William James (Jim) Peacock was born in Leura, New South Wales, in 1937. He was educated at the University of Sydney where he received a BSc (Hons) in 1958. His interests were in botany and genetics and after his honours year, he won a CSIRO scholarship for further studies. He was awarded a PhD from the University of Sydney in 1962. Peacock began working at CSIRO as a visiting research worker in the Genetics section in 1963. Later that year he moved to the University of Oregon, where he worked as a post-doctoral fellow (1963–64) and visiting associate professor (1964–65). He continued his genetics studies as a research consultant in the biology division of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Tennessee, in 1965.
On returning to Australia and CSIRO, Peacock joined the division of Plant Industry. He worked as a senior research scientist (1965–69), principal research scientist (1969–73), senior principal research scientist (1973–77) and chief research scientist (1977–78). He was chief of the division from 1978 to 2003 and then became a CSIRO fellow. Peacock was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1976 and served as its president from 2002 to 2006. From 2006 to 2008, Peacock served as Australia’s Chief Scientist.
Interviewed by Dr Liz Dennis in 2008.
Jim, how did you first get interested in science, and when?
Well, growing up in Leura – a small town on the Blue Mountains – I was always associated with the bush. And although I guess I wouldn’t call that science, both my grandfather and the Anglican minister of the town honed my interest in observation, and I made collections of various things. Also, the minister happened to be an expert on eucalypt species of the Blue Mountains. So I had that in the background.
When did you decide to become a scientist?
I did science at Katoomba High School – physics, chemistry and maths (boys didn’t do biology in those days). At that time, however, I had it in mind to be an economics teacher. So, when I won a couple of scholarships, I travelled on the train from the mountains down to Sydney, to register at Sydney Teachers College and Sydney University. But the train broke down or something, I got there a couple of hours late, and the guy said to me, ‘Oh, we’ve had so many people wanting to do economics, why don’t you do something else? What about science?’ When I replied that I had done pretty well in science and found it interesting, he went on to say, ‘Well, I mean biology.’ I was appalled: I hadn’t done any formal biology. But he said, ‘No, this is the up-and-coming thing,’ and so I signed on to physics, chemistry, botany and zoology in university, and gradually nurtured my interest in the biological sciences.
You had been going to be a teacher!
I was still intending to be a biology teacher, or a science teacher. But when I did honours I found myself just so interested in research that I decided teaching wasn’t for me, and over the next few years I bought my way out of the bond that was attached to my scholarship – in those days that was the only way out – and I did a PhD.
Did you have any early mentors at university?
I’d had a very good science teacher at school, Eric Pidgeon – teaching Jim Peacock, quite a bird life! – and that had helped. Also, in a small town you interact over and beyond the school itself. In university I became very interested in genetics. There were two university lecturers, Spencer Smith-White and Roger Carolin, who taught genetics and related matters, and there was a CSIRO Chief, Jimmy Rendel, who taught the more senior genetics classes. I thought his stuff was great. In fact, I was the only student who passed the course! So that really made me know that I wanted to go on with genetics and to understand genes.
Are we talking about the time before anyone knew just what genes were, in a molecular sense?
Yes. They were algebraic constructs, really, and that turned a lot of people off. But Jimmy Rendel was magnificent, I found. He’d worked with J B S Haldane, a great ‘living geneticist’ who turned human physiology into study of genes and so on. Jimmy, actually, had a pneumothorax resulting from research experiments. He taught me some extremely interesting concepts – one of which, years later, came to be rather important for you and me.
After completing your undergraduate degree in botany and genetics, you went to Adelaide. It was very unusual for people to change universities or even to experience a different university in those days. Who suggested your going to Adelaide, and why did you do it?
I did my honours in the field of cytogenetics – studying snowgrass from Kosciusko, Poa caespitosa, and later a native family of plants, the Goodeniaceae – and I won a PhD scholarship. (CSIRO had a couple of them in those days.) But Smith-White said to me, ‘Look, why don’t you go and learn a bit more in formal genetics?’ The only place in Australia where you could do that in those days was Adelaide, and I wrote to CSIRO to ask whether I could use the first year or so of my PhD scholarship to do some more study. They wrote back saying, ‘Well, noone’s ever asked us that before. Guess so. Seems okay.’ So I did, and that was really important to me. I was in the same college as Sir Ronald Fisher, the statistician, and on High Table with him, and did his genetics courses. The course experience and the whole experience with the people there was rather formative for me, I think.
Yes, that was a good time. Then you came back to Sydney and commenced your research for your PhD. And again you focused on cytogenetics and plants. How did you come to choose what you did?
