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Chapter 23: National research and emerging technology

Summary

23.1 There is a need for Australia-wide agreement on a prioritised research agenda that identifies and targets critical knowledge gaps. Such an agenda would assist in ensuring that finite resources are strategically targeted to critical priorities, while reducing duplication and leveraging co-investment from other levels of government, the private sector and research institutions. National research priorities may include research that is national in coverage, or relates to a localised research priority but with national significance. Australia has strong research and development capabilities in climate and natural disasters to support this.

23.2 In order to be of practical use, for the translation of research, pathways and structures for interaction between governments, research institutions, the private sector, individuals and end-users are necessary. Focused investment in research is required to improve knowledge and understanding of natural hazards and disaster risk. This will drive the development of expertise and technology to deal with natural disasters.

23.3 The Australian Government invests in the infrastructure and institutions required to support many of the national research capabilities relevant to natural disasters. The state and territory governments also invest in research relevant to natural disasters, including through investment in the Australian Government Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program, and in research to understand and assess the impact of local and regional natural disasters.

23.4 The private sector is an essential contributor to long term natural disaster resilience. Australian, state and territory governments should take steps to facilitate engagement with the private sector, to maximise utilisation of ideas and technologies.

23.5 There are opportunities to develop and utilise technologies in all phases of a natural disaster. This should not just be through the development of new technology, but also through better use of existing technology.

Driving the development of expertise and technology

23.6 Focused investment in research is required to improve knowledge and understanding of natural hazards and disaster risk. Improved knowledge and understanding will drive the development of expertise, tools, systems and technology to deal with natural disasters.

23.7 Two of the four priorities under the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework have direct relevance to research and investment:

  • priority 1 – ‘understand disaster risk’, including by supporting ‘long-term and solution-driven research, innovation and knowledge practices’, and
  • priority 3 – ‘enhanced investment’, including by pursuing ‘collaborative commercial financing options’ for ‘disaster risk reduction initiatives’ and developing ‘disaster risk reduction investment tools to provide practical guidance on investment mechanisms’.

23.8 The value of research and the use of technology was the subject of extensive input to our inquiry, both from public submissions and in response to notices we issued.

23.9 Australian, state and territory government agencies and other organisations provided us with hundreds of suggested areas where research and technology can improve disaster management arrangements. Although there were varied and competing interests in the priorities identified, there were areas of common interest, many of which have informed our recommendations in this report.

Australia has a strong research base

23.10 Australia has strong research and development capabilities in climate and natural disasters. These include:

  • publicly-funded research agencies – including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Bureau of Meteorology and Geoscience Australia
  • national initiatives – including the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre (BNHCRC) and its proposed successor
  • universities – including their research hubs, centres, institutes, and groups, and
  • the private sector – including insurers, private research providers and technology companies, many of which often work in partnership with universities and publicly-funded research organisations, and contribute to the development of new technologies.

23.11 Investment in research to drive continuous improvement in science and technology is not only important but also necessary for Australia, particularly in light of the disaster outlook (see Chapter 2: Natural disaster risk). As the Office of Australia’s Chief Scientist notes:

Australia’s ability to adapt to a changing climate and increased incidence of bushfires and other crises will continue to depend on universities and research institutes to expand Australia’s diverse knowledge base, critical thinking and research capability, and to translate the research into continued improvements in preparation, response and recovery. [2603]

National research capabilities

23.12 The Australian Government has made considerable investments in the infrastructure and institutions required to support many of the national research capabilities relevant to natural disasters.

23.13 The key national research institutions involved in natural hazard, climate and disaster research appear to be the Bureau of Meteorology, CSIRO and Geoscience Australia. These institutions have developed important partnerships and collaborations with international research institutions, state and territory agencies, universities, the private sector and non‑government organisations.

Bureau of Meteorology

23.14 The Bureau of Meteorology undertakes research on Australia’s weather, climate and water, leveraging its network of observational infrastructure and its partnerships with domestic and international agencies and research bodies. Drawing on its research, the bureau provides weather forecasts advice and analysis to governments, emergency services, industry, and the community.

