Portrait photo of Dr Megan Clark with CSIRO logo in the background.

Dr Megan Clark.

More than 85 years of growth, change and impact

The following opinion piece was provided to Fairfax by CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Megan Clark on Friday, 12 April 2013.

  • 14 April 2013 | Updated 15 April 2013

Many of you will have seen a series of articles in the Fairfax media covering a range of topics in relation to CSIRO.  In response I would like to share with you the opinion piece I submitted to Fairfax on Friday, 12 April.

For 87 years, CSIRO science has been supporting Australia’s national growth. CSIRO has not done that by standing still, and over a decade ago a radical transformation of the way we deliver our science was undertaken.

To remain relevant to the nation and to answer the complex questions for society, we needed the courage to transform. For example it is no longer enough for farmers merely to have the best crop varieties. For the next level of productivity they need the best farming systems, the best sensors, the best water efficiency and soil knowledge. They need all of these answers delivered in a connected way.

CSIRO provides these answers through its flagship program, multidisciplinary challenge-focused groups that bring together the best minds and research. Was this the right decision? Yes it was, and others around the world agree with us: the Grand Challenges program in Canada and the INRA metaprogrammes in France are just two examples of similar responses. But to maintain the solutions focus requires a balance with science excellence.

We hold ourselves accountable to those who are passionately committed to quality science, our former employees, our clients and the Australian public and I agree with those who demand science excellence. How do we do this? We subject our experiments, our papers, our fields of research, our output and our operations to rigorous scrutiny.

Each flagship and research division brings in a team of international experts every three to four years. The experts examine many dimensions of our work, make recommendations and when we receive criticism we act.

We respond by increasing investment in some areas of science, building on areas and exiting from others, making decisions that balance our budget constraints with our science goals. If a review shows we are not performing in a science area, we build, we exit or we transform that area. There is no standing still in CSIRO.

For example, in 2009 the Earth Science and Resource Engineering review described the publication rate. In only three years this rate has doubled. CSIRO’s geoscience standing has for the first time entered into the ranks of the top 0.1 per cent of global institutions, and this has been achieved at a time when technology from this division is helping the mining industry in 19 of the 31 Australian long wall mines, for both productivity and safety gains.

As some have feared, the CSIRO transformation has not curtailed our science. Here are some of the facts: Our ranking is in the top ten of all institutions in the world for three scientific fields: environment/ecology, agricultural science, and plant and animal science. This is equal with the standing of research heavyweights such as Oxford and Yale Universities, an extraordinary achievement for an Australian institution.

In 2012 we had record engagement with industry, record licenses of our IP and a record publication rate. Our mandate as an applied science organisation goes beyond research. CSIRO is Australia’s largest patent holder with 3582 live patents, 728 inventions, 275 trademarks and 83 plant breeder rights. We have particular strengths in measurement, biotechnology, materials (metallurgy) and computer technology, winning the prestigious European Inventor Award from the European Patent Office last year for the CSIRO team that invented fast wireless LAN.

CSIRO partners with 38 of the 40 universities in Australia and has connections with 72 countries. These relationships help train future researchers and build international scientific connections. We recruit, train and mentor hundreds of young scientists each year in schools, as university students and as doctoral candidates.

Building science capability for Australia is an important part of CSIRO’s culture. We know our people like the work and find it meaningful. Exit interviews invariably tell the same story, “I loved my work here because I knew it was making a difference”. Our externally conducted staff survey tells us our people are more engaged than ever before.  Our absentee rate is less than half that of the Australian Public Service and our turnover is low.

This contemporary view of CSIRO as evidenced in our staff measures, has also been validated by our external clients. In a recent client survey pilot, the average willingness-to-recommend score was 8.6 out of 10. Our long term research alliances with Boeing, GE, Orica and many others are a further validation of our contribution to industry.

We do have areas to improve. We have had claims of unacceptable behaviour made by former employees and I have addressed those directly. A number of internal actions are in place as well as an independent external review which is underway. CSIRO has been criticised by some for being silent on this issue but we must respect the privacy of all involved and it is not appropriate to discuss or defend details of alleged cases in public.

The men and women who work at CSIRO are among the most passionate, committed and hard working in Australia. It is a privilege to lead CSIRO and I am proud of the evidence I get every day of the difference we make to the lives of Australians.

Dr Megan Clark
Chief Executive
CSIRO