Data61’s Whittle marks a change in focus


James Riley
Editorial Director

With the appointment of Professor Jon Whittle as director, the CSIRO’s Data61 unit has taken a sharp turn, and at face value at least, softens the drive toward commercial research outcomes emerging from the organisation.

Certainly Prof Whittle is a different style of leader from his predecessor Adrian Turner. Where Mr Turner had been appointed to lead Data61 after spending 19 years living and working at the pointy end of commercialisation in Silicon Valley, Prof Whittle’s appointment is a return to a more traditional institutional research manager.

There are structural changes also. Prof Whittle is appointed as Data61 director, rather than carrying the CEO title of Adrian Turner bringing the unit more in line with the other CSIRO business units. That the Data61 leader is no longer a member of the CSIRO Executive Team signals a de-emphasis on the data sciences as a core area commercial research endeavour.

The global executive search that began when Adrian Turner stepped down in August last year ended in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton when Monash University’s executive dean of Information Technology was appointed as director.

Jon Whittle
Professor Jon Whille, the new head of CSIRO’s data sciences unit Data61

Prof Whittle will be based a stone’s throw from Monash, at the CSIRO Clayton facility within the Australian Manufacturing and Materials Precinct, perhaps moving the centre of gravity of the Data61 organisation from its current HQ at Sydney’s Eveleigh.

At Monash, one of Prof Whittle’s priorities had been in creating partnerships with industry, and he set up a number of centres and institutes, including the Monash Blockchain Technology Centre, the Monash Data Futures Institute – which applied AI research in health sciences, sustainable development, and policy and governance – as well as an AI and Law Enforcement centre established with the Federal Police.

Prof Whittle told InnovationAus that there are lots of different ways that research can have impact, and says his own background includes a six-year stint in Silicon Valley working at NASA in a software engineering research group.

After a return to academia in the UK, his career focus had been on building industry-research linkages, including leading the creation of a knowledge business centres program “which worked with hundreds of SMEs and was really all about having impact through research.

“I have also led a number of other [industry] programs including one where we had a consortium of about 90 different industry partners and local governments looking to use digital technologies to solve social problems,” Prof Whittle told InnovationAus.

He said he aimed to raise the international profile of Data61 and the drive the organisation’s role in industry education.

“One of the things about cutting edge technology and industry is that it is often misunderstood,” Prof Whittle said.

“Technology like AI for example, where there is often a lot of hype around [the tech], but when you go and talk to CEOs, they don’t understand what it is or what benefits it can bring to their business,” he said.

“There is a task to be done in educating CEOs today, but also future CEOs, so that they can actually leverage the technology.”

“Professor Whittle’s work is highly interdisciplinary, making him an excellent fit for CSIRO and our connected, multidisciplinary approach to solving the greatest challenges,” CSIRO Chief Executive Dr Larry Marshall said.

“Since we created Data61 as part of Strategy 2020, CSIRO has become home to Australia’s leading data science and innovation group, partnering with government, industry and academia to solve Australia’s largest data-driven challenges underpinned by deep science and technology.

“Jon is well placed to take CSIRO’s digital journey into its next phase, maximising the opportunities that digital and data science can deliver for the nation, and the world.”

Dr Simon Barry will take up the position of Deputy Director Data61.

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