23.15 The Bureau of Meteorology also contributes to work supporting Australian, state and territory government initiatives in climate and disaster risk. For example, it contributed to the development of the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework, the Australian Vulnerability Profile and the report to the Prime Minister on Climate and Disaster Resilience.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

23.16 The CSIRO delivers applied research to support a broad range of government, non-government and private sector stakeholders to understand, mitigate, and respond to natural hazards.

23.17 CSIRO collaborates with the Bureau of Meteorology to produce national climate projections and modelling for Australia. CSIRO also assists state emergency service agencies to predict, manage and assess the impacts of bushfires, and works with rural fire services and research bodies to understand ecosystems and bushfire dynamics. In recent years, CSIRO has developed SPARK, a fire prediction platform for bushfire modelling that integrates fire weather data with geographic information and fire spread models. [2604]

23.18 CSIRO also leads work to support Australian Government initiatives in climate and disaster risk. For example:

  • developing the Climate Compass with the Australian Government Department of Environment and Energy – a climate risk management framework for Australian Government agencies
  • leading the preparation of the technical report supporting the Australian Vulnerability Profile, and
  • preparing a recent report to the Prime Minister: CSIRO Report of Climate and Disaster Resilience.

23.19 CSIRO hosts the Earth Systems and Climate Change (ESCC) Hub, a partnership between CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, University of NSW, Australian National University, Monash University, University of Melbourne and the University of Tasmania. [2605]

Geoscience Australia

23.20 Geoscience Australia develops tools and models to support and improve understanding of natural hazards and disaster risk in Australia and the Asia Pacific region. For example, the National Seismic Hazard Assessment, the Probabilistic Tsunami Hazard Assessment, Digital Earth Australia Hotspots and Waterbodies, statistical modelling of coastal storm waves, statistical-parametric modelling to assess wind hazard from tropical cyclones and hazard impact tools.

23.21 Geoscience Australia develops national-scale datasets, collated from a range of public and commercial sources. It develops platforms to present these data to end‑users, for example, Land cover, National Wind Multiplier Dataset, Marine Sediments Database (MARS), Tropical Cyclone Hazard Assessment Data, National Exposure Information (NEXIS).

23.22 Geoscience Australia has participated in a number of international initiatives that contribute to the implementation of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction (Sendai Framework). For example:

  • supporting the United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNDRR) to develop a subset of the Words into Action guidelines, designed to support countries in developing a national disaster risk reduction strategy that is aligned with the Sendai Framework, and
  • reviewing a number of Hazard Information Profiles as part of the 2020 Sendai Hazards Definitions and Classification Review. Facilitated by the UNDRR and the International Science Council, the review aims to achieve consistency in risk assessment with agreed definitions. [2606]

23.23 Geoscience Australia is also a partner in the BNHCRC, contributing to projects relating to the built environment, flood and coastal management and emergency management capability. [2607]

Other Australian Government research capabilities

23.24 The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation monitors fine particle air pollution. For example, black carbon monitoring from bushfire smoke, including through the multi-wave absorption black carbon (MABI) technology. [2608]

23.25 The Australian Space Agency (ASA) funds civil space activities and is the primary source of advice to the Australian Government on civil space policy. [2609] After the bushfires in 2019‑2020, the ASA established and led the Bushfire Earth Observation Taskforce, working with the CSIRO, Geoscience Australia and the Bureau of Meteorology, to identify ways in which space based Earth observations could support planning, response and recovery for bushfires. [2610]

Cooperative research centres

23.26 The Australian Government, through the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) Program, supports industry-led collaborations between industry, researchers and the community. [2611] It links researchers with industry to focus on research and development that will have commercial uses. State and territory governments also participate in the CRC Program. A number of CRCs have been established over the years many with capabilities relevant to natural disaster resilience, response and recovery. The CRC Program has strong international collaborations with many international participants. [2612]

23.27 A recent example is the SmartSat CRC which was established in 2019 to conduct translational research to make the Australian space industry more competitive and future-proof. It has three research programs:

  • advanced communication, connectivity and ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) technologies
  • advanced satellite systems, sensors and intelligence, and
  • next generation earth observation data services.

