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The CSIRO is in deep trouble

By Max Whitten - posted Wednesday, 22 February 2006

Storm clouds have been gathering over the CSIRO ever since the style and impact of chief executive, Geoff Garrett, became apparent barely a year into his first term. At a meeting with his division chiefs at Bowral in March 2002, Garrett refused to acknowledge a crisis in confidence by his senior research leaders. This situation triggered my piece in The Age (4/7/03) headlined, "Revealed: the crisis in the CSIRO". I said that "half the divisional chiefs are looking elsewhere for jobs. Internal surveys revealed many top managers are severely stressed. New chiefs are being offered three-year appointments, hardly a recipe for attracting top-quality research leaders and building the future."

The exodus soon began with the unsung departure of long-term CSIRO scientist and then deputy chief executive, Dr Paul Wellings, to Lancaster University as vice-chancellor. Not a single one of the chiefs in 1999 has retained their position. The loss of corporate memory from CSIRO has virtually been complete. By comparison, the successful Division of Entomology had only three chiefs between 1932 and 1995; and three since that date.

Myths can now prevail unchallenged, such as that the CSIRO was resting on its laurels from the 1950s and 1960s, despite massive evidence to the contrary. Brad Collis' book Fields of Discovery: Australia's CSIRO is replete with impressive achievements with considerable economic and social benefit from the 1970s until the turn of the century.


It seems that former distinguished scientists and leaders in the CSIRO are realising that their experience was not unique. They are beginning to speak out in the national interest, and from a sense of loyalty for the organisation and its dedicated staff. A recent example is the article by former CSIRO chief Dr Annabelle Duncan in the October issue of the R&D Review entitled "Innovation and the culture of silence". The title alone speaks volumes.

The individual reasons for the exodus are probably many but a common thread emerges - an intolerance by senior management and the government to criticism and alternative viewpoints. In some instances, the challenges have been entirely within the organisation, but still the axe has fallen. The in-group thinking that gave AWB a false sense of security in its external dealings seems to be pervading the CSIRO. This is well illustrated by the CSIRO's responses to reasoned criticism in recent letters to The Australian Financial Review that its popular diet book has not "been scientifically proven". Of much greater significance is the CSIRO's emerging knee-jerk responses to criticisms by Graeme Pearman, Fred Prata and Michael Borgas on climate change issues, or Barney Foran, Roger Pech and Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe on ecological sustainability. These are blithely dismissed as "disgruntled former staff".

Something has gone terribly wrong for the CSIRO to be in today's predicament. Certainly, the blame cannot be fully dumped on Garrett. Recruited in January 2001 from South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, Garrett arrived with impressive credentials. In 1998, he was voted South Africa's "Boss of the Year". Garrett's period of leading the CSIR was marked by a number of personal and organisational achievements. In October 1999 the CSIR was the overall winner of the prestigious national Corporate Governance Award. And in November 2000 the CSIR received the Institute of Marketing Management award as "Marketing Organisation of the Year" for the Pretoria region.

Little wonder that then science minister Nick Minchin and CSIRO chairman Charles Allen saw in Garrett an opportunity to transform the CSIRO from Australia's leading public good research agency into an enterprise focused on short-term issues and to reduce its dependency on government funding. Garrett promised to "grow CSIRO" into a global research enterprise eventually attracting about 60 per cent of its funding from external sources. His attempts have proved to be costly failures, in monetary and human terms.

Had the Senate last week acted in the public interest, it would have supported the motion calling for an inquiry into the CSIRO. Instead the government used its numbers to prevent the inquiry. It was sad to see Liberal Senators Alan Ferguson and Grant Chapman uncritically toe the party line when, back in 1994 while in opposition, they played a lead role in triggering the inquiry "CSIRO: a case for revitalisation". The then Labor government unsuccessfully opposed the inquiry. But once it got under way, the senators on the committee, under chairman Ferguson, put aside party politics and worked in the public interest to produce a unanimous report that abolished the CSIRO's institute structure and changed the organisation for the better.

Now more than ever, an inquiry into the CSIRO is fully warranted. It is simply untenable to claim, as the government did in the Senate last week, that senate estimates hearings provide sufficient opportunity to hold the CSIRO accountable. Cameo appearances three times a year before a group of busy senators by organisations such as the CSIRO, without its chairman and with little intention of answering questions fully and honestly, is hardly a recipe for accountability. Today's senate estimates hearings will test that assessment.


There is an urgent need to review the CSIRO's board structure, its responsibilities and accountability mechanisms to determine if it best serves the government and the community. The recent review of statutory authorities, chaired by John Uhrig, recommended that boards such as the CSIRO's and the Australian Research Council either be abolished or given genuine independence and made truly accountable. Much to the annoyance of the academic community, then education minister Brendan Nelson effectively abolished the ARC board: but no decision has been made on the future of the CSIRO board. Meanwhile, the storm clouds gather.

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First published in The Age on February 15, 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Max Whitten was chief of the CSIRO's division of entomology from 1981 to 1995 and professor of genetics at the University of Melbourne from 1976 to 1981. He works as a consultant in Australia on public good research and with governments and farmers in Asia using local biodiversity to reduce dependency on pesticides.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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