Well, Smith-White had been really important in looking at the chromosome evolution of Australian groups of plants. And some other students – Bryan Barlow, B B Briggs, Alison McCusker, Sid James – had all studied some groups of Australian plants, mostly woody plants. Smith-White had started me in honours, saying, ‘Why don’t you look at a major Australian herbaceous group?’ so we chose the Goodeniaceae and I went on with that. I found a truly interesting ‘story’ in following the chromosomes of that family. It was terrific for me because I spent half the year camped out in the bush all across Australia, doing my collections and so on. I really enjoyed working in the bush. But one of the species, Brunonia australis, had truly lovely chromosomes and I thought, ‘Gee, I’d like to understand more about chromosomes and how genes are in them.’ So I did some work on broad bean, trying to look at the way in which the chromosomes replicated – how they repeated their DNA sequence and then divided into daughter cells. That is how I got myself started into what I’d say was more experimental, reductionist science, and I liked it.
You have mentioned that one of the good things about your PhD was camping out and getting around the Australian bush. A ‘bad’ aspect, perhaps, was that it was not experimental: you could not perturb things to try to find out what was the difference.
Yes. It was really interesting to look at the races of polyploids, and translocations and things like that, which gave me certain information about how this family may well have evolved in the Australian continent. But I became frustrated. It was descriptive, and on that basis you put forward what you hoped were sensible ideas but without being able to test them. And it was very difficult to grow the plants.
Whilst I was doing that work, however, I was reading widely into genetics, and I was very attracted by some work done by Ed Novitski on the way in which recombination occurred in the X-chromosomes of Drosophila. I thought, ‘Gee, I could use that system if only I knew something about Drosophila, to ask what determines the position on the chromosome of a second recombination event after you’ve got a first one.’ But it happened that Jimmy Rendel had a very exciting American geneticist, Dick Lewonton – a giant in genetics at that time – visiting him. And Lewonton said to me, ‘Well, why don’t you go and work with Novitski?’ I said, ‘I can’t even sex Drosophila; I don’t know the difference between a male and a female!’ ‘Oh God,’ he said, ‘you just write to him and I’ll write to him.’ Novitski wrote back saying, ‘You’re welcome to come here,’ that is, to Eugene, Oregon, which was in those days a centre of excellence in genetics and molecular biology. I won a CSIRO postdoctoral fellowship, and off we went. I must admit I was a bit scared, because by that time I had married and we had a baby and I was thinking I’d better earn some money to look after my family. But my wife, Margie, said to me, ‘Oh, don’t be silly. You don’t want to die in Melbourne,’ or wherever. ‘Let’s take the opportunity and go.’ I’m so glad I did.
What came out of your postdoctoral years?
Well, Novitski gave me complete freedom. And, first of all, in what I would say was one of the most idyllic six months of my life academically, he brought me into Drosophila genetics up to the highest level, so that I was accepted almost immediately by all the top guns in the field as being able to talk sensibly with them. I hadn’t at that time done any work in the field, [laugh] but I really understood it and knew all the problems. He was just fabulous in that way. Every day he’d take me further, and give me papers to read.
I did a hell of a lot of work on a problem that I’d suggested and chosen and that he supported, but after a year I had merely shown myself it was not a goer. There was too much biological noise in the system. So I had my first big disappointment. I just had to put the data aside and hope that one day I might be able to make more of it. (I never did.) But during that time I was introduced by Novitski to meiotic drive, which described a non-Mendelian segregation of genes. I found it was terrific and I spent three years in the US, doing a lot of work in that field. It was great.
What would you say were important things for graduate and postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows to be aware of, to make their studies successful?
Well, you’ve got to work hard! Also, you need to read widely and benefit from the knowledge put in place by lots of terrific people, so that you hold your work in a continually growing perspective. That’s really important, but it’s something that a lot of kids don’t do well.
I used to argue like crazy with ‘Spinny’ Smith-White and Roger Carolin, my two people in Sydney, and they encouraged constructive argument. In fact, one day when I was up at the board with Spinny I said, ‘Oh, you silly old man, you just don’t see this, do you?’ But then I turned round and realised the professor of the department was there, and I thought, ‘God, that’s the end of me.’ Later on he said to Spinny, ‘I wish I had a graduate student like that!’ So I really was taught to question and think.
Novitski was the same. He was one of the sharpest academic research minds I’ve ever known. Unfortunately, he didn’t move with the upswelling of molecular biology. He felt jealous of molecular biology in the way it was coming into genetics, and that limited him in the end.
Doesn’t that questioning, and following your own science and having such a lot of freedom during both your PhD and your postdoctoral time, contrast in some ways with the present trend toward much more accountability? The idea now is that we set national priorities and that the research organisations have much more targeted projects.
That’s a nasty question, considering that I was involved in setting national priorities!
Well, I didn’t do silly things in the lab; I always fitted my research into the general strategies of the labs I worked in. But I have to say that people were marvellous in giving me enormous freedom, really, and being supportive. I’ve always thought one of the best things about science is all the help you get from your colleagues.
