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Chief Scientist discusses his career in science

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Henceforth, every week at this time, we shall meet a person deeply involved in matters scientific, a scientific self-portrait, if you like. We begin appropriately enough with, theoretically at least, the most influential boffin the land, the Chief Scientist, former head of CSIRO, Dr John Stocker. John, did you have pets as a child?

JOHN STOCKER: Oh, I certainly did. I can't remember a time when we didn't have a dog in the family and, over the years, I've accumulated a veritable menagerie. I have everything from a wonderful collection of Australian rainforest stick insects, which I breed at home, all the way to a gaggle of geese, and all ports in between. So, yes, we're well endowed, the Stockers, with pets.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Why do you breed stick insects?

JOHN STOCKER: Stick insects are absolutely wonderful, loving creatures that requite every gesture you make towards them, Robyn. They're undemanding; they eat gum leaves; they need very little attention, but they always raise a few eyebrows when you release them from their cage, with some of them, up to about 15 to 20 centimetres long. They breed easily, and in fact they're absolutely enchanting pets.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: How do they express their love?

JOHN STOCKER: Mostly, by winking, actually.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: The stick insects wink?

JOHN STOCKER: Yes, they sort of wink, and one variety, when it's feeling particularly cuddly, it curls up, which makes it look a bit like a scorpion, which is a bit disconcerting to some people, but there's no sting involved.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: When did this fascination begin?

JOHN STOCKER: Actually, while I was within the CSIRO in Canberra. I was particularly interested in much of the work of the Division of Entomology and a scientist, David Rents (?) in that division got me very interested in hatching the eggs of these insects and in breeding them, and so involved did I become that I had them in my office in Canberra. My secretary, still, is now passionately breeding stick insects at home and the hobby has sort of seemed to have caught on a fair bit.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: It must have been a relief from the politics. But, tell me, when you were small, when you were growing up, when did science first loom for you?

JOHN STOCKER: I think science became of interest to me in primary school already. I was particularly interested in constructional things. My father was an engineer, fabricating structural steel for bridges and girders and buildings, and one my first memories that those things really mattered was when he took me to see the King Street Bridge, which had just collapsed in Melbourne. And, as the company with which he was General Manager had been responsible for the construction, it was one of those few things that call an engineer out in the middle of a weekend. And, as a 12-year-old, I can remember accompanying him and we both wondering what might happen next.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: I thought that might have put you off science.

JOHN STOCKER: No, it didn't because some of the investigations that went on afterwards into the causes, which became very interesting and detailed in terms of the specification of the particular high-tensile steel that had been used all the way down to fabrication techniques, suddenly were very relevant to the family and were really deeply interesting. So though it wasn't necessarily one of the triumphs of modern science, the main thing is, as it is from so many of life's experiences, that one learns something from it.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: But you didn't become an engineer?

JOHN STOCKER: No, I didn't become an engineer. I went the route of studying medicine, and I had a whole heap of uncles in the family who were doctors and they used to take me to watch at first, and then sometimes even assist, in operations. And I felt that the life of a surgeon was pretty glamorous, pretty interesting, and I must say that became an ambition at the age of about 13 or 14 to study medicine, probably to go on and do surgery.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: So what made you veer away from that, from being with people and looking after them and doing operations on them, and go towards business?

JOHN STOCKER: I think it probably was the fascination of science which was a more investigative nature than medicine, and that struck me about half-way through my medical course, in the fourth year when I particularly got excited about pharmacology and about thinking more about the mechanisms, not only which drug to use, but why you would choose that one and what it was actually doing in the body, and it resulted in me taking a year off mainstream medical studies and doing a degree in medical science. That was terribly exciting because it was the early days of kidney transplantation in Melbourne and I worked with Professor Peter Morris, who is now the Professor of Surgery at ....

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Balliol (?) College, a friend of mine.

JOHN STOCKER: Yes, exactly.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Sir Peter.

JOHN STOCKER: Sir Peter was just a fantastically exciting mentor, and during that year, looking at the reason that organ grafts are sometimes rejected and studying tissue matching was a pretty exciting experience for a young medical student, and also gave me the opportunity to publish some of my findings in journals like The Lancet, Nature. It captured me to the point that when, toward the end of my medical course, Sir Gustav Nossal said would I consider doing a PhD and actually embarking on a research career at the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute; I was so smitten that I couldn't refuse.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What took you to Switzerland?

