Peter Hannam at the Sydney Morning Herald has been writing a series of articles about the deep troubles at Australia's flagship R&D organisation, CSIRO. Some of you won't be aware of the early history of this institution, so I thought I'd pull a few threads together to give you a taste.
Billy Hughes vision for a national focus on science
The origin of the CSIRO goes back to 1916, when the Australian Government established the Advisory Council of Science and Industry. The purpose was to put a national focus on scientific research. This was during the first World War when Labor politician William Morris ("Billy") Hughes was Prime Minister. It was Hughes who convened the conference in January 1916, with the purpose of establishing the organisation. The main offices were in Melbourne originally (Canberra didn't exist).
You can read an article about one person's reaction to Billy Hughes's idea for a scientific organisation, from the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, in December 2015. It's written in a style long out of fashion, by a sceptical and knowledgeable writer, and is full of typos in the transcription. You'll be rewarded, if you persevere, with passages (following a humorous anecdote about the "illustrious biologist" Huxley) such as:
...The same application which the illustrious biologist made to some of the activities of his time we may apply to Mr. Hughes's project of a great Federal Research Laboratory. The Prime Minister has been impressed by the facts that science can proffer help of an extraordinary kind in many undertakings, that science has not heretofore been given adequate encouragement, and that in the coming commercial struggle with Germany science will be one of the determining factors. That Mr. Hughes should have acquired cognisance of these certainties, and should be ready to act upon them, must be gratifying to most people who have given the matter thought; but when he makes statements which show that his mind is definitely set upon a certain course of constructive action the Australian citizen will be gratified if he asks for a little deliberation and the making of some inquiries. What advice Mr. Hughes has sought we do not know, but it is probable that it has not been drawn from many, or even from representative, sources. He does not claim first-hand knowledge of the problems involved, and hence it is obvious that either he has evolved the scheme from his own inner consciousness or has taken over the suggestion from one or a few, and possibly not disinterested, adviser or advisers. To any cautionary voice that asks for a delay to permit investigation to be made, Mr. Hughes would probably reply that the earlier steps are taken to meet the deficiency the better; that, in view of Germany's marvellous organisation of science, the danger is urgent in the extreme, that the money can be found now, and that modifications in the details or extensions to the proposal can always be affected at a later date....
Whether the original idea was Billy Hughes or someone else's he was the person who made it happen. Would Billy Hughes be rolling in his grave now, seeing how his dream was probably realised more than he imagined. How his vision became a stunning reality, only to have it's reputation threatened by an incompetent, short-sighted anti-visionary put in place by incompetent sightless politicians.
If your taste is more for dry reporting, there's a newspaper report from the Adelaide Advertiser about a meeting held in Melbourne on 4 August 1916, and the miscellany of issues the participants discussed - ranging from a major census of scientific research being conducted in universities and technical colleges, through the production of chrome and tungsten alloys with iron, potash salts production, combating ticks, animal disease, and the prickly pear, Victoria's brown coal, shortening the time taken to bake bread through cultivating yeast, and more.
From CSIR to CSIRO
In 1920, the Commonwealth Institute of Science and Industry was created through an Act of Parliament, still under the guidance of the Advisory Council as I understand it. Six years later it was renamed the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and remained as that until 1949. In the first part of last century, the focus was on primary industries - the mainstay of Australia's young economy, particularly agricultural research including lots of wool-related research, but also mining and forestry. There were research stations set up all around the country.
In 1949 CSIR was renamed the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
Practical research to aid Australian industries
The organisation has always favoured applied research and development for the benefit of Australian industries. The universities were seen as the more appropriate place for pure or blue sky research. CSIRO has had a lot of successes over the years in solving problems and in creating marketable innovations. Until relatively recently I don't think that CSIRO was under huge pressure to raise all its budget all by itself, which seems to be the direction that management has been pushing towards. However CSIRO has long been expected to generate a good return on the R&D investment in the form of licences and royalties etc.
In its golden years, the CSIRO was being innovative in all sorts of areas, scientific instrumentation, sophisticated modeling, biotech, IT, and everything in between. It was an exciting place and an employer of choice for many a science graduate. It could be still - if it can drag itself out of the mess it's in.
The downhill slide began a while back, and is accelerating
The current dissatisfaction isn't new. There were mumblings way back after the McKinsey review in the late 1980s, when it went for a corporate style over the more academic/scientific style of management. That's going back quite a few years. However I don't blame the introduction of modern management practices for its demise. That was probably more a matter of some people objecting to change. I'm not really in a position to know exactly what the current problem is, but like I say, it's not something new. Shutting down critical climate research is just another event in a long line of things that have been going wrong in different parts of the organisation. For example, there were a lot of complaints back in 2013 - and probably prior to that as well.
The appointment of someone to the CEO position who probably barely made the shortlist (if he did) - a venture capitalist rather than a recognised leading scientist - has sent a message. My reading of the message is that the CSIRO is shifting to short term opportunism and away from long term investment. It's increasing its risk appetite at the expense of any long term vision. Whether that's the message that was intended I don't know. I doubt that Tony Abbott or Ian Macfarlane know what a "long term vision" means. They were perhaps enthralled (like schoolboys) by the idea of having someone who could say he came from Silicon Valley, not realising that for every Silicon Valley success there are dozens (hundreds?) of flops.
Staff and collaborating research organisations will be warily watching to see how things unfold. Will the once great organisation fall in a heap? Will someone sensible step in and shove the CSIRO back on course? I don't know. Once you diminish a reputation it's a long haul to get it back again. It's very likely that all the best of the best will jump ship as soon as they can. It will be a heck of a job to attract leading scientists in any field if this shambling shemozzle continues.
Keeping up with the latest episodes in the CSIRO saga
To stay up to date with the latest developments, Peter Hannam at the Sydney Morning Herald is one to follow. Watch out for the video - it doesn't behave nicely. He's almost got a live blog on the events and is right on top of things. I'm sure there will be more revelations of what has been going on behind the scenes that led to this debacle. I expect Peter Hannam will be the one of the main people to tell the tales. Here are three of his recent articles: