Dr Keith Boardman, biochemist

Dr Keith Boardman, biochemist

Dr Norman Keith Boardman was born in Geelong Victoria in 1926. He attended Geelong High School for 5 years then did a Leaving honours year at Melbourne Boys High School. He was awarded a Dafydd Lewis Scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Melbourne, receiving a Master of Science in 1949 for his thesis on the properties and thermodynamics of molten salt mixtures.

He worked at the Wool Research Section of CSIRO for 2 years where he attempted to shrinkproof wool, then went to Cambridge in 1951 to do his PhD on the separation of proteins by ion-exchange chromatography. He received an ICI postdoctoral fellowship to continue his work at Cambridge on the separation of proteins. He received a PhD and a ScD in biochemistry from the University of Cambridge.

In 1956, Boardman returned to Australia to the CSIRO Division of Plant Industry in Canberra to set up their chromatography facilities. Here he investigated protochlorophyll and its conversion to chlorophyll. His work with Dr Jan Anderson characterised the chlorophyll complexes sufficiently to show that the two photochemical systems of photosynthesis were physically separated. Boardman was also interested in the structure and development of chloroplasts in green plants. In 1964, as a Fullbright scholar at the University of California at Los Angeles, he prepared chloroplasts and achieved cell-free synthesis of chloroplast proteins.

Dr Boardman's research interests included the adaptation of plants to their light environment. During the mid-1960s to mid-1970, he was involved in characterising the photochemical systems and looking how the photosystems and photochemical activity developed during greening. He also carried out studies on the comparative photosynthesis of sun and shade plants.

Dr Boardman was a member of the executive of CSIRO between 1977 and 1985. He became Chairman and Chief Executive in 1985 and Chief Executive in 1987 after the separation of the two positions.

Dr Boardman was awarded the David Syme Research Prize by the University of Melbourne in 1967 and the Lemberg Medal of the Australian Biochemical Society in 1969. He was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1972, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London in 1978 and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1986. He was awarded an honorary DSc by the University of Newcastle in 1988. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1993.

Interviewed by Professor Ralph Slatyer in 1999.


Fascinating equations

It is my pleasure to interview Dr Keith Boardman, one of Australia's most distinguished scientists, whose early interest in science led him into two careers, the first in research and the second in science administration. Keith, can we start with your family background?

My father was born in Steiglitz, a mining town about 40 kilometres north-west of Geelong where his father was the storekeeper. He left Steiglitz to enlist in the AIF in 1914 and saw service in Gallipoli and France, being awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. My mother was born just outside Ballarat, again in a mining area. When still young she moved with her family to Kalgoorlie, in Western Australia, remaining there during the war. When my father came back to Australia after the war, he went first of all to Western Australia, and there he and my mother were married. They moved to near Geelong in 1921 and I was born in 1926 – with a twin sister and an older sister born two years before.

Did your home environment influence your future career?

I think initially my interest in science, particularly chemistry, was activated by the fact that my father had done an assaying course for gold and his textbooks were around. The equations were written in the old-fashioned way in those days, and that fascinated me. I became so interested in science and did so well in it at school that my father couldn't persuade me to go into a bank and commerce as he preferred.

Back to top

School science: increasing specialisation

Did some of your interests start to develop in your school years?

Yes, perhaps partly because of the results that I got. I spent the six primary years at the Manifold Heights state school, in a developing area of Geelong. From what I remember, I was most interested in mathematics and did very well at it. Not much science was taught in primary schools in those days – but in recent years the effort of the Academy of Science in Primary Investigations has helped to increase interest at that age.

Mining and agriculture, with their science and technology base, were very important to the economy. Perhaps boys, in particular, saw careers in those areas.

Geelong had an agriculture base in that it was the largest wool-selling centre of Victoria: the waterfront was dotted with very big woolstores. In those days Australia had a population of less than six million and one could see that, with expansion, there was going to be a very great need for science and technology for the rural and the mining areas.

What was the structure of primary education in Victoria at the time?

Primary education in Victoria was dominated by the 'three Rs' – Reading, aRithmetic and wRiting – but also there was a fair measure of British history and a reasonable measure of what we called civic studies, where I am glad to say we studied the exploration of the continent and the system of government in Australia.

Next I went to the Geelong High School, where the chemistry teacher stimulated my interest: he had a very big influence in my pursuing chemistry later on. Our mathematics teacher was very good for some students but he did not have much patience for those that were struggling a bit.

I attended Geelong High School for five years to the level of the Leaving Certificate, for which I studied Latin, English, geography and history, as well as mathematics and the sciences.

At primary school and Geelong High School I was keen on sport, primarily cricket although I did play Australian Rules football and partake in athletics. I certainly enjoyed that.

You moved on to Melbourne Boys High School, a selective high school. I think most states had somewhat similar schools.

Well, Sydney certainly had Fort Street. But not only was Melbourne Boys High School a selective school; it streamed people within the school to be taught commensurate with ability. You were streamed by subject rather than course. In Victoria one could matriculate for the university after five years of secondary school but there was also an extra Leaving Honours year (Year 6), in which it was usual to specialise and do only four subjects. My Leaving honours year was spent at Melbourne Boys High School, where I chose to do pure mathematics, applied mathematics, physics and chemistry. My best performance was in chemistry and I shared the school science prize.

The school had taken over a newly built high school in Camberwell when the United States Navy took over the well-known Melbourne High School building in South Yarra. By the time the Navy vacated the old school, though, I had moved on.