When, after 3½ years or so in the US, I returned to Australia, I could have had a job anywhere, in any university – very different from now. I went back to CSIRO, however, and into the Division of Plant Industry, because I’d worked there for a little while and had seen just what a terrific environment it was. I didn’t work on plants, though! I worked on flies – Drosophila – and on Kangaroos for a while, because my quest was to understand genes and chromosomes. Also, I worked on tissue culture, which was a program with Chinese hamster cells that I had started in America when I worked at the Oak Ridge national labs. (I was asking then about mitotic crossing-over, not meiotic crossing-over.)
I don’t know that we would have such a degree of freedom now. And I don’t know whether having done well in the United States, with work that made it into the international field, helped in the amount of freedom I was given. But I’m really grateful to all those people.
So you had gained a reputation in the United States, and facilities and support for science were probably much greater there than in Australia, presenting more opportunities to make a real difference in science. Why did you come back?
It was hard. I loved America and the American people, and the science environment – the mid to late1960s was the golden age of science in the United States, just wonderful. I’d had a sort of a meteoric rise and was working as an associate professor. I was offered some really nice jobs, and yes, I was tempted to stay. But I felt under a moral obligation to come back, firstly because CSIRO had given me that scholarship. Also, I had left Australia before aeroplane travel was common, at a time when it was virtually unknown for visiting scientists from other countries to be in Australia. I remembered how important it had been that Dick Lewonton was there to urge me to go to the US, to a top lab. And so I really wanted to help science in Australia.
What sort of vision did you have of what you would do in science in Australia on your return?
Well, I had made some quite good work in meiotic drive and segregation distortion, and I had another system that I was looking at in meiotic drive. But I returned, really, to my wish to understand more about recombination. At that time, we didn’t even know at what stage of meiosis recombination occurred, and I had ideas as to how I could find out. That was when I first took advice from Michael White, who was important for you and me later. I wanted a grasshopper with very nice chromosomes I could look at and with a slow meiosis that gave me a chance to break up the stages, and he introduced me to Goniaea australasiae, which became one of my major projects.
At the same time – and I’ve always followed the idea of having two or three projects, because projects go up and down and it’s good to have two or three ‘sine waves’ going at once – I had persuaded one of my colleagues from the Oak Ridge lab to come to Australia to work with me on the mitotic crossing-over that we studied on Chinese hamster cells. So it was a very exciting time for me.
Also, when I came back it turned out that one of the absolute greats of genetics in maize, Marcus Rhoades, was there as a visiting scientist. I’d met him, but then we became really good friends and he was vitally interested in my work on recombination. I had a pretty rough spell with that, though. Things just kept going wrong, wrong, wrong, and I was following advice that I eventually had to discard. I had to do things a different way. Then, one Saturday afternoon, when I came in to the lab and developed the slides that I wanted to look at, there was the answer, all laid out for me! With no-one around, I was dancing around the lab – and then Marcus came in. [laugh] Those times are pretty important in science.
At about this time, molecular biology techniques started to arise that would give you other opportunities. So how did you first become interested in molecular biology and learn to take some more molecular approaches?
That was one of the giant peaks of activity in molecular biology. To learn about the latest state of play I had to look at the ‘Science and the Citizen’ pages of Scientific American, because a lot of the journals took a long time to reach Australia and that was the fastest. I became really interested in some work by Matthew Meselson and Jean Weigle on recombination in phages, and I thought they’d made a mistake in their work. We talked about it – and a good thing about Smith-White was that although he was a long way from having a full understanding of molecular biology, he encouraged me to discuss this work a little bit with people such as Geoff Grigg and others in CSIRO, and your supervisor in Sydney University, Gerry Wake. They all encouraged me to write to Meselson and say, ‘I think you may be wrong.’ Well, Meselson wrote back and explained that he and Weigel weren’t wrong, but said he was really thankful for the stuff I’d sent. He said, ‘If you come to the States, come and see me, right?’ So, eventually, I did just that. I became very good friends with him and he had quite an influence on me and the work I did subsequently. It’s funny how things start.
You actually went back to the States to learn some molecular biology, so you could perhaps know whether Meselson was right or wrong!
Well, yes. CSIRO were really kind in letting me go again when I’d only been back three years. I went to University of California, San Diego, because I wanted to get more genetic tools to look at recombination, and I knew I had to do that in Drosophila. I went to Dan Lindsley’s lab, which was one of the obvious labs to go to because he was at the leading edge. But that department had some very good plant molecular biology also – Herb Stern’s stuff , and a lot of bacterial work. It was a wonderful eye-opener for me, and led me to conclude that even the genetic approach there was too restrictive for what I needed! I called up my chief at CSIRO and said, ‘Do you mind if I stay another year or so in the States, to go up to Stanford and learn some real tough molecular biology?’ That was okay, and I went to work with Dave Hogness in Kornberg’s department, in one of the most important periods for me ever.
Why was Stanford such an important experience for you?
I learned what was first-class science – not, of course, that I did poor science before! With molecular biology, you had the chance to ask questions in such a way that you could really hope to get an answer. And then you could check it by using a different approach. That was fantastic. Dave Hogness and I decided to take the opportunity to define repetitive DNA sequences in Drosophila. There were two or three labs working on that in the States, but there was a mess of results. So I started the work there, and when I came back that’s what I did first, building up a lab with people like you. (I was never scared to compete at the cutting edge with those other big labs.) We did it right, so we kept being respected. What I was scared of was what I called the ‘Australian gutter’, because I’d seen many terrific Australian scientists do well in labs in the States but then come back and fall into a sort of easy life.
Yes, but I think it was much harder in Australia than in the States at that time. In the States there were big groups with a lot of support, but people probably found it very hard, when they came back to Australia, to set up and compete on the world scale.
Oh, that’s right.
You were fortunate, perhaps, with CSIRO and all the support that you had.
I was. I said to Lloyd Evans, the Chief of Plant Industry, ‘I want to do this stuff, I think it’s really important for Australia to get into this, but I can’t do it by myself’ – in those days, every scientist in Australia worked alone. ‘I need at least two other scientists, plus I’ll bring in visitors and so on.’ And Lloyd had the courage, the vision, to support me. I was the scientist most hated by the other people around, because we then took over the canteen to build a new lab. [laugh]
That’s when I brought out a brilliant guy I’d met in Stanford, Doug Brutlag. Then I went after you, because I’d seen you as one of the very few people in Australia who’d had a first-class molecular biolo
gy training – under Gerry Wake – and who’d gone on to one of the best labs in the US. I thought, ‘Gee, she’s the only person I can get who is high-class science.’ With you, Doug and a couple of people from Adelaide, we built up a world-class lab. It was tough, because in those days we had to make every enzyme and all our reagents, but it was good. And Meselson, Hogness and others offered encouragement all the time.
You organised a couple of Australia-America workshops that I think were really important in those early days of molecular biology in Australia.
Yes. I have mentioned that, as a graduate student, I was so grateful to Dick Lewonton. Mostly graduate students never met famous scientists from elsewhere, and I thought, ‘I’m going to help the graduate students of Australia meet some top-class people.’
When I returned from the United States the first time, Alexander Hollaender – the boss of Oak Ridge National Lab – helped me with money to organise the very first USAustralia workshop. (That help was fantastic. I had more trouble getting money in Australia than in the States!) I then brought out about 20 of the best molecular biologists in the States. You were one of the few Australian speakers, and I decided, ‘That’s someone who’s good.’ And I did eventually, if with a little difficulty, attract you to join the lab. Those things were important. Things started to change from about that time, because air travel and international science became a reality and Australia wasn’t so separated.
You were still working on repeated DNA in Drosophila. But there was a limit to what you could do with repeated DNA. There were no genetics and no real way of looking at function.
There was no way at that time to look at individual sequences and those things, including in molecular biology, so we just had to work with repeated sequences. We were among the first labs to get the sequences worked out, but it took six months to get 10 nucleotides! [laugh]
That’s right – in contrast to the human genome now, or a bacterial genome that you can get in a day.
You might remember that in our lab we had PhD students, mostly from ANU, but in those days we were required not to have the PhD students work on our own CSIRO-type science – which was a bit silly. So a number of students, probably most importantly Pamela Dunsmuir, worked on repeated sequences in marsupials, and despite the restrictions we came up with the concept of episodic evolution of those sequences. That was pretty important, I think.
That must have been about the time when the first cloning occurred, with Paul Berg and Stan Cohen, and others. That led to more opportunities. And you must have gone to the Asilomar conference about that time.
I did. In 1974 Jim Pittard, from the University of Melbourne, and I were the Australian representatives at that meeting of molecular biologists, which actually considered whether genetic cloning – particularly of cancer virus sequences, or so it was thought in those days – should go on. Scientists showed remarkable ethical consideration, I think, about this whole new area of work. That meeting was really important: when Jim and I came back we convinced the Academy to set up a committee that would be looking after that kind of work, and we were on it. Attending that meeting had a big effect on me personally, as I realised more than ever the power of that approach, those technologies.
It was the dogma of the day that plant DNA was ‘different’. It was too difficult to work on, and there weren’t any repeated sequences of the type that we were studying in Drosophila and kangaroos. I just couldn’t believe that, and I saw that the technologies were good enough then to start back into plant work. We had Rudi Appels in our lab, and after you went back to New Guinea he and I really started on the repeated sequences of plants – in rye, because of the big lumps of heterochromatin – and we blew apart that dogma in more ways than one. Rudi went on to make his career around cereal chromosomes, but again I found it too limiting, with the repeated sequences.
When you came back, together with Wayne Gerlach we saw the opportunity to go after real genes, in maize. Fortunately, I think, we made the terrific decision to focus on alcohol dehydrogenase and not the alternative, sucrose synthase. (Luckily, I’d been misled by some German scientists into thinking they knew all that there was to know about sucrose synthase.)
The alcohol dehydrogenase system was very important in those early days of plant molecular biology and led to a lot of advances, didn’t it?
