Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Lost in CSIRO's Matrix

By Peter Pockley

Part 3 of this series documents some of the glaring omissions from a “warts and all” account of CSIRO.

Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series have reported how two senior executives – centrally involved in CSIRO’s massive reorganisation of the agency’s research structure and external communications from 2001 to 2006 – have scored an “own goal” in making false claims against the factual reports and independent commentaries published in Australasian Science. The claims are made in a book describing and justifying the changes.

In Icon in Crisis: The Reinvention of CSIRO (University of NSW Press, 2012) Dr Ron Sandland and Mr Graham Thompson maintain that their book is a “warts and all” account of the massive restructuring of Australia’s largest public agency for science. Given the internal and external controversies surrounding the changes, their claim invites a search for gaps in its content.

The authors were closely involved in these changes from 2001: Sandland was Deputy Chief Executive to Dr Geoff Garrett, who had arrived from South Africa as new Chief Executive in January 2001, and Thompson was a manager implementing Garrett’s “change agenda”. Both authors have now retired from CSIRO.

The book has value for providing two insiders’ account of the machinations that accompanied the tide of theme-defined “Flagships” rising over greatly reduced profiles of CSIRO’s long-standing specialist Divisions. However, it is weakened by not naming and directly quoting key players that would have added weight to the general argument.

Media Coverage

Australasian Science had led reportage and independent commentary on the changes, which became publicly controversial. While the book focuses more on “matrix management” and commercial objectives than CSIRO’s science, which is barely covered, the authors could not pass the opportunity to attack past coverage in the media, most extensively in Australasian Science. They should not be surprised at some reactions. While, from internal sources we exposed internal ructions, many of them exclusively, we also gave space to Garrett and his supporters to put their case in their own words (e.g. Australasian Science, August 2002 and September 2003).

New Ways of Doing Science?

Sandland and Thompson make a bold claim with a headline early in their book (page 7) that Garrett’s CSIRO had developed “new ways of doing science”. However, the aspect of CSIRO that seems to matter most to the authors is adherence to change in organisational structure. Sandland and Thompson describe a thicket of micromanagement that must baffle any newcomer to the organisation.

The authors only deal with the real work of the emerging Flagships towards the end of the book. Even then, they fail to name any of the researchers or Directors working in Flagships. It's as if the authors see the CSIRO as a machine rather than a collection of individual talents.

Communications Issues

The issues at stake rose to prominence on reportage and critical commentary in Australasian Science of CSIRO’s appointment of former tobacco executive and lobbyist, Donna Staunton, as Garrett’s second Director of Communications (Australasian Science, April 2004). The response of Garrett and Sandland was to declare an unprecedented black ban by CSIRO in dealing with the magazine. This became a topic of inquiry at the Senate Estimates Committee with oversight of CSIRO.

Sandland recognises the engagement of Donna Staunton, former senior tobacco industry executive, to be Executive Director of Communications in 2004 as CSIRO’s “most controversial appointment” (pp 202-204). But, he goes on to claim that “Staunton was an experienced professional who had been recommended to Garrett as ‘the best in the business’. The government had made clear its sensitivity about the position and welcomed her appointment.” The serious implications of government involvement in the appointment are ignored (see Part 1 and Part 2 of this blog series).

In short, Sandland and Garrett extended their attacks on Australasian Science and this writer during Senate Estimates hearings. They were so misleading that tabling of detailed answers was requested to inform the Senate Committee fully and accurately. Our request was granted and answers were contained in a unique Right of Reply that was tabled on 1 June 2005. The 46 pages are privileged and remain accessible on the public record via the Committee's website. Sandland and Garrett never addressed the contrary facts in this dossier.

Staff Concerns

Even when detailing the struggles involved in shifting the organisational emphasis away from the once-dominant discipline-based Divisions and their Chiefs to a complex “matrix” managing Garrett’s “Flagships”, there is no mention in the book of relations between management and staff via the CSIRO Staff Association, which were evidently fraught during the period.

Association President and senior atmospheric scientist, Dr Michael Borgas, tells Australasian Science:

This is not an academic policy piece. It's a celebration of the bureaucracy that consigns the science to a secondary role. The irony is that the authors don’t acknowledge ways of thinking about science other than starting with a highly planned bureaucracy, ironically an essential Marxist idea which has failed in the past. This would only make sense if they had invented something unique and remarkable. There will be plenty of good scientists contributing to the efforts of the system and producing good work. Any celebrated success of the system is a tribute to the scientists and not the bureaucracy controlling them.

Alternative Modes for Multidisciplinary Research

Some consideration is recorded in the book to alternative ways of achieving similar ends to the “Flagship” notion in multi-disciplinary projects, but all were rejected for one reason or another as Flagships were launched and sank any rivals.

