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As Larry Marshall signals cuts to various programs, CSIRO staff say he is either out of his depth or has questionable motives – or both. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Backlash against CSIRO’s ‘cowboy’ chief Larry Marshall

When the CSIRO’s chief executive sat down last week to write an all-staff email – intended for some 5000 people – he knew he had to mix the good news with the bad. Larry Marshall was restructuring the 90-year-old institution, politically maligned but venerable, and about 350 job losses were slated – a third from those modelling climate change. But Marshall did not mix the bad news so much as bury it. We know this because the email was leaked in an angry contravention of Marshall’s appeal contained at the end of his long missive: “As you absorb this message I hope you appreciate the intent of treating everyone in CSIRO as a trusted insider.” 

Within days, a besieged Marshall was offering qualifications while leaks continued from increasingly mutinous staff. “The mood is terrible and Larry doesn’t have the confidence of most staff,” one employee told me. “There are two reasons. The redundancies first, and how these are being handled. But fundamentally, many people are upset because he’s attacking the values and identity of CSIRO.” 

This Wednesday, while Marshall was overseas, staff lodged a dispute with the Fair Work Commission, the industrial arbiter. 

Visionary or cowboy?

Dr Larry Marshall began as the CSIRO’s chief executive a little over a year ago, in January 2015. He had returned to the country of his birth after spending 25 years in the United States, much of it in and around California’s Silicon Valley, where he managed tech start-ups and invested in emerging technologies. He also lodged 20 patents. Marshall holds a PhD in physics, and describes himself as an entrepreneur and business leader, as well as a scientist. 

Marshall has suggested he is almost uniquely qualified to reimagine an institution at risk of ineffectiveness and “mediocrity”. A visionary, a scientist and a businessman. A man as familiar with scientific discovery as he is with dividends. “I’ve run companies through three recessions and 9/11,” he told colleagues last week, “and recognise change can be frightening, but we must embrace it and turn it to our advantage if we want to flourish.”

But his detractors among CSIRO staff – and there are many – have told me they see him as a self-aggrandising cowboy with a dangerous indifference to the values and history of the institution. Is Marshall a brave “disruptor” – a favourite word of his – or a man unsuited to head the public body? Or both?

Public storm

Larry Marshall’s leaked email has become the centre of a public storm. It has been parsed, mocked, qualified. The ruptures within the CSIRO are about much more than an email, of course, but for his critics it is an exhibit of his “destructive” hubris. “Marshall’s language is arrogant and ignorant,” a CSIRO staff member told me, “because he clearly doesn’t understand some of the science, and is not humble enough to acknowledge this. People are angry and upset. They’re disgusted by how he talks about CSIRO. It’s like he has no idea about CSIRO’s history and culture.”

The email is long. Verbose. It is both impassioned and disorganised, powered by a great self-assuredness. It enthusiastically surveys areas of scientific development – big data, clean coal, 3D printing. But the enthusiasm expresses itself in the language of Silicon Valley – one part jargon, one part bravado. “Our investment in precision agriculture combines unique sensors with predictive analytics to help our farming community respond to climate change, and grow their prosperity,” he writes. 

For all the vision, there is something numbing about Marshall’s descriptions of health as a “major growth area” and that “keeping someone healthy has major exponential cost savings”. Of course, none of this deadened language, favoured by Silicon Valley venture capitalists and tech gurus, means he is wrong. But it jars with a good portion of his staff. 

Concern about cuts

There has been concern among CSIRO staff about cuts to climate modelling. Marshall argues that the science of climate change is clear, and that the organisation must shift to climate “mitigation”. This debate has dominated reporting on the internal ruptures this week, but it is far from the only concern. Staff I spoke with suggest Marshall is fundamentally unsuited to the job because he has disregard for the very notion of public goods – the research that may not occur within the private sector because it’s regarded as unprofitable. 

“The general trend seems to be that if you’re not making a lot of money then the research area won’t be supported,” I was told. “One consequence is that much of the public goods stuff is being targeted … The competitive advantage of CSIRO is its long-term research. Developing, over time, the capacity to tackle big problems.” 