Yes. We got the cDNA sequence of alcohol dehydrogenase and then the genomic sequence, and we were about the first lab to identify and characterise a gene that was coding for an important enzyme. We used that system in a number of different ways, the most important being to look at Barbara McClintock’s ‘controlling elements’. We’d realised that that was one of the major advantages of the alcohol dehydrogenase system. When we had started that work, you went to Stanford to learn more with Paul Berg – I think your time in Stanford was as important for you as mine had been for me – and we showed what happened when Barbara McClintock’s so-called jumping genes moved out of place and then what happened to the chromosome when one went back in. Just before Christmas 1982 I wrote to her at Cold Spring Harbor and said, ‘Here’s a Christmas present for you. This is the actual sequence of one of your controlling elements.’ And she wrote back, very excited. Her concept of genes moving around in the genome had been looked at almost with suspicion by many geneticists of the day, and for us to be able to show her not only the sequence but how they moved was really very exciting.
At about this time you became Chief of Plant Industry.
Yes. That job wasn’t something that I was working towards, but in the beginning of 1978 I was persuaded to take it on. I guess I felt I owed a lot to CSIRO, but also I saw the opportunity to do much more about introducing the power of the new biology into CSIRO and into Australia. There was a lab in Adelaide working on the chemical side of it, but we were the only lab in Australia at that time to be doing this kind of work, so we started teaching the university labs and so on. I saw that these new, powerful technologies could really help the work of Plant Industry and help agriculture.
Was it your vision, as Chief, to bring molecular biology to agriculture? Or did you have other visions, some other agenda as Chief?
I wanted to ensure that Plant Industry was one of the very best research institutes in the world, and I knew that depended on good people and on contact with international best labs and so on. The American way of doing science had a huge impact on me, and I ran that division by incorporating what those of us who had gone to such labs in the States, the top labs in the world, saw as the best features – besides having top people, inculcating the best behaviours. We ran our own lab like that, but I tried to get that permeated right through the division. I wasn’t too popular as the Chief at first, because I hadn’t a working knowledge of agriculture. A lot of the guys looked at me with grave suspicion, thinking, ‘Oh, he’s going to do away with our work in agriculture,’ and so on. Eventually, though, they saw that the whole aim was to make it better.
Would you say that one of your guiding principles was to try to attract good people and build groups around them, perhaps in reflection of the freedom as a scientist that you yourself had had in your early days? Did you see a link there, that if people are good enough, you can give them freedom?
Yes, that is right. I didn’t think that I knew everything and that I’d tell them what to do. I had in mind what I used to call my solar systems: I’d pick a ‘star’ and then help that star scientist build a system of ‘planets’ and ‘moons’ of students and others around them.
‘Shooting stars’ came out of it, of course, and out of our own lab.
From early in your career as Chief you have shown an interest in the cotton industry, and a particular affinity with it. That has been really important for cotton in Australia. Would you like to talk about it?
I had tremendous help from the so-called administrators of the division; they were marvellous. Within two months of my becoming Chief, one of them said to me, ‘You’ve got a lab up in Narrabri and Wee Waa, and you need to go up there and meet your staff.’ So I agreed, although I felt I didn’t know anything about it, and I flew up in a little plane.
This administrator Den Banyard was a gadget guy, and he had said to me, ‘Now, look, you’ve got a chance to really integrate the science with industry. Why don’t you ask the farmers about computers? That’ll show them that you’re thinking ahead.’ Well, I did that and they all looked at me as though I was stupid [laugh] – ‘Computers? What’s that got to do with farming?’ But in not very many months they were crying out for better and faster results on the computer.
On that visit I saw the whole industry, from the basic research to its applications, to the take-up by the farmers, to the ginning of the cotton and the sale and loading onto railcars which then shipped the stuff overseas and so on. It was just marvellous.
One of the great things which helped me, I think, was that the lead farmers were American, graduates of the University of California at Davis, and I felt an instant affinity with them. They understood the importance of research. I became very close friends with one of them in particular, Richard Williams, and he convinced the industry to support our research to the hilt. It became a big success story.
So a lot of that was about management of the industry?
Both breeding and management, yes, which I liked. Out in the field I’d met [Gary Fitt,] an entomologist who had developed a computer program called ‘Fly’, with which he was scoring the number of eggs, first-instar larvae and other major pests of cotton. The results could then be used to help the farmers think about what spray they should be using and so on. I saw the opportunity to meld that with a computer simulation of the plant, and I knew we had someone in our division, Brian Hearn, who was good at that. So I brought the two approaches together, and we called the new system SIRATAC.
I have to admit that one of the main reasons I did that was to bring the Department of Agriculture on side: I put a big ‘A’ in the middle of SIRATAC for ‘Agriculture’. Also, because there were some jealousies and unhappiness in the staff up there, as can happen in isolated laboratories and places like that, I wanted to give the whole staff a goal that everyone worked towards. And I remember being really excited, as I walked down the main street of Narrabri one day, to hear people talk about SIRATAC! I thought, ‘Well, I’ve made it.’