CSIRO, for example, might have strengthened, without huge disruption to the status quo for practising researchers, its existing involvement in the wide program of Cooperative Research Centres. This could have included CSIRO in leading new CRCs specialising in areas of CSIRO’s current strengths. The CRC model provided (and still does) proven mechanisms for Divisions to share R&D with partners in universities and industry. But, according to CSIRO’s Annual Report 2011-12, its direct contribution to CRCs was merely $27 million, a small call on overall expenses of $1279 million within which Flagships took $555 million and core research and services $576 million.

Sandland also takes issue with prominent science policy analyst and former ministerial adviser Dr Thomas Barlow over his 2006 book, The Australian Miracle. Barlow says he still favours “focusing on finding and empowering the best scientists rather than emphasising institutional structures and processes”. Sandland dismisses Barlow's argument as a “straw man” and says his evidence is “scant”. Barlow responds: “Sandland himself provides no evidence for his own alternative point of view".

That CSIRO’s problems arising from the Garrett-driven changes are still alive has been reflected in a long commentary by former CSIRO senior scientist Dr Garth Paltridge in The Australian Financial Review on 19 October 2012, headlined: “Troubled Science: Has CSIRO Lost its Way?”. Paltridge, a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, was a chief research scientist with the CSIRO Division of Atmospheric Research and the Chief Executive of the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Cooperative Research Centre.

Paltridge suggests what could be done to restore CSIRO to some semblance of its erstwhile public science role:

There should be a complete rethink of the mechanics of the organisation’s research management. In particular, and for the benefit of both internal researchers and external stakeholders, there needs to be a return to some sort of understandable single-line authority. Hopefully, it could be shaped so as to reinstate an emphasis of the scientific role of the divisional Chiefs. The Max Planck Institutes of Germany (roughly the equivalent of the CSIRO Divisions) work well with such an emphasis.

“Warts” Not Covered

Contrary to the book’s claim to be a “warts and all” account that is “frank and unflinching”, major gaps are left hanging and warrant attention.

Appointment Procedures

A political act led to Garrett’s engagement as Chief Executive over any domestic candidates. The nearest the authors come to some kind of assessment of Garrett is to describe him just as: “tall and lean and with preternatural levels of energy” (page 15).

Judgement of the Political Milieu

The opening premise of the book is that CSIRO had been plunged into a state of crisis in January 2001 by a deliberate financial squeeze from the Howard Government. An alternative scenario is that CSIRO could have ridden out the government’s normal budget cycle.

Loss of Local Talent

The authors omit naming long-serving top-level scientists who readily obtained prestigious postings overseas, thereby weakening the Executive.

Division Chiefs

Before the creation of Flagships, the book describes Chiefs as “arguably the most powerful people in the organisation” (page 112), but no specific examples are quoted of any value derived from downgrading the influence of Chiefs of science-specialty Divisions – which are disparagingly called “silos”. This downgrading was integral to Garrett’s strategy, and the Chiefs are portrayed generally as an internal threat. None is named, let alone quoted.

Appointment Standards

Criteria and examples for appointments and promotions are not cited, such as those to the Executive and senior scientific levels, yet this appears to be one of the main problems that Garrett and Sandland faced towards the end of their reign. Science has a recognised system of ranking and standards, and this is not mentioned as a guarantee of quality.

In fact, of CSIRO’s top decision-making body, the current ten-person Executive Committee, only two members have been elected to Fellowship rank in the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, one being the Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark (and before her Garrett and Sandland). There are none in the Executive with Fellowships of the Australian Academy of Science, let alone The Royal Society of London. These high scientific credentials were numerous in the “old CSIRO” leadership.

The wi-fi patent

Wireless LAN: A Success without a Flagship

The most extraordinary gap in the book’s account of the Garrett years is its lack of even a passing mention of CSIRO’s most celebrated and high-earning application of research to practical use: the invention of “WiFi” applications from Wireless LAN technology. This incredible innovation, led by the celebrated Dr John O’Sullivan, was developed in the creative milieu of a basic science Division, the internationally renowned Radiophysics (later renamed Astronomy and Space Science), as a solution for previously intractable problems in observational astronomy. Virtually all of the almost universal mobile devices of today are dependent on applying WiFi wizardry.

The genesis and nurturing of the scientific ideas of O’Sullivan and colleagues through to industrial application owed much to the wisdom and experience of Chiefs of that Division like Dr Bob Frater, who had written persuasive reports about their successful approach. Sandland/Thompson could have cited and followed. CSIRO patented the design in the mid-1990s (see image, left) and doggedly pursued claims in the US courts against large US-based enterprises for breaches of the patents. Their ultimate victory in 2011 resulted in revenues to CSIRO to the tune of “more than $430 million” to 30 June 2012 (Annual Report), which CSIRO gaily publicised during Garrett’s reign. This credit properly belonged to the pre-Garrett era and continued into the current structure.