JOHN STOCKER: There were a few centres in the world that really seemed to be pre-eminent in immunology. Certainly one of those was in Switzerland and Gus Nossal was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the new Barsel (?) Institute for Immunology. That and the fact that I was really interested in the German language and wanted to work for a while in a non-English speaking environment and polish up the German that I'd kept going since school days, all of that conspired to make Switzerland a pretty exciting destination.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: And when you went there, I was hinting before that you actually were seduced into the business side, and that's always puzzled me because you express some of the excitement of science, of discovery, of involvement, but being a manager seems to be, what, from dawn to dusk going to committee meetings and sitting around tables.

JOHN STOCKER: Not at all. To be an effective science manager, one has to have had hands-on experience of the excitement, on the one hand, but also the enormous barriers that a scientist faces in every day life. I think in order to be effective at doing something about those barriers and perhaps removing some of them, one needs really to understand what it means to be a working scientist because, although some of it is the moment of discovery that everybody knows about and reads about, an awful lot of it is drudgery and an awful lot more of it is very routine and quite distracting things, like applying for grants, justifying one's existence, doing administrative duties. I think there is still a role for people who work to try and remove some of those burdens and to make life more possible for scientists. Apart from that, being an effective science manager also involves spending a lot of time with scientists, talking with them about their work, setting priorities, and trying to work out together with them the areas that are most likely to provide a pay-back for science and in business terms, in terms of products, and I used to really enjoy that.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: When you returned to Australia, when you took up the job as Chief Executive of CSIRO, a number of people, including the aforementioned Sir Gus Nossal, said that this was probably the most important job in Australia and lots of people were standing by for, well not exactly miracles, but they were excited; you were excited. Needless to say, after a little while, the Australian tradition is to turn round and bite ankles. Did that critical response eventually get you down?

JOHN STOCKER: No, I didn't even feel it particularly, Robyn, and still don't. The feeling of solidarity in CSIRO, it prevails to this day, that it is a constantly changing environment and needs to change to continue to be responsive to Australian industry and to deliver, in the future, the sort of dividends that CSIRO has always delivered to Australia. I think that that is the prevailing ethos in the organisation. Now, there are a few people in an organisation of 7,000 people who aren't necessarily going to go along with that, people who perhaps have reached a stage in their career where they just want to be left alone and won't accept change of any sort. I wouldn't be surprised if there were some in the ABC as well.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: No, no chance.

JOHN STOCKER: Sorry. But I did really feel very strong support for what I was doing and I enjoyed every minute of it.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Every minute, with no gloomy evenings when you looked at your stick insect and thought: why don't they like me like you do?

JOHN STOCKER: Very few of those. There were some incidents in CSIRO where the days might have been a bit darker, particularly when the organisation found itself in some legal conflicts. Interactions with lawyers are never the most stimulating, productive moments in a working life, but being realistic, they belong to the interface between business and science as they do between business and anything else.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, you implied at the time that it was a case of an organisation not used to doing business, well on that scale anyway, finding its feet.

JOHN STOCKER: Exactly. And I think even businesses that have very well found their feet are always involved in some litigation. One tries to avoid it and, during my time in CSIRO, we took some pretty stringent preventative measures to help to educate people about the pitfalls as well as the advantages of being exhorted, as we were by government, to become more commercial. That's, on the one side, likely to provide a pay-off to the nation in terms of getting ideas more quickly translated into products but, on the other hand, there's a certain accident-proneness about a scientist who's spent all his or her life in a lab suddenly emerging from the lab, picking up a briefcase, and going and knocking on the door of an entrepreneur, and some of those dangers became manifest in a fairly quick way.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, I suppose it's the extent to which it is done. Some scientists from CSIRO complained to me about the cultural change, that instead of being able to do their work and do it, in their opinion, at a very high level of achievement, you kept having that management systems .. well, to burlesque it, they talked about battalions of people walking in with power suits, talking into their mobile phones, and asking them to prioritise and all the things we know about, which is redolent of management culture, at a pace and at a rate of change which was simply too much to handle.

JOHN STOCKER: Yes, I think there was a feeling like that; there still is. There were some people in science - and still are - who believe that there is absolutely no obligation on them to justify their existence to anybody, nor to transfer their results. Now, I would argue that in an organisation like CSIRO which is intended to be the source of innovation and stimulation to industry in Australia, apart from other things, that there was a real obligation to get out and talk to one's stakeholders and the taxpayers who fund the work, let alone the people to whom one might apply for additional moneys. And you'll recall that the Government set a target of 30 per cent external earnings for the organisation, which we met. Now, that was a marching order from our shareholder, and you ignore those at your peril.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: What's it like being Chief Scientist?