That management system turned out to be extremely important for the industry. At the same time, in the Narrabri research unit we had a wonderful cotton breeder, Norm Thompson. He developed very good varieties, replacing all the American varieties that we were previously growing. He was just an innate geneticist and one of the best plant breeders, with a terrific depth of knowledge – he knew the crop like crazy. After a slow start, his stuff was marvellous, and we began to be enormously respected by the industry.
And then came GM cotton. You could see that GM would be of real benefit to the Australian industry, because pests were getting resistant.
Yes. By that time we were cloning genes, but when I was asked, ‘Will we ever be able to use genes to stop the resistance that’s building up in the pests?’ I had to say, ‘Well, the technology is not quite there.’ Then, after a couple of years, I rang up an industry representative one day and said, ‘I think we can start to put genes in the cotton, to give the plant resistance.’ Richard Williams asked, ‘How much do you need?’ – and I hadn’t written a proposal or anything! – so I told him what I proposed and said, ‘I must have a dedicated scientist, at least.’ He rang me back in an hour and a half, saying, ‘I’ve been round all the directors of this company; we’ll give you the money for five years, matching your money.’ That’s how we got started into transgenic cotton – wonderful, really.
So now 90 per cent of the crop is transgenic?
Yes, over 90 per cent. And that has resulted in an over-90 per cent reduction in the use of agrichemicals. So that trust that built up is always important.
Partnership, that’s right, and perhaps an educated group of farmers who could see the advantages?
Yes. Those American guys set the pace for the industry, and gradually, over the years, more and more university-educated farmers and so on have come in. For those farmers it’s big farming – they have to spend big lots of money for their huge machines and everything, and it’s impressive – and they are highly receptive of research. They know that the answers we give them one year are likely to be bettered each succeeding year, and that’s a tremendous thing for farmers to be able to accept.
During your time as Chief you also diversified your own science into other areas, into different genes – in particular, looking at control of flowering and the transition from vegetative growth to reproductive flowering. Why were you interested in that?
First of all I have to say that I think I was the luckiest guy in Australia: even though I was head of a big division in CSIRO – and in the end it was about 900 people, all round Australia – I never did give up all my science. That was because of colleagues like you, in that by then you had taken over the running of our lab, and because being able to continue my association with colleagues and postdocs and students really kept me alive. It was the special thing about CSIRO. I don’t think I would have stayed in the Chief’s job otherwise.
We had an interest in flowering. I was always interested in the switch that was made from vegetative growth to reproductive growth by the same growing apex. We came across a system in tobacco tissue culture that looked promising, and at the same time, because we had a good name in the United States, the National Science Foundation supported our lab with marvellous postdocs. One of them helped us to get that system going, but we later dropped it because, although it was good in itself, it simply wasn’t powerful enough and it didn’t have the obvious benefits of the plant whose use in the lab was just developing, Arabidopsis. That had a special affinity for CSIRO, because it was originally proposed as an ideal laboratory plant by John Langridge, of Plant Industry. (As a matter of fact, he was the reason I went back to Plant Industry in the first place.) But then he’d got out of that, and we brought Arabidopsis back in a big way – along with several other labs in the world who were using it.
So we were interested in the shift to flowering. Jimmy Rendel’s lectures had talked about, among other things, the paths of development and how different patterns of genes were responsible for them. And I remember reading one evening a Scientific American article by Robin Holliday about ageing and cancer cells, saying what happened to the genes and their controls – that there was a chemical change that was known in DNA in animals, a methylation of a cytidine residue – and people had thought, ‘Well, that’s in animals.’ It occurred to me that the properties of DNA methylation were exactly parallel to the induction of the switch to flowering by a cold treatment, which many crops have, like winter wheats and so on. Many plants have this ‘vernalisation’ requirement. So the next morning I came in, very excited about this, and I got together our two flowering experts in the division, Lloyd Evans and Rod King, and you. We sat in one of those little rooms and I talked about the idea. You saw immediately how important this could well be, while the other two weren’t at all interested!
But they weren’t molecular biologists.
No, that’s true. Anyway, then we had to have the courage of our convictions. I suppose I was lucky, in that I was the Chief, although I am sure I would have let other people go on. And we got into that.
We also had Jo Byrne, who had come on an Australian Research Council fellowship.
Yes, we did, and it was good to have another postdoc from America, one who was so interested. Those first experiments we did on chemical control of methylation started to give us a real breakthrough. Then we happened upon the FLC gene, ‘flowering LOCUS C’, which now is probably the best-known gene system in plants, in relation to both genetic and epigenetic controls. Our work has triggered huge numbers of labs to follow up those systems, and I guess one of the most important things we ever did was to get into that system.
It led to the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, so someone else thought it was important!