23.28 Earth observation capabilities, remote sensing systems and data fusion and analytics have the potential to support more effective land management, planning, emergency response and recovery. Advanced satellite enabled communications and IoT connectivity technologies have the potential to provide short notice emergency connectivity and the rapid restoration of medium-term communications during the response and recovery phases of a natural disaster. [2613]

23.29 The BNHCRC, which was established on 1 July 2013 and is due to conclude on 30 June 2021, coordinates national research efforts in hazards, including bushfires, flood, storm, cyclone, heatwave, earthquake and tsunami. Examples of the programs, activities and technologies to which the BNHCRC has contributed include:

  • development of the Phoenix RapidFire fire spread modelling system which provides real-time information regarding the predicted spread of bushfires
  • Queensland Government’s Household Resilience Program, which provided homeowners with grants to upgrade their homes against damage caused by strong cyclonic winds, and
  • understanding risk and resilience priorities of Indigenous communities in southern Australia, the emergency management sector’s priorities for these communities, and how these interests interact. [2614]

23.30 On 24 July 2020, the Australian Government announced funding of $88.1 million to ‘support the transition of the BNHCRC to a new, world-class research centre for natural hazard resilience and disaster risk reduction’. [2615]

23.31 The new research centre will be co-funded by the states and territories, universities, and industry partners. [2616] We were told that the Department of Home Affairs will consult with the Department of Industry, Science, Energy and Resources and other stakeholders, such as CSIRO, BNHCRC and AFAC to determine the governance and funding arrangements for the new research centre. [2617]

23.32 During our inquiry, the Australian, state and territory governments have told us they support, or support in-principle, the research centre for natural hazard resilience and disaster risk reduction:

  • reinforcing Australia as a major world centre of bushfire research
  • targeting delivery of national research priorities that address national knowledge gaps and national research needs, and
  • facilitating research that brings together universities, government agencies and delivery partners.

23.33 The NSW, Queensland, Victorian, SA and WA Governments encouraged the Australian Government to consult and collaborate with state and territory governments to establish the centre and/or identify research priorities.

23.34 We welcome the Australian Government’s commitment to continuing to support natural hazards research in Australia.

23.35 Research partners and end-users of the research should be consulted on research priorities for the new national research centre for natural hazard resilience and disaster risk reduction, including as to the implementation of ideas and the practical applications of the results of that research.

Australian Learned Academies

23.36 The Australian Learned Academies include the Australian Academy of Science, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, Australian Academy of the Humanities, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering, and Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences. The Bushfire Research and Technology: Mapping Australia’s Capability report of the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia, published in June 2020, noted that Australia’s Learned Academies play a critical role in promoting international engagement and providing opportunities for researchers and innovators to connect with counterparts. [2618]

23.37 Other examples of the roles the Learned Academies play in advancing natural disaster research include:

  • Australian Academy of Science, following the 2019‑2020 bushfires, prepared and published a series of evidence briefs on bushfire recovery, [2619] and
  • Australian Academy of Humanities conducts research on community recovery and resilience, Indigenous land use management, human adaptation to climate change and the use of media and communications in extreme events. [2620]

State and territory governments

23.38 The state and territory governments invest significantly in research relevant to natural disasters, including through investment in various CRCs and research to understand and assess the impact of local and regional natural disasters. For example, the NSW Rural Fire Services has engaged CSIRO to review the survival rates and loss context of houses impacted in the 2019‑2020 bushfire season in the state of NSW. [2621]

Private sector

23.39 The private sector, including business, non-government and philanthropic organisations, and individuals such as entrepreneurs, are making an increasingly significant contribution to Australia’s national research capabilities relevant to natural hazards, climate and disasters.

23.40 For example:

  • The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities was established in 2012. [2622] Its members include the Australian Red Cross, Insurance Australia Group, Investa Property Group, Munich Re, Optus and Westpac Group. [2623] The Roundtable has produced five research reports in relation to natural disasters. [2624]
  • The Insurance Australia Group (IAG) has collaborated with the US National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), to produce the report Severe Weather in a Changing Climate. [2625] This report examines the impact of climate change on severe weather types and natural disasters, particularly in the context of catastrophe losses and insurance. [2626]
  • The James Cook Cyclone Testing Station is an independent centre for the testing of building products and the development of testing techniques. Its partners include IAG, RACQ, the Queensland Government and Suncorp. [2627]
  • The Minderoo Foundation, an independent Australian philanthropic organisation, has committed to fund a range of initiatives, including flood and fire resilience. [2628]

