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.