Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Some early history about Australia's deeply troubled R&D organisation, CSIRO

Sou | 7:54 PM Go to the first of 16 comments. Add a comment
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.


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:


  1. Remember reading their first paper on concrete slab construction

    1. John - you've reminded me that CSIRO researchers have done a lot of good work for building and construction over the years.

  2. The problems in 2013 arose from a bit budget cut by the Abbott govt resulting in the loss of ~ 1300 jobs. This for the most part was spread piecemeal through the organisation. The recent cuts target big chunks of'public good' research wholesale because the agencies & initiatives which supplied funding to these (especially the climate people and the sustainability people in Land and Water) were cut back or abolished by the Abbott Govt leaving them with a diminished income stream from outside CSIRO. It is all about money and 'external earnings'. Considerations of what is in the national interest haven't entered into it. I think some of the reporting gives the impression that the areas being cut are 'blue skies' research whereas it is actually all applied research - just not the sort industry will pay for - more along the lines of (for instance) researching what will happen to our water resources/coastlines/climate in the future and reporting on it in a form suitable for policy makers / farmers etc.

    The senior managers of CSIRO are up before a senate committee tomorrow between 9-11am. Many CSIRO scientists will be listening / watching the livestream.

    1. that was meant to say "big budget cut" in the first line :-)

  3. I have read several critiques of the National Research Council of Canada's (NRC) introduction of a corporate style of management so I would not discount the same having an effect on CSIRO but the greatest damage was done by the totally incompetent policies of the late and unlamented Conservative government.

    I have not been closely following the fate of CSIRO but your comment My reading of the message is that the CSIRO is shifting to short term opportunism and away from long term investment. seems to match what happened to the NRC. It was effectively told to only do research that directly supported industry and my understanding is that researchers in the organization needed to find much or all of it's own funding.

    I am not sure who was the Minister of State for Science and Technology was but one of the ministers was highly qualified: He was a graduate of a chiropractic college which shows the contempt for science the Cons had.

    It sounds like CSIRO is going into a period like this led by someone the sitting Government has appointed with no knowledge of that a scientist does or why it matters

    You have my sympathy. We finally got rid of the Cons and hopefully the new government can revive the NRC but there was a huge amount of damage done during the 10 years of Con incompetence.

  4. I worked at another Canadian government R&D organization where the notion that one can get good results by short term approaches had taken hold. By the time senior management has decided to move in a particular direction, it was almost always too late to achieve any useful result.

  5. Thanks to St. Steven and the puppets?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. It actually started about 15 years ago, though things got really bad under the last government - layers of bureaucratic controls were progressively applied in an effort to ensure that nothing would happen that might embarrass the minister. Curiously, managers would admit that the system was broken, but their changes usually made things worse.

  6. Over lunch I’ve started listening to this morning’s Senate oversight committee questioning of the CSIRO executive:


    In the first few minutes Marshall trots out his “mitigation and adaption (sic)” meme, revealing his ignorance of even the basic vocabulary of the discipline, and from that his likely ignorance of the significance of the science of the field that he has chosen to obliterate from the Australia government landscape.

    At 9:06:15: Marshall implies that climate research cannot be conducted if it is not receiving industry funding… - “…a shift in market support…”

    ~9:12:00: Interesting listening to Chief Finance Officer Hazel Bennett try to explain why she doesn’t know why documents were supplied as illegible, black and white photocopies of photocopies of photocopies, rather than as colour electronic files, in an organisation that has high technology at its disposal.

    9:13:00: “Draft discussion points” documents apparently not supplied by CSIRO management after they were requested…

    ~9:31:00: Interesting revelation about the use of private email, which was skirted around in the earlier minutes of the conversation. At least 17 staff involved.

    ~9:44:20: Sean Edwards (Liberal Party) makes a bizarre comment about Marshall “st[anding] out like a beacon of brilliance” in his job application. Edwards has a history of dubious practices/use of parliamentary privileges and of making strange comments – it’s astonishing that he remains a senator. Look him up.

    ~9:48: Marshall illustrates that in previous position(s) he approached science from the venture capitalist perspective that he continues to demonstrate now, even though he is not currently the CEO of a venture capitalist organisation.

    9:51:00: Peter Whish-Wilson presses Marshall on the background to his employment with respect to “reprioritisation”. Marshall prevaricates about discussions he had with politicians on this matter…

    9:56:15: Whish-Wilson presses again about discussions of government key priorities for Marshall’s as CEO.

