Old Article from Financial Review – Has the CSIRO Losts Its Way?
This is an old article from the financial review published back in October 2012 but is a great retrospective read. After all, CSIRO has done away with much detested Matrix Management Structure which just about any blind freddy could see was a disastrous mismatch for the organisation (except perhaps the top 30 or so most highly paid executives who traveled at great expense to international destinations to view the matrix structure in the wild in organisations such as Boeing and IBM who have such management structures in place in their research facilities ironically enough within Australia!).
The answer of course is a resounding ‘YES’, at least insofar as we see it. The best science is supposed to be fearless and while our scientists cringe at the prospect of being made ‘surplus to requirements’ should their particular field of research contradict the message that their managerial overlords are spinning to their governmental and industrial backers then the CSIRO will continue to be lost!
The problem is that, while it is still a great organisation, the CSIRO is no longer as independent and unbiased as we once imagined it to be. The pressure on it to obtain external funding has become so all-pervading that it is subconsciously forced to shade the colour of its advice towards the politically correct ideas of the day. This is particularly true, and is particularly a problem, in the case of non-industrial research (that is to say, “public good” research) for which the primary source of funding is the government itself.
It is said that nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, but it is still worth looking back a little so as to put the present situation in some sort of context.
The management philosophy of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation was based on building a research division around a chief who was the best available relevant scientist on the world market. Up until the early 1980s the various chiefs had an unassailable authority by virtue of their scientific expertise, and as a consequence had a well-developed arrogance ensuring that CSIRO administrators didn’t argue too much either with the output of the division or with its scientific direction.
The philosophy specifically encouraged “management by walking around”. This was expected not only of the divisional chiefs, but also of members of the CSIRO executive who occasionally visited divisions in order, so they said, to talk to scientists at the bench and see what they could do to help. Mind you, the executive members of the day were a cunning lot and probably good tellers-of-the-tale as well. But they certainly set a good example.
The whole system worked because the divisions were small enough for the chiefs to be efficient in a style of management designed to ensure that research was consistent with scientific sense. As a system it had its faults, but there is no question that it was spectacularly successful in terms of research output, of scientific bang for buck, and of the national and international reputation of the organisation. One of its defining characteristics was an absolute disdain by virtually all research personnel of anything that smelled of externally imposed bureaucracy.
External factors caught up with the CSIRO in 1986, when the McKinsey company was hired to review its management. Rumour at the time was that the federal government was unhappy with the CSIRO because it couldn’t track the detailed expenditure of its money.
This was probably true, but behind it all was the feeling that the CSIRO was doing too much basic research at the expense of research directed at specifically defined national problems and priorities. This also was probably true. It went along with a feeling in university circles that the very presence of the CSIRO was cutting them out of their natural constituency of pure research. It went along as well with the fact that the CSIRO was beginning to cost serious money and was operating in a manner a little outside what might be called normal administrative experience.
As a result of the McKinsey report, the CSIRO was rebuilt so as to be driven from the top down rather than from the bottom up.
New management philosophies emerged. One of them was to form large and geographically dispersed divisions by combining smaller divisions of complementary interests. No doubt there were attractive arguments for this sort of thing, but the outcome was to remove any serious interaction on scientific matters between a division chief and individuals of his research staff. The chiefs became, or were appointed to be, managers rather than scientists. As a consequence they lost much of their power. They became cogs in a machine, with much less ability to influence the scientific direction of their divisions, and much less inclination to question the views expressed by the organisation as a whole.
And what a machine! Nowadays the CSIRO operates under a matrix management system that runs into problems even in the engineering world for which it was originally designed. It is more or less bound to maximise both the scale of the management process and the number of its management personnel. Its major characteristic is a diffusion of the lines of responsibility. It has multiple reporting avenues that vastly increase the time a scientist spends on bureaucracy rather than research. Responding to formal reviews of one kind or another, preparing unreadable (and mostly unread) reports to stakeholders, and generally playing a survival game in a multi-boss environment – all of these occupations, while no doubt music to the ears of many a public service organisation, are not conducive to good and original research.
Perhaps more to the point, the operation of the matrix system with its inputs and outputs and themes and streams and flagships and business units and so on is more or less incomprehensible to the CSIRO’s employees, let alone to external bodies that may have to deal with and negotiate with the organisation.
The bottom line is that research by the CSIRO has become very expensive. Small business is priced out of direct access to the CSIRO’s expertise, and business of any size is wary of interaction simply because of the CSIRO’s reputation for excessive bureaucracy and aversion to risk.
In the wake of the McKinsey report it was decided that at least 30 per cent of the operating funds of the industrially focused divisions should be found from outside the CSIRO’s direct line of federal funding. The figure didn’t stay at 30 per cent for very long, and the restriction to industrial divisions didn’t last either. Nowadays rumour has it that every division is encouraged to generate at least 40 per cent of its income from external sources. Whatever the real numbers, generating money has become a significant responsibility of all CSIRO scientists, not just the administrators. The sources of such income in the case of the “public good” divisions inevitably boil down to other federal and state government departments.
Formal co-operation with other organisations has increased greatly. The problem is that co-operation has become something of an end in itself. Presumably there is an expectation that good science benefits from forced association with others because, it is said, scientists as a class retreat far too easily into ivory towers. Well maybe. Suffice it to say that the CSIRO has developed some peculiar ideas about what constitutes co-operation. While it was always fairly arrogant in its outside dealings, today it expects to be paid for the privilege.