23.41 The National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework notes that there is a need to focus on:

  • finding or developing financing and funding pathways to address existing high priority risks across all environments, and
  • identifying financing mechanisms and pathways to pursue disaster risk reduction measures in planned projects, particularly infrastructure and development projects. Strategies to promote private sector research include commercial financing and investment models such as loans, equity contributions, guarantees and public-private partnerships. [2629]

23.42 The private sector is an essential contributor to long term natural disaster resilience.

Practical application of research

23.43 There is broad agreement among disaster management practitioners and research institutions that, in order to be of practical use, research requires pathways and structures for interaction between governments, research institutions, the private sector, individuals and end-users. Such pathways can contribute to research outcomes having practical application. Existing structures, such as the BNHCRC and the Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience, provide two examples of relevant pathways.

23.44 AIDR initiatives that are designed to bridge the gap between research and end‑user include:

  • Centre for Excellence on Prescribed Burning, a hub for prescribed burning practitioners to share and promote best practices, research, and ‘lessons learned’ [2630]
  • Australian Disaster Resilience Handbook Collection, a source of knowledge about disaster resilience principles in Australia, and
  • Australian Disaster Resilience Knowledge Hub, a national, open-source platform providing access to curated content collections. [2631]

23.45 Some jurisdictions have incorporated new research pathways in their research governance arrangements. For example, the Queensland Government facilitates sector-wide, collaboration to disaster management research through its Research Advisory Panel and the Queensland Disaster Management Research Framework, coordinated by the Office of the Inspector-General Emergency Management.

23.46 Technology can be used to deliver key functions across all phases of disaster management such as through emergency information to communities, aerial support, fire spread modelling, and tactical radio systems.

23.47 We heard of difficulties that some private sector entrepreneurs experienced in engaging with government to provide and explain their potential contributions.

23.48 Australian, state and territory governments should take steps to facilitate engagement with the private sector to maximise utilisation of ideas and technologies.

23.49 However, our hearings highlighted examples of private sector and individual initiatives which are pursuing innovative research and technology to assist disaster management. These included:

  • Ninox Robotics, a specialised drone company, which has researched and produced bespoke aerial intelligence for use in the emergency response to bushfires to provide additional operational capabilities. [2632]
  • Attentis, a company designing and manufacturing patented multi-sensors [2633] providing a range of capabilities, including: fire ignition and flame detection; 360 degrees cameras; time lapse and high definition video; air quality sampling; flood detection with water heights; lightning detection; and vibration and structural and ground movement. [2634]
  • Smartrak, a company offering a range of telemetry products which can track vehicles and personnel in remote locations. [2635]
  • Bushfire.io, a group of individuals that developed a web-based system that fuses data to provide a national view of emergency warnings and alert information for bushfires. [2636] We heard that Bushfire.io hopes to expand its system to include other natural hazards. [2637]
  • Red Helmet Technology, a developer of a suite of products relevant to natural disasters, including Alert to Me, an app that brings together data to provide a national view of emergency warnings and alert information for all hazards. [2638]

23.50 Improvements in technology have helped resolve many natural disaster challenges over recent decades. However, in many areas, available technology has not been leveraged or applied to its full extent. For example:

  • fuel load estimates are often based on visual assessments, yet remote sensing and other technologies such as radar and LiDAR, [2639] that improve the direct capture and spatial mapping of fuel loads across landscapes and ecosystems, are available
  • in some parts of Australia, early detection of fires is undertaken using manned fire towers to spot smoke, yet multiple early fire detection technologies exist, such as remotely piloted aircraft and sensors, and
  • some jurisdictions use manual recording of information during impact assessments, yet there are digital platforms that are centrally connected and allow instantaneous sharing.

23.51 We are, of course, also mindful that technology, and its incorporation into existing processes and approaches, comes at a cost and that, prior to the adoption of any new technology, careful consideration should be given to costs and benefits.

23.52 There are opportunities to develop and utilise technologies in all phases of natural disaster management. This should not just be through the development of new technology, but also through better use of existing technology.

National research and investment priorities

23.53 The Australian Government provides funding for research and technology investment through a number of pathways, including the ARC, NHMRC, Disaster Risk Reduction funding package, and the Medical Research Future Fund for mental health and suicide prevention research. A number of initiatives provide additional funding for research or technology. Existing Australian Government initiatives also address disaster risk reduction and resilience, such as the Future Drought Fund, the Roads of Strategic Importance Initiative, the Emergency Response Fund, and the National Water Infrastructure Development Fund.

