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Move over scientists, the Marshall’s in town

When venture capitalist, Larry Marshall, was appointed head of the CSIRO, he promised structural change.

In an interview in February last year he said:

“What I want to do is help our organisation focus on how we can contribute to the innovation, discovery and growth that Australia has come to expect from its premier research organisation.

We’ve got to be more entrepreneurial and agile. We’ve got to get our overheads down and create value for our customers, and we’ve got to create some more headroom for exploration.”

As he extolled the virtues of “lean innovation”, it became apparent that Dr Marshall is far more au fait with the corporate philosophy of competition than the scientific practice of collaboration.

For those not familiar with this latest corporate-speak, which is apparently “being embraced by everyone — from the smallest start-ups to the largest global organizations”, Harvard Business Review explains lean innovation this way:

  • Identify the minimal viable product.
  • Develop a version rapidly and test it with customers, ideally in a real-world competitive situation.
  • Repeat the process until the core product is competitive or pivot to explore a new approach.

That certainly would be a new approach for the CSIRO, or for any scientific research body for that matter.

Dr Marshall spent the last 25 years as a venture capitalist in the United States and he holds 20 patents, which probably explains his direction which seems to be to identify limited, unique research areas to concentrate on, produce a commercial product, hit the markets before our ‘competitors’ do, and then fix it up (or abandon it) as problems arise.

One of his first ideas earned him the Australian Skeptics’ Bent Spoon Award for 2014 for being the “perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudo-scientific piffle” after publicly endorsing water divining.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever seen farmers find water – and as a scientist I can’t explain how they do this – but there’s a number of tricks when people dowse for water, and I can tell you, I’ve seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy,” Marshall said in an interview on ABC radio. “I’ve always wondered whether there is something in the electromagnetic field, or gravitational anomaly, whether there’s something that would enable you to more efficiently detect water.”

When asked about this in a subsequent interview, Dr Marshall revealed the source for his claim.

“My grandfather was friends with a tribal elder who would walk our land trying to feel where the river had gone – he explained to me as a kid that the river was still there just hidden beneath the ground. He was very successful in figuring out where Granddad should drill. Drilling is very expensive so you need all the help you can get. Now clearly, that wasn’t a scientific experiment and I was wrong to quote figures for success.”

If he thinks the figures were the problem then we are in trouble.

His latest bombshell has been to announce the axing of 350 positions over two years, with 100 full-time positions (110 people in total) of the 140 scientists employed by CSIRO’s climate monitoring and modelling units of the Oceans and Atmosphere division to go.

“Personally, I have high hopes we can transmute commodity mineral sands into unique titanium ink for 3D printing to create a new multibillion-dollar industry,” Marshall told staff in a rambling email announcing the cuts on February 4.

Marshall’s decision, which was not made in consultation with the Board, has been widely criticised by a shocked scientific community.

“The decision to decimate a vibrant and world-leading research program shows a lack of insight, and a misunderstanding of the importance of the depth and significance of Australian contributions to global and regional climate research,” the letter from 2900 scientists, including one-third from the US, states.

But this has not phased Marshall who told a Senate Committee “We have to choose where we invest to deliver the most value. What can CSIRO do to change things, where can we be really unique and what are the areas we need to work on?”

“This is not a judgment call on the quality of our climate science – it’s awesome! – but we’ve been doing that for 20 years,” Dr Marshall said. Time to move on apparently.

He has just taken a 16-member delegation of his senior executives to California to “secure deals” to solve water problems in India who may be the beneficiary of World Bank funds for water aid that could be worth billions.

One insider said that while CSIRO may be in the running for such projects, it was the sort of work that private companies could deliver, unlike the climate programs facing the axe.

Will we see Indian farmers with CSIRO divining rods searching for water as untreated sewerage poisons their waterways and as they choke on the pollution from burning CSIRO clean coal? Or will we see Malcolm’s rainfall trigger reinvigorated? Perhaps Barnaby could give some advice about dams?

According to Marshall, “Entrepreneurship, like science, isn’t about playing it safe – if we aren’t failing we aren’t trying hard enough.”

As far as the scientific community is concerned, so far, it’s been one big fail from this corporate tryhard.

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12 comments

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  1. diannaart

    Everything good, worthy, insightful, creative and, dare I say?, truly innovative, is being eroded by corporate cowboys such as Marshall.

    Here’s an idea; appoint a scientist who has proven success in leading teams of other scientists. Not difficult to do, not even rocket science!

