Centre for Transformative Innovation

Background

There is a large and growing literature about CSIRO. Many of the recent publications have been histories of CSIRO Divisions written by former members of those Divisions. These books have concentrated on the scientific and commercial successes of the Divisions and, to some extent, on the personalities of the major players. The 2002 Brad Collis book did this for CSIRO as a whole.

Uncharted history

Only two books have attempted to document comprehensively the way the organisation has evolved in response to changing public policy, changes in the Australian economy and changes in the Australian innovation system. The 1966 book by Currie and Graham did this for the period building up to the formation of our predecessor organisation, CSIR, and the 1987 book by Schedvin, which documents the history of the CSIR from 1926 to 1949.

What is lacking is a comprehensive account of how CSIRO has evolved since its formation in 1949, in response to the changing external environment. This will both acknowledge the contribution of the organisation and its leaders to the development of the nation, but, more importantly, allow past successes and failures to help guide the future direction of the Organisation.

Context is everything

This is no mere academic exercise. A proper understanding of why CSIRO should continue to exist and thrive requires knowledge of how and why it evolved in the Australian context. That context is very different from the histories of peer nations, those representing the traditions of advanced western societies, particularly the US and the UK.

The US has never had a true equivalent of CSIRO, relying instead on central funding mechanisms to support universities and other independent institutions (with the NIH being an exception in owning and operating its own laboratories, currently with about 6000 staff). In the UK, the introduction of the “customer-contractor” principle proposed by Lord Rothschild in 1971 emasculated the centralized Councils for Scientific Research.

Solving Australian problems

Australia, while maintaining an integral role at the forefronts of world science, must also deal with its own peculiar opportunities and problems. Chief amongst these are its geographical isolation and its tiny population, particularly with respect to its responsibility for one of the largest landmasses and ocean territories on the planet.

The historical response to these drivers has been the creation and support of CSIR/CSIRO in order to provide a large part of the scientific basis for managing its resources and to promote the economic welfare of its people. In contrast to the UK, the judgement has been made that Australia does not have the luxury of relying solely on a deep and wide market for the provision of scientific research services.

However, that judgement remains subject to question and potential revision.