Man of Science

Friday, August 1, 2008 - 09:53

A passionate advocate for the power of science to better our world, Dr Geoff Garrett, Chief Executive of the CSIRO, has brought about change to the institution. By Jason Day

Many Australians, if asked their opinion of the CSIRO, would no doubt have a generally positive view on the organisation's worth to the nation.
This seems so, even if, as a straw poll around the office indicates, they are unaware of the extent of the work that it does, or how it does it.

The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation is one of the world's largest and most diverse scientific organisations, with 6300 staff located across 55 sites, domestically in Australia, as well as overseas.

The CSIRO's aim is to make a difference by focusing on the nation's big challenges and opportunities in areas such as clean energy, water, climate change, IT, health, mining, agriculture and natural resources. It does this, for example, by leading National Research Flagships, transferring knowledge through seminars and publications, and cooperating with other research organisations, governments and industry.

But with diversity and ambition come management challenge. A plethora of divisions, the need for better integration internally and a more customer-centric focus - not to mention a better management structure and systems - have presented significant obstacles.

Dr Geoff Garrett has been the CSIRO's Chief Executive for almost eight years. A tall and imposing figure (he has a Boxing Blue from Cambridge in his kitbag), his passion and intellect have steered the organisation through a period of great change.

British-born Garrett came to the organisation with qualifications in metallurgy and a research and lecturing career in South Africa, Canada, the US and the UK. In 1986, he joined South Africa's national science agency, CSIR, being appointed President and CEO in 1995, before joining the CSIRO in 2001.

As Chief Executive (a post he vacates at the end of the year), Garrett acknowledges that his success will be measured in delivering against strategic plans and objectives, operational performance and developing leadership capability internally.

"All business is people business; my role is to help our people be the best they can be," says Garrett. "It is imperative to position science and technology (next to cricket!), as a hugely important activity for a 21st century Australia; it's a work in progress.

"What I enjoy most is the interaction with the researchers and scientists at the bench; what they are doing, what's exciting them, what's causing them pain, and how I can help create the environment where they can excel. We have so many lights hidden under bushels, and I enjoy exposing external stakeholders to them."

The challenge of change

When Garrett joined the CSIRO in 2001, the organisation was troubled. Financially, they were hurting: from a reliance on year-to-year government funding for two-thirds of its operating budget, the rising equipment and running costs, to the drying up of private funding - from such industries as rural and mining - who were seeing hard times themselves. Staff numbers had been cut by close to 1000 over the previous few years.

In 2003, The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the Senate's employment, workplace relations and education legislation committee was told that a leaked internal survey showed only 47 per cent of CSIRO staff had faith in "organisational leadership and direction" and that 48 per cent believed their jobs were not secure. The survey also found that 55 per cent felt organisational change had not improved the CSIRO. But then, many people don't like change.

"My brief was to bring about necessary change," says Garrett. "Crisis is perhaps the wrong word, but the CSIRO at that time really needed to shift its agenda, while building on its 75 years of service to Australia."

Coming in, Garrett had to deal with the expectations from internal and external stakeholders. Within weeks of his arrival was a near-death experience, as the expected injection of new CSIRO funding through the Howard Government's Backing Australia's Ability strategy (designed to encourage innovation and enhance Australia's international competitiveness), turned into a big fat zero.

"There was certainly pressure from the government who were saying they weren't sure of what the organisation was doing or how it was delivering," recalls Garrett. "A 30-40 per cent cut in parliamentary appropriation was on the table, as well as murmurings that we should be cut up into smaller centres as was happening with some similar agencies around the globe.

"We most definitely required significant change and a strategic repositioning."

CSIRO's current strategic plan has three elements: addressing major national challenges, through such programs as the National Research Flagships (see story on page 12) and building partnerships; the discovery and delivery of its core science capability, by strengthening capabilities, improving business practices and enhancing communication; and a One-CSIRO approach, by enhancing operational excellence to help foster innovation and collaboration.

A unifying vision

To lead, let alone manage, such a diverse organisation seems a tall order. Currently, Garrett says the CSIRO continues to deal with the issues in implementing their strategies. Embedding a new work environment to ensure this happens is a cultural process that he believes can take up to a generation.

"I've been about building a strong team and setting the vision, which is about saying 'We are going to be focussing and building critical mass in the preventative health area, or in the water space'," says Garrett. "We need collaboration, innovation and boundary spanning between our experts to make it the best it can be.

"To work in different ways - like getting the biochemist to work with the mathematician and the materials specialist in partnerships and on big projects - and changing the work that we do and the management processes we have in place, will take time.

"This is the challenge in converting people in our environment who are passionate about what they do. You can see that this great guy's been riding his hobbyhorse for 20 years and lately he's been riding it on his own. But the horse is going blind, it has two broken legs, lost its hair and should be put down.

"You've got to say to him, 'Let's apply your talent, but over here - where we've got room for 12 and this fantastic racehorse - that could be even better with your skills'.

