CSIRO boss talks restructure, staff culture at besieged science body

By The Mandarin

March 11, 2015

The national science agency and its staff have a “missionary passion” that is less like a public service body and more like a start-up culture, new CSIRO boss Dr Larry Marshall has observed after taking the reins in January.

Dealing with the morale situation is priority number one, Marshall (pictured) says. Passion for the work notwithstanding, the agency’s staff are moving to take industrial action over pay, budget cuts and redundancies, a process that begins with a ballot of employees. If it succeeds, Marshall told Business Spectator it’s still an opportunity to engage with the workforce:

“If there’s a strike, perhaps I’m naïve, but I plan to take coffee out to the strikers and have a cup of coffee with them and have a chat with them. At the end of the day, I think the goal of the union and our goal is largely the same. We both want to provide the best working conditions we can.

“A lot of people in the organisation are nervous about, ‘who’s this crazy guy from Silicon Valley who’s going to come here and change the way we do things?’ It’s part of the reason I’m trying to get out in front of as many of the people of CSIRO as I can, so they can get to understand that I’m not some crazy Silicon Valley guy; I’m a scientist just like them, except that I went through this rare journey of learning how to become an entrepreneur and a CEO.”

There are no additional redundancies planned, above those indicated last year, Marshall says. Flagship directors are trying to save as many jobs as they can by identifying new sources of external funding, but some cultural changes may be required to create a sustainable workplace, especially as it tries to branch beyond government as its dominant source of income, currently around 60%.

He says that as scientists they can tend to focus on the technology and the value it can bring, but forget about the customer’s point of view.

Sydney-born Marshall has spent the last 25 years in the United States, building start-up companies like Iridex from pure science fields, such as chaos theory. Core science will remain at CSIRO, he says:

“I don’t think you can have truly disruptive innovation without pure core technology. I just don’t think you can have one without the other. I won’t belabour the Wi-Fi example. We all know that, but god, black hole research leading to seven billion connected devices on the planet, again, you would never have drawn a line between those two things.

“We have to have always at our foundational level great science. Do we have to worry too much about that going away? I don’t think so.

“Every single person that was hired into CSIRO on the science side is here because they are or they have the potential to be great scientists. I would argue that you could give a great scientist any problem, the most practical hard-edged, cutting-edge industry problem or the hardest scientific problem and in either case they will produce phenomenal science. Whether they’re serving an industrial customer, whether they’re serving the environment, whether they’re serving national problems of interest for the government, they will create great science in order to achieve that goal.

“No matter what I try to do in the organisation, fundamental great science will always be here. I for one certainly would never turn away from it.”

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