Well, that was okay too. [laugh]
Wasn’t there another brief but quite interesting interlude, in plant haemoglobin?
Yes. Another of the really top scientists who were around in Plant Industry was Cyril Appleby, ‘Mr Plant Haemoglobin’ of the world. He was talking to us about a dogma of that time, ‘Oh, plants don’t have haemoglobin, except these legumes have them in their nodules, probably as a lateral transfer from the animal kingdom.’ And listening to him induced us to have a look at those things. We did what I think was some really lovely work, showing that all plants had haemoglobins, which performed much the same roles as they do in animals. But, to my continuing disappointment, we never have taken it on to what it probably is capable of showing us. We didn’t have enough resources, I guess, and maybe we’ll come back. Researchers in a lot of other places have added to it now; it’s still very important. When we did our work, that was a new, entirely unsuspected bit of biochemistry in plants. We’ve shown that it has some pretty important effects, which we’re coming back to consider now for agriculture, especially for cotton.
In 2002 you became President of the Australian Academy of Science.
Yes, while I was still Chief of Plant Industry I was asked whether I would be President of the Academy. So I did that for four years. It’s not a full-time job; you just do it on the side, so to speak. And I enjoyed it, for a number of reasons.
What do you think you accomplished as President?
I think the biggest contribution to Australia that I made through the Academy was to champion better science in schools. In particular, I was able to initiate PrimaryConnections, which now is used in primary schools right across Australia. That was really exciting and I believe it has changed the face of primary school science.
Isn’t that designed to help literacy as well as numeracy, and to encourage experiments?
Yes. In retrospect, it was a pretty smart thing to do. [laugh] We introduced the ‘science through literacy’ program [PrimaryConnections] because we knew the school children studied literacy every day, and we thought that if we provided units for the teacher which happened to be science units but taught literacy as well, that would be good. And it did help both literacy and science.
Also, I tried to make the Academy a little less ‘stuffy’ and more open to advising the government on technical matters and helping with policy and so on. Previously, it had been a mechanism for whingeing about policy, but I said, ‘Well, that’s no good. We’ve got to help toward making the right policies.’ So I did change that approach, and it worked pretty well.
Another achievement was to make a reality of the four learned academies – in the humanities, social sciences, and pure and applied science – coming together as the National Science Forum [National Academies Forum]. And although I was scared stiff of what the humanities guys might do to me [laugh] I really found that to have that forum was a big thing. It is still operating to good effect today.
The other thing that I personally got out of being President was meeting and working with a huge range of top scientists round Australia, in all different science fields. (And that stood me in extremely good stead for my next job!)
So what was your next job?
I was made Chief Scientist of Australia. The day before you become Chief Scientist, you know a little bit about a very little bit of science. Suddenly you get this title, and everyone thinks you know everything about all science – it’s ridiculous. But I did know all the best people in all the disciplines of science. And, while I was Chief Scientist, I had tremendous help from the scientists of Australia, in a whole range of tasks. Furthermore, in that job I was very fortunate in being able to take school science even further, because I had a relatively powerful position from which to push it and I had a couple of very receptive ministers. One was Brendan Nelson, and subsequently Julia Gillard has been marvellous in helping me get the new program of Scientists in Schools into place – just fantastic.
When you were Chief Scientist, a number of controversial tasks were asked of you: firstly, to consider the nuclear review; and, secondly, to review the pulp mill in Tasmania that Gunns were proposing.
Yes. Ziggy Switkowski had chaired the nuclear review commissioned by the Prime Minister, and I was then asked to review the scientific content to say whether it was up to scratch or not. I said, ‘Well, I can’t do that by myself,’ and I brought in some of the best people I could find from around the world – one Australian and other people from the USA, the UK and so on. That worked very well, I think. The review had done an excellent job, and it was important at the time that I was able to assure the government that the report was on a very sound basis, with good evidence for what was being said. When I look back I think it was important, also, as one of the first times that I know of when the policymakers had actually used Australian scientists to advise them and give them the best evidence possible.
When the pulp mill review came along, I found it even more scary than the nuclear energy one, because it was a highly emotional topic. I was asked by Minister Turnbull and the Commonwealth government to report whether, on the scientific evidence, Gunns had done a good job in preparing environmental reports. We were restricted to those things that the Commonwealth had control over – the marine environment and certain things in the land environment. (The state government was responsible for the timber that would have been used in the mill, and the atmospheric conditions and suchlike.) So we were looking only at some of the important things. But once again I formed a committee of terrific scientists from Australia, who helped me. We found that several things hadn’t been done properly, and we made a report with a lot of recommendations of work that needed to be done by Gunns if they were to be permitted to go on – which I think was a bit of a shock to them. Even now, apart from Gunns’ difficulties in finance and so on, they haven’t yet met all the requirements we set down.
That review too was important as a case where the government was able to use first-class scientific data and evidence to say, ‘Well, if you’re going to do this, you’ve got to meet these requirements.’ And I think again it strengthened the idea that Australian scientists might well be useful in terms of helping policymakers to do quality things.