"Part of the necessary transition [while at CSIR in South Africa] was a change in culture," he says. "A change from the old view that 'I'm a physicist, I'm doing physics, slip the money under the door once a year and get off my back', to 'Okay, what are we trying to achieve here? Who are we working with? Who are our stakeholders and customers? What do they need? How do we work in partnership? How do we ensure the research we do gets used? What's the project timescale and budget? Who is available to us?'. CSIRO, similarly, faced many of these challenges."

Garrett believes a unifying vision, recent successes, and the injection of more resources in the past years have been very important. All being well, a new SAP enterprise-wide business system went live on 1 July aiming to achieve the goal for the organisation of adopting common, seamless systems. Together, says Garrett, these things are starting to make a difference.

Big impacts

Garrett's reason for working at an organisation like the CSIRO is to be in a position to make more impact.

"I was an academic for 15 years and I enjoyed research, educating and publishing papers," he says. "But I really wanted to make a difference on a larger scale through the interface between the discovery and the delivery of technology."

An example of this was the work CSIRO did for the Murray Darling Basin Sustainable Yields project via its Water for a Healthy Country Flagship. In Garrett's words, the Prime Minister announced a major study, a phone call later and suddenly there was a 12-month project involving 18 catchment areas across one million square kilometres, 120 people, six CSIRO divisions, and partnerships with a dozen other bodies.

"We were able to respond rapidly and provide hard data and practical solutions to influence water policy for the next 20 years," he says. "We'd set up the Flagship four years earlier, helping to create options for Australia and positioning us for increased impact. And that's what I really enjoy, that major scale, that impact, and working with committed scientists."

Linking with business

The CSIRO has an important contracting arm that services between 2000-3000 small, medium and large enterprises each year. This service provides for consultancy and product testing through to contract research and partnerships to help open doors overseas.

"We help them grow their business through what science and technology can do," says Garrett. "It's very exciting but also is complex in terms of very diverse stakeholder and customer management."

CSIRO received new funding from the previous Federal Government for its Australian Growth Partnerships program geared towards helping SMEs.

"If they've survived and are out of start-up phase, have marketing plans and distribution channels, but are strapped for cash to extend their product line, we can help with new product technology resourcing, and perhaps take a slice of the action.

"SMEs are one of the key engines of growth in our economy; they're vibrant, they're passionate, they're ambitious, they're looking for international competitiveness, and very often science and technology is a key weapon in their armoury."

Brain drain?

With an internationally competitive environment in so many areas, keeping the best brains at home to facilitate Australia's wellbeing is an issue raised in the media regularly. The so-called brain drain problem has it that the best minds are leaving the country either because a) the opportunities/money are better elsewhere, b) the government doesn't support R&D enough, and c) private enterprise is slow to support and exploit new developments commercially.

"In my experience, Australian scientists are welcomed around the world as well-educated, intelligent, organised, with a great work ethic," says Garrett. "I believe it's very important that our scientists travel and get that opportunity for international experience and connections. But losing human capabilities is certainly an issue. One of my beliefs is the importance of talent. There's that saying, 'The people with the best people win'. This is extremely important in an internationally competitive environment."

In monitoring the toing and froing of the CSIRO's own talent recently, Garrett has found that the talented people they've recruited from around the world have been considerably greater than those lost overseas.

"As far as the brain drain goes, while you can read the data in different ways, there is certainly a challenge around early-career researchers and post-doctorates in providing them relevant career opportunities; that's a funding issue. You do lose people who are tempted away on significant packages, especially with the minerals boom, or new opportunities in Australia, but developing people for our innovation system is part of our role anyway.

"What really worries me is the question of science talent in the longer term. One of the scarier statistics that I've heard in Australia is that the number of kids presenting at Year 12 for science subjects is now proportionately 60 per cent of what it was 15 years ago.

"The CSIRO is putting a lot of effort into this area, our future. The Scientists in Schools program set up by Dr Jim Peacock, Chief Scientist with the Australian Government, pairs up science teachers with practical scientists in a partnership arrangement. With over 700 or so scientists already signed up, about 170 are CSIRO scientists.

"On a recent trip to Finland - they push innovation hard and invest about 3.5 per cent of GDP in R&D (we're at 1.8 per cent) - I asked the Finnish President, Tarja Halonen, their country's top three priorities; she said, 'That's easy: education, education, education'; a cold shiver went down some spines at that comment.

"I worry about the competition from overseas. My son's Finnish girlfriend's mum has just completed a masters in physics to get a high school promotion. In Singapore, they're now teaching innovation down to primary school; that's how they're taking science into practice. That's the future."

Leading-edge science

Garrett certainly believes the CSIRO punches above its weight in making an impact from what it does. And this stems from their research in the science fields.

"Our purpose is delivering great science," he says, "and creating innovative solutions for the benefit of industries, society and the environment. Based on our scientific outputs, CSIRO is in the top 1 per cent of world labs in 13 research areas; that's something Australia can be proud of."