  2. Wally

    The concept of a metallic ink to use in a 3D printer would be a significant advancement and make the development of 3D to date much more worthwhile. Despite being ingenious the limitation to making plastic objects reduces the benefits 3D technology can deliver, would be good to print my own $2 coins.

    As cool as metallic ink sounds we already have many methods to produce whatever metal parts we desire/need, we have not solved many important issues such as powering the planet without using fossil fuels or feeding every poverty stricken being.

  3. Steve Laing

    Apparently (and I got this from a source I trust very highly) that being in the desert for a while you can actually start to smell sources of water. Even underground. Given there are animals that happily survive out there who are completely unable to operate dowsing sticks, that makes more sense to me than this muppets theories.

    Commercial innovation in science often doesn’t come about because you focus on it, but as a bi-product of something else. But try selling that to a venture capitalist, or any other flavour of glorified bean counter…

  4. Kyran

    Coincidentally, RN’s ‘Rear Vision’ on Sunday dealt with a similar scenario. The conflict between the interests of science, commerce and government. Well worth a read or listen if you have the chance.

    http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/rearvision/clinical-trials/7148578

    Science used to be described as the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
    Commerce used to be described as the activity of buying and selling, especially on a large scale.
    Government used to be described as the group of people with the authority to govern a country or state.
    The new paradigm is that ‘science’ exists to benefit ‘commerce’, all of which should be subsidised (not governed) by ‘government’ (with our money). Typical of this government’s ineptitude, they hollered for a marshall and accepted deputy dawg. Thank you, Ms Lee. Take care

  5. Peter F

    Steve Laing – “you can actually start to smell sources of water.” My grandfather ( born 1881) told me that, while being driven (ie by drovers) along dry country roads, cattle could smell water from miles away and, once they did, you cold not stop them.

  6. Juanita Hardy (@Pikiran2ku)

    So Mr Marshall believes we have to choose where we invest to deliver the most value”. I agree – and I’d have thought that working to ensure the future of the planet and the human species might be a fairly valuable endeavour. But maybe Mr Marshall and I have different notions of “value”.

  7. OzFenric

    Mr Marshall also told a 774 radio interviewer that the CSIRO had a much lower turnover than he was used to, and that it was necessary to have staff turnover. He argued the CSIRO has dozens of interns and students each year who would like to find positions within CSIRO, but if senior staff don’t move on there’s no opportunity for advancement. Logical arguments, except that the idea of people “moving on” entails there being other jobs for them to go to. Losing decades of climate change knowledge and experience for the sake of promoting university graduates (at lower pay rates) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

  8. susan

    Science and scientists used to be admired and held in awe but somewhere along the line those in charge of government got very fearful of what they themselves didn’t understand and decided to annihilate it. Australia has lots of eminent scientists who could have led CSIRO but somehow less than mediocre Marshal got the job.

  9. johnlward010

    The Government and the new management of the CSIRO are both being misleading and deceptive of the Australian people. The claim that the CSIRO has the technology and reputation to trade on the world stage in water management and the science around the proof of einstein’s theories, they are liars.
    An organisation is made up of flesh and blood human beings. The organisation’s corporate knowledge and capability lives in ‘what those people carry around in their heads and their ability to work together’.
    For a CEO to claim that he and his organisation has the knowledge and skills to reproduce the performance of the many departments that have been disbanded is an offence under the Trade Practices Act and requires an inquiry into this deceptive and misleading public behaviour.

  10. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Sounds like Marshall is an LNP/IPA plant at the head of CSIRO like Michelle Guthrie is the LNP/IPA plant at the head of the ABC.

    I like johnlward010’s idea to get Marshall for his false claim as an offence under TPA.

    Same can go for other outrageous acts committed by the LNP Degenerates on a daily basis.

  11. totaram

    If you check this Marshal fellow’s background, you will find that he is neither successful as a scientist, nor as a “venture capitalist”. He has been successful at diddling a lot of investors out of their money, though, and that is what qualifies one for appointment by this completely dodgy government.

    First, we had Fraudband, and now we have the emasculating of CSIRO by these anti-science dinosaurs, who can find billions of dollars for fighter planes, bombing people in distant locations, and submarines, but cannot find a few millions to support the work of the CSIRO.
    Anyone who believes this rubbish about becoming “more efficient” by firing scientists has to be dreaming or some kind of loon.

  12. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    totaram,

    I despair for us and our Australian people. The LNP are a destructive, dangerous, damaging party out to destroy our Australian way of life.

    Can you tell us what we may hope can give us a chance of defeating the LNP (lascivious, nasty Party) at the next election come 2 July 2016?

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