Hail Csiro! King of Oz

July 30, 1999

In the first of three research specials from the southern hemisphere, Julia Hinde reports on policies and projects from Australia. Next week we visit South Africa, with more on Australia and the Pacific Rim on August 13.

After five years as head of UK defence procurement, Sir Malcolm McIntosh swapped Whitehall and a view of the River Thames for his native Australia in 1996, and now heads the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia's largest scientific and industrial research organisation.

With 68 research laboratories and field stations across Australia, from animal health in Geelong, to exploration and mining in Perth, and tropical agriculture in Brisbane, CSIRO has an annual research budget of Aus$716.5 million (1997 98) (Pounds 290.3 million) and, according to its chief executive, is "pretty close to unique in the world".

"I know of no other institution that covers the whole areas of research that we do," says Dr McIntosh, who does not use the "sir" in Australia. "We do science in nearly every area."

With a budget considerably higher than that of either the Australian Research Council (Aus$359 million on programme grants in 98-1999) or the National Health and Medical Research Council (Aus$176 million on research in 98-1999), CSIRO is a very significant player in Australian research, employing some 6,000 staff, of whom more than 2,000 are active scientists.

Though CSIRO does some blue-sky, speculative research, McIntosh is clear: "We don't do science for its own sake."

Rather CSIRO - first established in 1926 by the federal government as the Council for Scientific Research - does mostly applied research with clear intended outcomes. It also - like universities - provides research training, currently with 900 postgraduates in-house.

Aiming to be "a world-class research organisation, vital to Australia's future", CSIRO's purpose is to do science and technology of benefit to Australia's industry and economy, the management of its resources, the protection of its environment and the health and safety of its people.

As well as carrying out scientific research to assist Australian industry, its functions include facilitating the utilisation of the results of such research.

"CSIRO has just been through a lengthy process of assessing where it can do most good for Australia," explains McIntosh. "Our priority setting round draws heavily, not only on what we can do with our science, but also on what industry and environmental groups feel they need most in the way of new science and technology."

From developing a new drug to fight influenza to creating the technology to fight travellers cheque fraud, from producing the wool products of the future, which combine the plus points of wool with those of cotton and synthetics, to developing the technologies to enable mining companies to pinpoint gold deposits below large layers of regolith, or weathered rock, CSIRO claims a cost-benefit ratio for specific projects of, typically, one to between four and eight.

Required to find at least 35 per cent of its income from sources other than its government grant, CSIRO undertakes contract research and consultancy for companies and government departments, goes into collaborative partnerships with industry, and takes its products and technologies to market.

According to McIntosh, for a country the size of Australia in economic terms, having one large strategic research organisation covering all areas of science can be crucial.

"If we didn't have a CSIRO," he says, "we would almost certainly need to create one.

"In a small country like Australia, far away from the rest of the world and world markets, it is extremely difficult to get scale, scale from the point of view of attracting world class researchers and supporting them properly, and from being sufficiently robust that if one or two researchers leave, the entire enterprise does not collapse.

"There's benefit in making a research establishment that is large enough to survive the ups and downs in the financial world, as well as in the academic one, and in being able to bring together a variety of scientists to tackle any particular problem.

"The benefit in CSIRO is that if you have a problem in chemistry that needs a serious mathematical or computer input, you also have the international expertise in maths and computing to hand."

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