The most recent task, one of my last jobs as Chief Scientist, concerned a uranium mine proposal in South Australia. Once again I thought, ‘My God, how am I going to manage a uranium mine inquiry?’ And again I was fortunate in being able to locate experts and to work with the Environment Department. Many of the public servants in these things are really excellent people. This time, too, the outcome was helpful – to Minister Garrett, in this case – in allowing the minister to say, ‘We need some additional requirements to be met,’ and so on.
I’m hoping that my replacement will also be asked to do this sort of thing. It is really important for helping Australia know that some of the policy decisions are based on the best possible scientific advice.
And they can be fairly transparent, in that usually the reports are published and people are able to look at the issue in detail, if they want to.
Now that you have finished being Chief Scientist, do you still want to do more science?
Oh yes. I enjoyed the time as Chief Scientist – it was a lot of work but as, supposedly, a part-time job; at the same time I had a part-time job in CSIRO. Now I’m returning to CSIRO full time, to work more in our research, and on a number of matters. Also I’ve been charged in the last couple of years with trying to help increase the excellence of science across CSIRO, and I’ve really enjoyed that, leading the CSIRO Science Team. Part of what I am trying to bring in is the excellence of the way American science went when you and I experienced it. It’s top people, first of all, and then top communication with the best people in the world, and a number of other beneficial behaviours – bringing in the best young people we can find and so on. It’s a joy to me to do that.
And it really helps CSIRO to improve its capabilities.
I think so, yes. We’ve attracted some brilliant mid-career people from round the world, and I find it great to see the catalytic effect they are having.
One of your skills has been to communicate science to the public, to the community. Perhaps it’s a pity you weren’t a teacher, because you’ve been very successful in explaining science. Do you see yourself as having more of that role?
I guess I can sign up in the Scientists in Schools program when I finish! But I do enjoy talking about science and how it affects our lives. I’ve taken part in a lot of public interactions over genetically modified crops and foods, which has been an emotionally charged area. Apparently I have not done well enough at that, because our society still has concerns. I think the community has been misled a lot by certain active people using data and arguments that are less than correct, but we are gradually winning on that.
This is a time, perhaps, when food production is becoming even more important and there is a realisation that food may be reaching limits. If so, we need more improvements in agriculture, and perhaps that will come through GM crops.
Yes. I think the funders and the policymakers have now realised that they’ve got to direct more investment into plant science, for crops to produce more and to be more robust in different environments. I think they’ve realised that we have to use the most powerful technologies that we have, in order to address this global problem of a food crisis.
Do you have any ideas of where science might be going? What do you see as the future of science as such, and how could science in Australia perhaps be done better?
Well, many scientists in the past – for example, Lord Kelvin! – made some predictions, all of which were wrong, so I don’t think I will try to say which particular fields will be important. But I do see that our population, our societies, need to be more science literate, and to understand more how science potentially interacts with the way we live and how it might even lead to improvements. That’s important.
I’m an admirer of the Australian science system, but I think it can be better. I’ve been trying to persuade the previous and present governments that, although we’ve got the universities, the public labs such as CSIRO and AIMS [the Australian Institute of Marine Science] and the medical research institutes, we haven’t got the best way of enabling the very best people in those places to work together. I know that, if we find the right way there, we’re going to get even more out of science than we have at present.
The other thing is that we just don’t have enough really top people coming through the system. We have some very good young scientists, but they’re too few. That’s why I mention those science leaders that we are attracting in CSIRO from around the world. Some of them are Australian expats, but we need to get the best people – Ukrainian or American or Chinese or whatever. We have been attracting all of those, and we need to do that across the whole of the science fabric in Australia. I’d really like to succeed in persuading governments to begin that in earnest. It would be of great benefit.
Are these some of the recommendations of the innovation review?
Yes, they’re in there if you look for them. But it means that we’ve got to invest more. Too often we invest for too short a time in any particular area. I’ve recommended a particular mechanism to address these things and I’ve said that it should be for 10 years, to achieve certain research in key priority areas that the government wants done.
So have you enjoyed being a scientist?
Well, I just want to correct your question! I’m enjoying – not ‘have enjoyed’ – my scientific career. I really don’t intend stopping it, unless I fall off the limb or go gaga. I enjoy encouraging young people: to have them coming through is absolutely essential for healthy science. But there’s nothing quite as exciting as delving into the unknown and coming up with new knowledge that leads us to new things, new understanding, and maybe new applications of that level of understanding. It’s like feeling your way into a dark room, when suddenly the light goes on because you’ve found the switch. That’s the wonderful thing about research – a great career, great job.
Thank you for being interviewed for this Academy of Science series.
Thank you, Liz, for interviewing me. I hope I have answered you truthfully all the way along. I want to thank the Academy too – I hope their projects will stimulate young people to take on science as a career.
© 2024 Australian Academy of Science