A prime example concerns its interaction with the Co-operative Research Centres (CRCs). These appeared about 20 years ago, at least partly as a challenge to the dominance of the CSIRO in scientific matters. The CSIRO is a partner in quite a few of the individual centres, and usually contributes research staff to an overall effort that is supposed to be of benefit to the research aims of all the partners. It used to contribute them anyway. These days the centres themselves pay the salaries of contributed CSIRO staff – this with federal money supplied as additional income to allow expansion of the CRC effort beyond the sum of its contributed parts. How the CSIRO gets away with such an arrangement is one of the great mysteries of Australian scientific life.
According to its mission statement, the CSIRO seeks to have a profound and positive impact on the most significant challenges and opportunities facing Australia and humanity. It says so three times in slightly different ways in a half-page of managerial gobbledegook on the web, suggesting that the powers that be must be serious about the matter.
In the old days (there’s that nostalgia again!) no scientist worth his or her salt would have the time or the inclination to read such stuff. In these modern times when the path to scientific fortune is easiest via the ranks of management, it does indeed get read. With the ultimate result, in the case of the public-good research divisions of the CSIRO, that “a profound and positive impact” translates eventually to an encouragement of scientists into public advocacy (activism?) on behalf of whatever is the relevant cause. There is a vast difference between the scientific advocacy of today and the extension activities of the CSIRO’s agricultural scientists of the past. Advocacy is a no-holds-barred business of changing society’s mind about some issue, whether or not society wants to listen. The need for scientists to prove to their multiple managers that they have indeed had an impact – that they have influenced both government and the people – ensures that an enormous effort is put into public declamation of the worth of their research.
In short, the pendulum of the CSIRO’s philosophy has swung from what was probably an overemphasis on the basic research of individual scientists to an extreme and debilitating concern with the mechanics of management. Perhaps the most significant of the many negative aspects of the new style is a reluctance of business in general, and small business in particular, to deal with the CSIRO at all. Its reputation for treating a collaborator as no more than a cash cow is not exactly attractive to private companies.
So where to go from here?
First, there needs to be a pragmatic assessment of the basic reasons for the continuing existence of an organisation like the CSIRO. Comments to the effect that it exists to have a profound and positive impact on the challenges facing humanity are simply motherhood statements of no practical value.
Leaving aside straight-out industrial research for the moment, and bearing in mind the type of research implied by the titles of many of the CSIRO’s flagship activities (Energy Transformed, Water for a Healthy Country, etc), perhaps its existence can be justified most easily (and among other ways) by the need for scientific advice to federal and state governments on issues of public good.
Such issues generally fall into what these days some scientists call “post-normal science” where the facts are uncertain, values are in conflict, the stakes are high, and the matter is perceived to be urgent. They are usually highly politicised, so that official advice about them needs to be perceived by both politicians and the public as independent and unbiased. That requirement alone has, or should have, major implications for organisational structure, funding and scientific behaviour. The background here is that national and international groupthink (of the sort that seems to have emerged in the global warming debate, for instance) is distorting some aspects of serious science. Among other things, the CSIRO can do without a reputation for being no more than a mouthpiece for the science of others.
This is not to say that the CSIRO needs to maintain a continuing expertise on every public-good issue. It does say that it needs to maintain a goodly fraction of high quality, even if only vaguely relevant, fundamental research capacity that can be diverted as required into whatever is the current field of interest. An emphasis on an ultimate advisory role suggests a deliberate cultivation of a research flexibility whereby scientists can expect to change field, and even discipline, every so often throughout their careers. The current system is not designed that way. The CSIRO tends to employ new and additional research staff whenever there is a change of direction towards a more fashionable problem. The result is an increase of its salary bill that forces a greater reliance upon external funds.
It is not to say either that the CSIRO should avoid involvement with industrial development. Agriculture, for instance, is a key example where Australia should carry out its own basic and applied research. Other countries will not do it for us. The argument for home-grown industrial research in other areas of commerce is perhaps not always so strong – or at least is not always so strong that relevant science must necessarily be carried on within the CSIRO.
Second, there should be a complete rethink of the mechanics of the organisation’s research management. In particular, and for the benefit of both internal researchers and external stakeholders, there needs to be a return to some sort of understandable single-line authority. Hopefully it could be shaped so as to reinstate an emphasis on the scientific role of the divisional chiefs. The Max Planck Institutes of Germany (roughly the equivalent of the CSIRO divisions) work well with such an emphasis.
Third, any assessment of the CSIRO’s purpose should examine whether the organisation’s size and power within Australia stifles scientific competition and diversity of opinion. Formal deals for joint research with universities and other institutions sound good to those in the corridors of power, and probably are good in practice when the science has little to do with politics. But such deals also make it easier for the biggest player to minimise any public expression of the sort of dissent associated with science.
The real point is that the CSIRO needs to steer clear of the public service philosophy that politicians should be protected from conflicting advice. Science is, after all, about uncertainty. And politicians, after all, are paid precisely for the purpose of making decisions in the face of uncertainty and diverse opinion.
The Australian Financial Review
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