Box 23.1 Earth observation systems - a key technology for managing disasters

Earth observation (EO) systems support emergency management by providing information, data and knowledge to monitor and examine the world’s environments, human activities and infrastructure.

The basics of Earth observation and data collection
Figure 97: The basics of Earth observation and data collection

EO sensors can be mounted on platforms in space (satellites); in the air (including remotely piloted aircraft systems); or on‑the-ground (fire towers, elevated structures, ships and buoys).

EO systems are an important source of situational awareness for emergency management agencies and the community across mitigation, preparation response and recovery phases of hazard and disaster events.

  • Satellites provide EO information to a range of users in Australia, including research institutions and emergency management agencies. For example, satellite imagery can be used to assess fuel loads in bushland and inform land management practice.
  • Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) such as drones can improve information gathering, mapping and communications. For example rapid damage assessment, fire detection and tracking, weather monitoring and air quality.
  • Ground-based EO platforms also provide situational awareness for natural hazards. For example, Geoscience Australia maintains a network of 60 stations on the Australian National Seismograph Network which it uses to monitor, analyse and report on significant earthquake events.

Following the 2019‑2020 bushfires, Australia’s Space Agency partnered with other national agencies to explore the role of space-based EO in supporting planning, response and recovery efforts for bushfires.

They identified four key areas to improve Australia’s satellite and other EO capabilities: building on partnerships with international satellite operators; streamlining data systems; helping users access and tailor EO products and services; and exploring opportunities to develop Australia’s space industry to provide new satellite imagery capabilities.

23.54 The First National Action Plan [2640] under the National Disaster Risk Reduction Framework identifies several priority strategies intended to promote a greater understanding of disaster risk. The aggregated Australian government funding for these strategies is $815 million. These strategies include, among others:

  • a new National Climate and Disaster Intelligence Capability
  • the National Environmental Science Program (NESP)
  • Special Research Initiative – Health Threats in Environmental Change, and
  • Australian Flood Risk Information Portal.

23.55 The NESP is a long-term investment by the Australian Government into environment and climate research. The program’s second phase, NESP 2, announced on 27 March 2020, to commence from mid-2021, will promote and build national research depth to respond to the extraordinary environmental challenge of managing the risks of a changing climate. [2641] Climate adaptation will be a core mission of all four thematic research hubs of the program. [2642]

23.56 Some state governments advocated for the creation of an ambitious national research agenda. For example:

  • The Victorian Government proposed the development of a nationally coordinated and streamlined approach to natural disaster research, including a research strategy for national risk reduction, focusing on gaps in knowledge. [2643]
  • The Queensland Government suggested various resilience and adaptation research initiatives. [2644]

23.57 All state and territory governments (except WA which did not provide a response) supported the Australian, state and territory governments working together to establish a spatial technology acceleration program to improve capability to detect ignitions and accurately monitor all fire edge intensity and progression automatically across the nation in real time. SA has already commenced initial discussions with the SmartSat CRC to consider such information gathering. [2645]

23.58 In a world of finite resources, it would be unrealistic to expect all areas of interest for research and technology to be progressed at once. Any research or development strategy should contain clear objectives and priorities, and should be supported by a robust implementation plan, and direction and oversight from an appropriate governance body.

23.59 In our view, ‘national’ research and technology priorities should be identified. It may be that proposed research is national in coverage, or relates to a localised research priority but with national significance.

23.60 Australian, state and territory governments all support, or support in-principle, prioritisation of investment in national research that addresses national knowledge gaps, acknowledging that the emergency management sector is not the only stakeholder in natural hazard resilience and disaster risk reduction. There was broad public support for this concept.

23.61 Undoubtedly, there will be opportunities to leverage co-investment from other levels of government, the private sector and research institutions. Careful coordination would help to deliver maximum value and unlock practical, tangible improvements in resilience and decision making.

23.62 There is a need for Australia-wide agreement on a prioritised research agenda that identifies and targets critical knowledge gaps. Such an agenda would assist in ensuring that finite resources are strategically targeted to critical priorities, while reducing duplication.

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