A spokesperson for CSIRO rejected this, telling me: “Pretty much all of CSIRO’s research activities includes a ‘public good’ – a benefit to the Australian public, either directly or indirectly.

“CSIRO’s function under our act is in part to carry out scientific research to assist Australian industry, further the interests of the Australian community and to contribute to the achievement of the Australian national objectives or the performance of the national and international responsibilities of the Commonwealth. These activities invariably include public benefits and this is so even in those limited cases where we do research under an engagement with a customer on a fully commercial basis.” 

Other concerns were shared with me by staff. Some of the CSIRO’s work involves surveying public attitudes – to climate change, say, or aspects of mining. The industry jargon is “social licence to operate”, meaning the broad acceptance of an affected community. CSIRO work also involves contract-based research for private industry. There is nothing inherently improper about any of this. Surveying public attitudes is useful, while contract-based research is conducted independently and under peer review. The concern of some scientists, however, is that these arrangements may become corruptible in the future if the pressure to profit is increased. “Contract work is part and parcel of modern research and is of course not morally questionable in itself,” a staff member told me. “For instance, improving acceptance of developments like mining or coal seam gas isn’t necessarily wrong. But you must make sure that the governance structures are the right ones so that the independence can be ensured. Sometimes when you push the need to make money, there’s an adverse effect on the governance.”

The CSIRO spokesperson said the organisation has strong policies and procedures in place, “irrespective of whether the research has been funded by the government or from commercial sources”, and cited the employment of internal peer review for any report or publication for the public as a step before submission to review by the broader scientific community. Regarding “social licence to operate” topics, the spokesperson said the CSIRO’s research is conducted according to the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research and must be approved by an ethics committee. 

“We believe this is a critically important contribution we can make in future,” the spokesperson said. “In addition to peer review, we are also assuring the independence of our work through appropriate governance mechanisms.”

But alarm was triggered among some staff when they read Marshall’s pledge to the resources sector in his email. “Commodities are the bedrock of our nation,” he wrote, “and we will always support that industry especially now in times of declining prices when innovation can fundamentally change the game.” 

It struck some as strangely partisan. Staff I spoke with were not dismissive of mining. They respected its economic importance, but believed Marshall’s commitment struck a bum note – the CSIRO’s support of resources should be along purely scientific lines.

It conformed to the suspicions of one scientist I spoke to, who felt that the axed programs – Liveable, Sustainable and Resilient Cities; Biodiversity Ecosystems; and Adaptive and Economic Systems – were politically targeted. “If you read between the lines with some of the cuts, it’s as if the politically inconvenient areas are being trimmed,” I was told. “Climate science, social science and biodiversity. He hasn’t properly explained why these are the areas being targeted.”

The source went on to say Marshall “doesn’t understand social science. He thinks the future is in hacking Facebook and Twitter pages. I think he’s targeting anything that has been politically inconvenient or any research that is perceived to have a left-wing bias.” 

When I asked the CSIRO why, in one of the world’s most urbanised countries, they did not have an urban research program, I was told that its functions were reflected in other areas. “While there may not be a specific research program carrying that title, CSIRO’s research does indeed contribute to the understanding, management and planning of the urban environment. Research done in any area of CSIRO from manufacturing to IT has applications to the urban environment.”

Crisis awaits

As I write, Dr Marshall is flying back to Australia. He will arrive amid crisis. Morale is low and industrial action is being pursued. The CSIRO spokesperson told me that the organisation will “work at communicating more clearly and directly to staff, and be clearer about intentions – it is a cultural change and it is inevitable that not everybody will be able to make that change”. This might underestimate the depth of rancour. I spoke with people who were practically eulogising their institution. 

“An outrageous thing here is that this seems to have been a captain’s call,” a CSIRO staff member said. “I suspect there was no documentation about cuts and I doubt we will ever find out the real reasons. There was no consultation. It seems Larry doesn’t want to be limited by the rules. 

“Some think that he’s treating CSIRO as his own private company. CSIRO is an important and proud national institution. So it’s a very odd fit. I don’t want CSIRO to be undermined and it needs to be supported into the future.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2016 as "Backlash against CSIRO’s ‘cowboy’ chief". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.