Opening a Pandora's Box of top research

December 1, 2000

The new head of Australian science organisation Csiro is keen to discover untapped brilliance, writes Julia Hinde.

Having helped secure funding for scientific research in post-apartheid South Africa, the new head of Australia's largest scientific and industrial research organisation will have another fight on his hands when he arrives in Canberra in the new year.

British-born, Cambridge University boxing blue Geoff Garrett will step into the Australian ring in January when he takes over at Csiro, Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, following the death earlier this year of Malcolm McIntosh, the former head of United Kingdom defence procurement, who led Csiro from 1996.

Dr Garrett, head of South Africa's Csiro equivalent Csir for the past five years, could hardly have chosen a more interesting time to arrive in Australia. Two major reports - one by chief scientist Robin Batterham examining Australia's science capability, and the other examining innovation in Australia - are on the table, and there is much to play for in terms of funding. "Science and innovation are high on the agenda in Australia," Garrett notes. "The government is taking them seriously. Science seems a hot topic."

Certainly the reports, which acknowledge the need for much greater investment in science and technology to fuel innovation and economic growth into the future, are sparking considerable debate at all levels (a recent letter in an Australian newspaper from the deputy chief executive of Csiro says that relative to gross domestic product, Csiro's budget has declined 24 per cent over the past decade) but, as yet, no new money has materialised.

"I am told January will be an important time," Garrett says. "There may be some possibilities on the table, but nobody is going to give money to science just because it's good stuff. You have to demonstrate its relevance."

This is something Garrett and his colleagues seem to have achieved in South Africa. "With the new government in 1994/95 in South Africa, we had serious concerns that with the major problems facing the country, maybe science and technology would not be high on the agenda," he explains. "But there has been a real understanding that science and technology can be a key weapon in global competitiveness and an understanding that you don't just turn it on and off like a light switch."

The former visiting professor at Sheffield University and visiting fellow at St Catherine's College, Oxford, who has also worked in metallurgy at universities in the United States, Canada and South Africa, sees dynamic possibilities in Australia. "I was excited by the Olympics," he says. "It gave me a great thrill, this was a nation on the move. I have always been impressed by Csiro, the brand and its great reputation worldwide."

As for changes, the new head - a former winner of the South African "Boss of the Year" award - says he will listen before setting any goals or targets. However, before he arrives there is talk, after recommendations by the chief scientist, of allowing Csiro to compete for grants from organisations such as the Australian Research Council, and encouraging its scientists to spin off more of their research.

Garrett stresses he is a team player. He speaks of growing multi-country collaborations, particularly within the southern hemisphere, as well as building bridges across institutional boundaries within Australia.

"Australia spends about the same on research and development as some of the big companies like General Motors," he says. "So within countries such as Australia and South Africa we have to work in consortia. I think over the next ten years we will also see a handful of major national alliances."

On approaching his new role, he says: "I believe the success of an institution is all about people. How do you help people be the best they can be? It's like the metaphor of the champagne bottle. There's quality and bubbliness, but how can you unleash the cork from the bottle?" "If you surf the Csiro website," adds Garrett, who has a passion for rock fishing and cricket, "there is a Pandora's Box of great research and innovation. There is untapped brilliance in Australia. But is the box being opened wide enough?"

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