Opinion- 14 March 2009

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Max Whitten Writes of CESAR, the Special Research Centre for Environmental Stress and Adaption, and Science Policy  


 pdf file-available from Australasian Science



Max Whitten was formerly Chief of CSIRO Entomology and Professor of Genetics at University of Melbourne. His interests include public good research, sustainable agriculture and biodiversity. He has served as Visitor for a number of Cooperative Research Centres and chairs the Advisory Board for the Special Research Centre on Environmental Stress CESAR and Adaption at the University of Melbourne.


Here we reprint, with permission, Dr Whitten's forward to CESAR's 2008 Annual Report.


And click here if you wish to see the Director's Report.




Funding research, and picking the winners, is a risky business.  In justifying major long term investment in research ventures that didn’t live up to expectations, funding agencies might wish to invoke what Gareth Evans once called ‘the streaker’s defence’. “It seemed a good idea at the time, your Honour”. With CESAR, there’s no need to invoke the ‘streaker’s defence’.

The direct and indirect investment of public and industry funds into CESAR during its nine years of operation has been considerable. However, the returns on investment, while not externally quantified, have clearly been substantial.  CESAR’s Annual Reports, culminating in this - the final Report - have strived to document the contributions by staff and students to knowledge, from the fundamental to the applied.

Looking back over nine years of activities reveals a progression that is very different from what CESAR’s Director, Ary Hoffmann, and staff anticipated. As the Director notes in his Report, CESAR embarked on its journey of discovery as “an academic research operation with a strong focus on postgraduate training and publishing in the scientific literature”. And there the story might have ended. But CESAR metamorphosed over the nine years into a very different creature.

Ary rightly claims that CESAR can now be “regarded as a quality provider in the areas of pest control, population genetics assessments, insect genomics, and climate change adaptation”. CESAR’s accumulated publications border on the prodigious, in quality journals, academic books and industry magazines with impressive citation indices.

New knowledge underpins innovation.  Sometimes the nexus is foreseeable such as research aimed at understanding the development of pesticide resistance. For example, strategic research in the Chemical Program has placed industry in a better position to design novel pesticides and to develop improved management systems to extend their useful life. But no one could easily predict that the more fundamental studies on developmental and evolutionary processes in the Climatic Stress program would assist in developing improved approaches to genetic conservation or adaptation to climate change.

As anticipated, the more tactical research centred around Biomonitoring delivered knowledge of practical value about pollution management, especially in contaminated aquatic environments; but even the Biomonitoring Program also came up with surprises for developmental biology such as the demonstrated failure to link bilateral asymmetry to development stress.

And no one predicted that CESAR would develop a fourth program, called the Applied Program, focused on pest management. Yet, in hindsight, it was a natural and logical progression, guided by the dictum ‘do good research with an eye to its application’. Not surprisingly then, CESAR has enjoyed a diverse funding base with increasing contributions from industries.

Partnering with CSIRO Entomology, Melbourne Water, the Victorian Dept of Primary Industries and the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and with a Public Private Partnership in India for plant biotechnology, provided the synergy to ensure a healthy portfolio of pure and applied research giving good return on investment.

Over and above its outstanding contribution to knowledge and innovation, CESAR, through its training focus, has resulted in many “students and postdocs progressing to become academics, teachers, consultants, extension workers, biodiversity officers, agricultural scientists and researchers”.

None of these achievements, in innovation and capacity building, would have been possible without the Commonwealth Government funding for CESAR as a Special Research Centre. Those largely untied funds provided the freedom and flexibility for the Director to draw staff and students into effective collaborative teams across academia and industry.

Two of the many lessons we can learn from the CESAR story are these.  First, it is hard to predict pathways for research and innovation. A mix of solid track record and clear evidence of continuing new ideas for research seems a better basis for investment, than an undue emphasis on remote bureaucrats predicting winners.  Research teams with runs on the board should be supported until the evidence shows that they are running out of steam. Better to overshoot by several years funding a team with a good track record, then directing the research effort at a distance by some elaborate bureaucratic process of ‘picking winners’.  Command economies don’t work well for research and innovation, as the Soviet Union found to its cost.

Second, nurturing grass-root collaborative networks are more likely to succeed than top down ‘arranged marriages’. CESAR, like some of the early round CRCs, succeeded so well simply because the researchers were convinced they could achieve more by pooling resources and skills for common and complementary causes. It mattered little, in the case of CESAR, that this Special Research Centre was headquartered for much of its existence at LaTrobe and not Melbourne or Monash Universities.  Leadership trumps management.

CESAR, as a Special Research Centre, ceased de jure at the end of 2008 but it continues de facto with many of its strategic and applied activities. It limps on, like some other Special Research Centres, without the catalytic benefit of Centre funding.  What are the options?

On 9 March 2009 Federal Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, addressed the Australian Financial Review Higher Education Conference in Sydney: "I begin with two premises: First, that research is critical to Australia's prosperity. Second, that the status quo is not good enough to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century." His landmark speech focused on current problems and the way forward. It is instructive to assess the CESAR experience, and its prospects, in the light of Minister Carr’s observations.

Minister Carr notes “Australia does a lot of research, and much of that research is brilliant. . .  but we trail the world’s best”.  And later “We are already seeing evidence that Australia and its universities are slipping in the global rankings. . . I’d like to think we’ve also gone some way towards restoring the dignity of the research profession. For all that, we are still not getting as much out of the sector as we can. … We risk losing some of our best scholars because we can’t offer them research opportunities and infrastructure comparable to what they can get elsewhere…… it is our ambition to progressively address the gap in funding for the indirect costs of research, subject to the capacity of future budgets.  Understandably, Minister Carr warns that the government will use any additional funding as a lever to improve accountability in the university sector. The challenge will be how to do that, and quickly, so that research activities at the level of CESAR can be recognised and nurtured.

To “solve big problems and generate big opportunities” Minister Carr states “the government has decided that funding mechanisms and compacts will be used to encourage hubs and spokes arrangements that support collaboration between universities and build on research strengths…..This reform will not be imposed from the top down.”  The Minister then addresses collaboration between the university sector and industry, and the critical importance of human capital via increased support for graduate students.  CESAR’s record stacks up well in the former and justifies additional support in the latter.

Minister Carr concludes with thoughts to the future “Whatever the immediate difficulties we face, we must continue to invest in Australia’s research and innovation capabilities.  This is the key to achieving a rapid and enduring recovery once the present crisis has run its course.”

Now, not when the economic crisis has passed, is the time to address the shortfalls in financial support for research and innovation. Governments of all persuasions have recognised the need for intervention and spending their ways out of the global financial crisis.  It should be an easy choice for Minister Carr to select between popular handouts to buy plasma TVs, facilitate gambling or, retiring personal debt as against bolstering education, training and research that drives long term prosperity.

We would urge Minister Carr to use CESAR and its achievements over the past nine years as one splendid example to convince the Rudd Government where its spending priorities should lie. Another challenge will be drilling down quickly to the operational level of Australia’s CESARs before the momentum is lost to overseas competitors, and Australia becomes the “industrial museum” that the former Minister for Industry and Innovation, John Button, warned against in the 1980s.

Max Whitten, AM FAA

Chairman, the Advisory Board of CESAR