gas reserves and is well placed to develop an environmentally sustainable large-scale onshore gas sector, which would play a significant role in driving regional employment and development. Global demand for gas is predicted to increase by 2.4% annually until 2018, with natural gas from unconventional reservoirs (coal seam gas, tight gas and shale gas) increasingly important. A large-scale onshore gas sector has a potential pivotal role in regional employment and development, but a balance is required between resource stewardship and management, societal and economic impacts based on evidence and scientific rationale. Experience internationally shows there are significant savings to be found if the vast amount of data generated in exploration and production is used to improve efficiencies and deliver lower cost energy for Queensland and the world!

Queensland could lead Australia in the transition from a petroleum-based economy to a ‘bio-based’ economy. Queensland farms – which account for 21% of the 134,000 farms in Australia - face declining export prices, but could significantly transform their businesses by producing marketable bio-based products. Many farms already produce plant and animal waste - or have the ability to grow a range of non-food plant materials - which could be developed into chemicals, plastics and fuels, creating significant income and providing a more sustainable fuel source for our state.

There are huge opportunities in Queensland to use services to enhance existing industries, and take advantage of niche opportunities where we have a competitive advantage, such as infrastructure and resource services, urban services (design, planning, construction, engineering), environmental services and ICT services. The economic importance of services is often not recognised. Developing nations are becoming increasingly skilled with significant capacity to grow their services industry, which will result in increasing services exports to Australia. Given our population size, our ability to be competitive across the board is limited. Growth in services, especially knowledge-intensive services, contributes significantly to high-value job creation in mature economies. As globalisation continues to create new competitive pressures – and opportunities – for many Queensland firms, service industries will be vital to job creation and innovation.

Food security is a huge issue worldwide. Many countries already experience ongoing food shortages, which result in chronic and widespread hunger among significant numbers of people. World-wide, variable climates, growing populations and increasing land scarcity will see this problem grow into the future. Queensland scientists are developing solutions. They are increasing the nutrient quality of basic foods and improving farming techniques. Underused resources in northern Queensland are being exploited to increase food production for our Asian neighbours. New drought and disease resistant staple crop varieties are being developed to produce more food and see Australia able to farm land currently unsuitable for production.

The Great Barrier Reef is a vibrant and diverse ecosystem, home to millions of species of plants and animals. Made up of 2,900 reefs along 2,300km of Queensland's coastline, the Great Barrier Reef is one of the largest United Nations World Heritage areas and one of our proudest tourist attractions. Sadly, the reef is under threat from climate change and other human activities. We urgently need targeted scientific research to guide our management of this precious resource to ensure it is protected and preserved for future generations.

Genomics is the branch of molecular biology concerned with the structure, function, evolution, and mapping of genomes. The past five years have seen a spectacular and unprecedented advance in our capacity to sequence genomes, and thus understand the biological blueprint of all living organisms. These advances have occurred at the same time as a dramatic and sustained fall in the cost of gene sequencing. Never before has there been the ability to use genomics to develop new ways to kill cancer without damaging the patient, to deliver higher quality, more nutritious food, to manage pests and diseases more effectively, or to better understand the complex biology of complex ecosystems such as the Great Barrier Reef. As home to internationally recognised genome scientists and leading universities and research institutes, and strong and diverse local industries, Queensland is well placed to benefit substantially new knowledge in this area.