The CSIRO’s likeable chief executive Larry Marshall claims to be his own biggest critic, and says rigorous self-assessment is useful. But just in case he’s not harsh enough, there is no shortage of people happy to offer an assessment free of charge.
“The great thing about being in Australia is that there are plenty of other critics as well, so the feedback process is very fast,” he says, only half joking.
Dr Marshall will celebrate three years at the national science agency in January, and will surely look back on 2017 as a year in which the measures he introduced have begun to show results and to build momentum.
When asked to self-assess, he says he is most satisfied with the way the organisation has embraced the notion that impact research relies as much on ‘market pull’ as it does on ‘science push’.
And that the specific set of skills and outlook that former CSIRO chairman Simon McKeon and the board had sought when they appointed Dr Marshall in January 2015 was to bring some of the Silicon Valley market sensibilities into Australian science research.
“I learned so much about science in my degree, but I didn’t learn anything about markets,” Dr Marshall says. “But innovation doesn’t happen without some kind of market shift, some kind of market pull.”
“Everything we have done in respect to ON [accelerator], Data61 and ANO (the Australian National Outlook survey) is really about bringing that understanding of the market, or customer or beneficiary,” he said.
“Who is going to benefit from the science, and how are we actually going to delivery it?”
Also, the organisation has just enjoyed its third consecutive year of growth. While growth is not necessarily an end in itself, he says, it’s been “good for morale,” and is not a bad thing.
In this podcast interview, Larry Marshall reflects on three years at CSIRO, points to where progress has been made, and where challenges remain.
Dr Marshall returned to Australia to take the role, but says he had been inspired by the CSIRO as a student in 1984, when he an opportunity to work on a project at the organisation.
“In a university, you get a certain view of the world. But coming into a big, scientific organisation with big professional labs and the exposure to industry and customers … that’s just a unique experience. And that’s still the heart and soul of the CSIRO.”
When he returned in 2015, after a 26-year career in Silicon Valley, he found the same “deep sense of purpose”, but was surprised at how “profoundly impacted” the organisation was by deep budget cuts delivered in the 2013. Morale was at a low ebb.
The development of the ANO was based on a lengthy consultation across the organisation, effectively crowdsourcing the strategy. “Let’s face it, when you’re having to navigate the ambiguity of the future, you better have the most diverse set of experiences and insights around the table as you can.”
Dr Marshall says that while there has been a cultural shift based on the creation and implementation of the ANO strategy, it is too simplistic to describe a single CSIRO culture.
He says culture tends to be attached to location – the agency has 57 sites across the country – and attached to the industry being served.
“The one unifying force we have though, is that everyone is here [at the CSIRO] to deliver the best for the nation, and to use science to solve really hard problems,” he said.
“When you have that kind of simple higher purpose that unites us, that’s a real key to any direction we want to go. Any change we want to drive has to understand that foundational higher purpose of science.”
Not that the organisation does not have its challenges.
The launch of its own VC fund, Main Sequence Ventures, was a tremendous milestone, but Dr Marshall acknowledges it has a diversity problem.
Of the five Main Sequence partners, all five are men of a certain background.
“Venture capital might be one of the last bastions of gender inequality. In the US for example, by gender its about 11 per cent diversity [in VC] which is obviously very far indeed from what nature intended,” he says.
“And that’s only as high as 11 per cent as a result of some very deliberate interventions. For many reasins – historical and otherwise – it’s a very gender unequal area of our industry. And I think Australia is very similar to that [11 per cent].”
“If you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We Had a couple of very high potential women inside the CSIRO who we had earmarked to be a part of that funding team.
“Unfortunately – or fortunately for them! – they were also very popular to other parts of the industry and have got poached away from us,” Dr Marshall said.
“That’s great for the country, but it does highlight a challenge for us.”