Ron Sandland recently wrote about the new phenomenon of 'big data' - weighing up the benefits and concerns. Terry Speed reflected on the same issue in a talk earlier this year inGothenburg, Sweeden noting that this is nothing new to statisticians. So what's all the fuss about? Here's another take on the 'big data' bandwagon.
Taking the Stick (yet again) to CSIRO May 07, 2014
Times are tough and about to get a lot tougher in the country's premier research agency.
Tony Abbott is to CSIRO what Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba (GBM) is to Zambia. Back in 2010 Mwamba (a Kasama member of Parliament) went on radio to defend his beating of his wife arguing that he did so because he loved her. So Tony Abbott's whacking of CSIRO is obviously an act of supreme love. GBM's defense was that wife beating was normal and that he was not the first to do so. Taking the stick to CSIRO is also 'normal' and indeed Abbott is not the first to do so. So what is it about this and previous governments that compel them to stick the boot into one of Australia's most enduring and respected agencies? The 'Clever country' is a con; it's a throwaway by-line used by governments and their ministers to try to convince us that we're an intellectual powerhouse while simultaneously knee-capping its main instrument of delivery - the CSIRO as well as its incubator - the universities. In reality we are an intellectual powerhouse. It has been widely acknowledged that when it comes to science, Australia "punches above its weight". But what's missing in the R&D equation is the "D" - we're really good at the "R" part, but for a variety of reasons (principally a former lack of confidence in our abilities and more recently a lack of political will) we struggle to unlock the full benefit from our discoveries, and things don't look like getting any better soon. That the present government has no minister of science yet places store in outdated concepts such as knighthoods speaks volumes about the value it places on one of mankind's most fundamental traits - the pursuit of knowledge.
In its infinite wisdom, the Abbott government is about to slash CSIRO's budget by something between $75M to $150M. Coincidentally, the CSIRO Executive has just announced a major overhaul of the organisation's structure that will see up to 300 jobs lost - or in Megan Clark management speak "I can confirm that we will not be able to offer around 270 to 300 roles".
So this brings us to one of Australia's favourite pastime's - restructuring. To be clear, we're not against change but the reasons for it have to be compelling. The CSIRO reform agenda outlined in the March 2014 Innovation Organisation Reform document reiterates CSIRO core values, documents critical success factors and stresses the importance of "wellbeing at work". In guarded language it notes the abject failure of the "matrix system" that was the legacy of the last restructure under Geoff Garrett.
As a former employee, I have a great fondness for CSIRO, and yes, mea culpa I presided over a reorganisation of a Division's research portfolio which reduced duplication of effort but importantly resulted in zero job losses. However, the revised Divisional structure was stillborn. Shortly after all was bedded down, a new Chief was appointed and his first task - dismantle the new structure!
The obsession with CSIRO's structure and funding have an almost sunspot cyclic signature - except the recurrence time for CSIRO is probably somewhat less than 11 years. When I first joined the organisation in 1993 its organisational structure was based around Institutes and Divisions. For me, and I'm sure many (most?) other CSIRO scientists at the time, the Institute - Division system imparted a strong sense of 'belonging' - staff 'lived' in their disciplinary 'homes'. In 1996, Malcolm McIntosh assumed the role of Chief Executive and, as noted in CSIROpedia he "presided over a major organisational restructure" which saw the replacement of Institutes by a matrix-based structure that mapped divisional effort into industry-based 'sectors'. I recall at the time the enormous effort that went into the initial and subsequent 'mapping' exercises - only for it to be dismantled 5 years later when Geoff Garrett was appointed CEO after McIntosh's untimely demise. The differences between McIntosh and Garrett are many, but none more so than their respective management styles. McIntosh was like a 'silent partner' - you knew he was firmly in control, but didn't interfere in a scientists' working day. Garrett, on the other hand, was constantly in your face and gushed endlessly and effusively in the latest management speak. 'BHAGS' (Big Hairy Audacious Goals) was his cause celebre until he finally got the message that American junk terms didn't wash with Australian scientists (I believe he was also politely told to get off the table when he tried to emulate Robin Williams's performance in Dead Poets Society at a staff meeting). Interestingly BHAGS morphed into the present-day Flagships.
And so, here we are on the eve of another CEO's departure whose legacy will be the wholesale dismantling of CSIRO divisions and the start of another massive mapping exercise into new Future Flagships. It's clear that scrapping 11 divisions and creating 9 new Flagships will leave a number of senior CSIRO managers without a role. Indeed, the Chief of CSIRO's Computational Informatics division, Bronwyn Harch would appear to be the first casualty of this process - having elected to jump before being pushed.
These continue to be unsettling times for CSIRO and its staff. If I was to have my 'one day as CEO' at CSIRO I would take the organisation back to a time when it did really, really good science and was appreciated for it. For one day, scientists would get to enjoy doing what they worked so hard to do - science! Change is both necessary and inevitable, but the constant cycling through a process of destruction and reconstruction is debilitating and ultimately pathologically flawed.