    9:56:25: Marshall lists key aims as “particular emphasis on translating research to commercial outcomes” and “create (“credit”?) new businesses”. So he is a business creator, not a leader of scientific progress…

    Then, in talking about “fostering an innovative and entrepreneurial culture” Marshall brushed over the task of “collaborating with universities”, perhaps because of the implications of dismantling the Oceans and Atmospheres Office, which will very likely collapse much of the work in the collaborating university-based Institute for Antarctic Studies and in the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems-CRC, as well as potentially ham-stringing much of the work of the Australian Antarctic Division. Make no mistake – dismantling the Oceans and Atmosphere Division will lead to a massive curtailing of Australian climatology and oceanography research. It will turn Hobart from a world-leading centre for Antarctic and oceanographic research into a scientific backwater, and it will blind Australia (and the world) to much of the future changes in the climate and oceanography of the Southern Hemisphere.

    I’m currently listening to Marshall avoid telling Whish-Wilson (~9:58:45) what he discussed with the prime minister in terms of CSIRO restructuring, whilst the donkey senator Sean Edwards chips in about Marshall and Turnbull enjoying wine at their barbecues.

    I might try to listen to this recording again this evening, if I have more time, in order to get a better sense of what’s coming out of this questioning, but I recommend others watch the recoding if they’re interested in the machinations of the federal government and the CSIRO executive in removing climate science from the federal political agenda.

  7. As someone who worked for CSIRO for thirty years and met many of the board members as a group many times over the years in our laboratory, I saw the rot set in.

    CSIRO was composed of independent divisions whose Chief had almost dictatorial power over the research program within his division. This power came about with consultation with the board and all the other Chiefs. All of them had strong backgrounds in science.

    The rot set in after a 'management' review by a bunch of accountants that did not know what they were analysing. I will not name them but they should hold their heads down in shame for their utter incompetence to even judge what CSIRO were doing. Dunning Kruger is far more rampant in accountants than even deniers.

    Once the installed accountants started to dictate research priorities we were doomed, as these twits had no idea of what we actually did. Pathetic feel good mission statements were oozing out everywhere. Too go where no man has gone before comes to mind.
    I see the latest appointment of Larry Marshall as the penultimate act in the demise of CSIRO.
    Not only is he not a real scientist but he is a shonky Venture or is that Vulture Capitalist. He is being sued in the US by former shareholders in one of his companies that lost 80 million of shareholder monies. I would just not blame Larry as there are quite a few idiots that are only too keen to help and pander to their political masters to follow some sort of misguided dogma based totally in ignorance.

    It is obvious when a society is in decline and headed for termination. Burning books is one sign, This is far worse. They are burning the authors!

    I could say a lot more but it may have more repercussions. Bert

    1. Yes, the shift did seem to happen with the replacement of technocrats with bureaucrats of the new management style. It took a certain set of skills for a scientist to shift to being a manager, but if you were fortunate enough to find them, they did a great job. (Not all researchers made good managers - it's a different skill set.)

      There's also the problem of political interference and not wanting to upset the paymasters / political masters. In the past, good leaders of science were able to stand their ground and win out most of the time - by persuasion, by biding their time, or by playing "Yes Minister". It was a learned art, though I knew some people who seemed to be born with the gift.

      The scientists were there for life (or most of it), the politicians for the term of government only.

      Things have changed and not all for the better.

    2. Sou the insidious introduction of term appointments of even senior people had an abrasive effect on all staff. We had many on three year term appointments that had been there long enough to get long service leave.

      My first group leader who was a spitfire pilot in WW2, Battle of Britain and all that sort of stuff used to say.

      "Just do world class science and everything else becomes peripheral"

      He KNEW what a real mission was, not just the empty words of idiotic mission statements invented by mindless ignorant bureaucrats.


    3. Three panel mosaic of Centaurus A and Omega Centaurus. It is 8x3.4 degrees of sky. 17MB


      Enjoy the view. Bert

    4. Another wonderful astrophoto, Bert. Are the colors (apart from intensity) close to true, i.e. human visual RGB perception?

  8. It is indeed a great tragedy that this once great institution is being run by accountants and assessed in terms of simple balance sheet economics.

    Especially when you realize that in the broader economic picture any government expenditure of this sort is NOT a cost to the nation in any way whatsoever.

    That money is, almost to the last cent, spent and recirculated in the community, where it generates growth, economic advancement, and yes, more tax revenue.


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