Radioastronomy Achievements without a Flagship:

The WiFi story is even more relevant in that, in May 2012, before the book was published, CSIRO scored the siting in Western Australia, shared with Southern Africa, of the world’s most ambitious astronomical instrument, the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. The ASKAP array of survey radiotelescopes in Western Australia forms the first stage of Australia’s share of the project. Each of the 36 steerable antennas has at its focus a unique multi-phase array of receivers which have been devised by O’Sullivan.

ASKAP launch

The home “base” for this development is the CSIRO’s Division of Astronomy and Space Science, one of the 12 discipline-based Divisions to survive Garrett’s scythe. Despite this being arguably the most celebrated achievement of Australian application of basic science of recent times, it gains no mention in Sandland’s account.

ASKAP launch by CSIRO Chief Executive, Dr Megan Clark, October 2012. Credit: Dragonfly/CSIRO



Magnesium Fizzles with Huge Loss

The first Flagship to be launched officially by CSIRO, indeed with great fanfare by then Prime Minister John Howard in 2003, was Light Metals. This was spruiked as a symbol of the commercial savvy of Geoff Garrett, then in his third year of office. Garrett was a metallurgist and it was assumed that he fully understood this new technology and its commercial potential pursued through the Flagship. (This writer and Australasian Science took the PR bait, producing a four-page feature in June 2003.) The Flagship supposedly exemplified confidence that Australia was creating a profitable new industry and was persuasive of the Federal and Queensland governments to invest directly (and via CSIRO) in the closely associated development of a new all-Australian industry based on CSIRO's novel process of smelting magnesium from ore deposits in Queensland.

Altogether, the Australian Magnesium Corporation (AMC) received Federal government support of $225 million and $150 million from the State. Garrett claimed that Australia would make $10 billion from light metals in ten years (i.e. about now), a boast that may come back to haunt him. The AMC was then floated on the stock market as a high flyer, and CSIRO’s publicised involvement seemed a solid guarantee for a further $500 million of investment from a public float. It didn’t take long, however, for CSIRO’s vaunted technology and AMC’s financial potential to go belly-up with its share price collapsing from $5.80 to less than 3 cents. This disaster was detailed progressively in The Australian and The Australian Financial Review.

In the end, CSIRO’s baby cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of dollars and public investors even more when the Light Metals Flagship was closed. Sandland and Thompson say that the overall scheme was ready to “fast fail” some Flagships, but they make no mention of this Flagship’s close link to AMC’s collapse.

Contrasting presentations

Back in 2002, CSIRO had launched a history of the organisation to mark the 75th anniversary of its inception as CSIR. Titled Fields of Discovery: Australia’s CSIRO (Allen & Unwin), the 520 pages by experienced writer Brad Collis is a readable and meticulously researched account of the organisation’s scientific work and, above all, its scientists. For example, the book’s cover photo is of “The Dish” (the Parkes Radiotelescope), a genuinely iconic symbol of Australian world-leading research. Collis set the scene skilfully by leading with two chapters about the study of insects, which could airily be dismissed by some as merely a pastime of dilettante collectors.

Collis demonstrated persuasively how determined pioneers like Dr Doug Waterhouse as Chief of CSIRO’s Division of Entomology achieved astonishing practical results in the control of pests. The emphasis was on translating basic science into practical outcomes, and Collis told numerous other stories through the scientists involved.

The latest Annual Report for CSIRO (2011-12) is full of detailed figures but its cover and inside cover are revealing of an organisation that struggles to explain itself in anything other than “management-speak”. The cover has nothing to do with science as it is taken with a pretty girl, hair blowing in the wind (anonymous, even as possibly a CSIRO scientist), and the inside cover is full of gushing attempts to explain CSIRO in terms of “Our purpose… Our mission … Our vision … CSIRO’s Values Compass … and Positive impact”.

In conclusion, the Sandland/Thompson book is so deficient with its bland lack of focus on real research that a complementary account of the major changes in CSIRO is warranted that is independently authored and centres on the organisation’s science and scientists. Brad Collis’ Fields of Discovery is an excellent model to emulate.

Series credits

Dr Peter Pockley, Senior Correspondent for Australasian Science and Search over two decades, and pioneering science correspondent in the Australian media (since 1964), was recognised in 2011 with the rarely awarded Medal of the Australian Academy of Science and elected as a Life Member of the Australian Science Communicators.

Stewart Fist is an independent investigative journalist with long-term specialisation in the activities of the global tobacco industry’s promotion of their lethal products against scientific evidence.

Guy Nolch, Editor & Publisher of Australasian Science and its predecessor Search over the past 20 years, was awarded the Unsung Hero of Science Communication by the Australian Science Communicators in 2012.

© Peter Pockley (scicomm@bigpond.net.au)