JOHN STOCKER: Well, that's a very new experience, Robyn. I've been Chief Scientist only for a few weeks. I relish the thought, it's no longer a full-time job, but the main job description is that I'll provide advice to the Minister for Science and to the Prime Minister on matters involving science and science policy and, as that's an area that I've worked in, both in industry and in government, I feel I can make a contribution.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Do you get on with John Howard?

JOHN STOCKER: I've experienced John Howard in my CSIRO days when he was the Shadow Industry Minister and had the opportunity to be his host during a number of visits to CSIRO sites. And I must say, I was particularly pleased and motivated in those days that he was, although a fairly cynical customer, one who was easily able to interact with the scientists and used to set them aback quite often with very relevant questions about what they were doing, more usually of course on the application side, not what it is, but what it's good for. But I found that a healthy sort of challenge, one I used myself quite often in wandering around the CSIRO sites.

And yes, I think John Howard is interested in industry, he's interested in ways in which innovation can enter industry, and I'm hoping, through my role vis-a-vis the Prime Minister's Science Council, where I have some input into the agenda and the preparation of papers for it, I'm hoping I can really raise the level of interest in science and technology among the senior Ministers. At our very next meeting, for example, we're working up a paper on telecommunications, particularly wireless telecommunications, and rather than making that a dry affair, we'll be using some real-life examples of how some of these brand new technologies are enabling far more efficient access to data in remote communities and everywhere.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, but is one day enough for being Chief Scientist?

JOHN STOCKER: I spend one to two days a week - that's the deal that I did with the Minister. I think, given the new focus on policy that the job has and the lack of administrative, bureaucratic type of functions, most of which I've managed to shed, I think it's more than enough. And I think the advantages of having someone who's actually out in the community earning his bread as a scientist, doing the job and providing the advice to the Government on it, is likely to be a good idea.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Yes, you've taken on a number of positions. You're still with Pratt Industries.

JOHN STOCKER: Yes, I work with Richard Pratt's company, Visy Industries, providing advice on research and development. I spent a year, after CSIRO, setting up some RD structures within the company, and Richard Pratt is one of Australia's most successful business people at taking technology, packaging it and using it to manufacture valuable products. He'll be opening a magnificent new recycled paper mill on Staten Island in New York in the middle of this year, and it's the first major investment in industry in New York in 50 years and it's an Australian company doing it.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: How come it's there, though?

JOHN STOCKER: It's a pretty logical place if you think about where you get your raw material. The waste paper baskets of New York a hugely valuable resource ....

ROBYN WILLIAMS: Sure, but why the Australian presence? Why not an American ....

JOHN STOCKER: Well, I think because Visy Industries has learnt, though its experience in Australia, to be a highly-efficient recycler and producer of high-quality products from waste, and to put together all of the things that are required to build a production process on that is a technologically highly-intensive exercise. It's a fairly unsung Australian success story, I think. It's the second of such mills in the US; the other one is in Atlanta, Georgia, and was opened two years ago.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: That's quite extraordinary, but that .. if you had foresight to the company you set up with your old mate, Gus Nossal, and two others - it's a number of distractions. How will you know which day is what, you know, running around the countryside doing all these different things?

JOHN STOCKER: Yes, I suppose in a way you're characterising me as an odd-jobs man, and I suppose I'd accept that epithet with enthusiasm actually, Robyn, because they're the sort of odd jobs that I like doing and feel that I can do. How you stop one getting mixed up with the other, I think that's really only a matter of being organised, and over the years in my various roles in the large Swiss company and setting up a small company, AMRAD, and then in CSIRO, at least one does learn to organise one's time.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: By the way, do you give your stick insects names?

JOHN STOCKER: No, they haven't got names. There are rather too many of them, Robyn, and they look rather too similar. The gaggle of geese, on the other hand, we have managed to name.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: A final question: can you choose a piece of music of which you're particularly fond?

JOHN STOCKER: I like Purcell very much. I like some of the old composers, the old English music, and I'd really love it if you could find the Ode on St Cecilia's Day and play one or two arias from that.

ROBYN WILLIAMS: The Ode to St Cecilia's Day, or part of it, by Purcell. My guest was the Chief Scientist, Dr John Stocker.