Did you have a teacher at Melbourne Boys High School, as at Geelong, who encouraged you in chemistry?

Yes, very much so. The best secondary teachers in Victorian state schools used to migrate to the selective school. The chemistry teacher at Melbourne Boys High School had a Master of Science and kept up with the modern methods of writing equations, using the electron flow as well as the symbols for the elements. He was on the Victorian Education Department's board of examiners for chemistry (although he himself did not set the paper) and was very au fait with the syllabus and the teaching.

Back to top

More and more chemistry

Let's move on to your undergraduate period.

I applied for and was awarded a Dafydd Lewis Trust Scholarship. Lewis, a Welsh draper, had a store (Love and Lewis) in Bourke Street, Melbourne (the main street) before Myer even appeared on the scene. He left most of his estate to these lucrative scholarships. But he would not fund girls and he had very strong views on what boys should do with the scholarships. The scholarships were not available for studies in divinity, arts or music. The panel to interview the boys attracted high-level people like Essington Lewis, who was then managing director of BHP.

What mainly influenced you as an undergraduate toward your future career?

Having chosen chemistry (I did do physics and maths as well) I just had to choose what sort of chemistry to do. In first year the lectures were taken by Professor Hartung, who put on experiments all the time and loved to create a great show. We were in the new Chemistry building, which had been opened just as war broke out. The first year lecture theatre was equipped with blackboards which could be manipulated with a switch to roll them up and down and back again. He used to get very annoyed, though, when people reversed the flow and blew the fuse. That year was more enjoyment than anything else: I didn't learn any more chemistry than I had at Leaving Honours, which really was an advanced course.

In second year we got more into physical and organic chemistry separately. The lecturer in physical chemistry was Associate Professor Heymann, a refugee from Nazi Germany. He had spent some time in England and had done quite a bit of research in Germany, which was then particularly strong in chemistry and also in medical science. His two areas of interest were the properties of mixtures of fused or molten salts and Langmuir surface chemistry. He lectured particularly well, explaining things and not going too quickly for students.

At Melbourne University a pass in eight subjects was required for a Bachelor of Science. You did four subjects the first year and you could do three the second year (leaving only one) but the university had set up a special course called Chemistry III and Chemistry IV, so that you could chose to study all chemistry for a year. The disadvantage was that you had to do almost five days' practical work as well as six or seven lectures a week.

Fellow students at that time were John Swan and Ron Brown, both of whom became Fellows of this Academy and Foundation Professors at Monash University. My close friends when I was an undergraduate, however, were two law students – one, Gordon Bell, had been at school with me at Geelong and the other was Alan Missen (later Senator Missen). I was very envious of the students in Arts and Law because they had virtually every afternoon free and were able to take part in activities such as politics, amateur dramatics, social activities and sport, whereas the Science students, particularly in that final year, were very restricted. Subsequently, I found that undergraduates at Cambridge, whatever the subjects studied, had free time in the afternoon for such activities. And of course that is part of the enjoyment of a university.

Back to top

Applying chemistry to industry

Why did you go on to do a Masters degree rather than a PhD?

Melbourne University was different from Sydney, at least, in not having an honours Bachelor of Science degree, only a three-year BSc. You could get honours in subjects but there was no honours year, no research year, no thesis year. The PhD had just begun at Melbourne University but you needed a Masters in order to go on to PhD. I chose the two-year Masters degree, which was done by thesis and research. My research topic was the properties and thermodynamics of molten salt mixtures. There was no specific coursework but we did take lectures in industrial chemistry from an outside lecturer from Australian Paper Manufacturers, who organised visits to various industrial sites. For instance, I remember going to Commonwealth Fertilizers at Yarraville and to the Mitchell lime works at Lilydale.

We have now got the CRC program actively promoting industry linkages but in the 1940s that was happening anyway.

The universities and industry were forced together during the war, when Australia had to do things it could not do before, such as radar, making optical glass, testing ordnance equipment (tribophysics – friction physics, was important), and drug development. And the universities were involved with the application as well, because urgency in getting these things out was the name of the game. After the war, the developed nations in the world saw big opportunities to apply such methods for advancements in peacetime.

Secondly, the chemistry department at Melbourne had a long interaction with applied science. David Masson, an early Professor of Chemistry – appointed just before the turn of the century – was a very influential committee member in the setting up of CSIR, as CSIRO was called originally. Following him as Professor was David Rivett (who only shortly later became Chief Executive Officer of CSIR). He was followed by Professor Hartung, who had been heavily involved in the production of optical glass during the war. So in that era you had people who were thinking that Australia, to become more than just a primary industry country, had to become more involved in modern manufacturing. And chemistry was a key discipline for that.

Also, after the war there was a build-up of central laboratories. ICI put in a greatly expanded central laboratory just outside Melbourne at Deer Park and brought people back from overseas, and BHP had a substantial central research laboratory. The combined effect was that the universities – at least in chemistry and physics – accepted their responsibility to look at the opportunities for good graduates to go not only into an academic system but also into the industrial research laboratories.

Back to top

Political issues and ramifications

You mentioned your heavy workload in the final undergraduate year. Were you able to expand your activities in the evenings, perhaps, and then during your Masters?

Yes. Because of my law friends I became interested in politics. Melbourne University students were pretty left-wing in those days but I was a bit more conservative. We had a Liberal club and also, mainly because of Alan Missen, I suppose, I joined the Kooyong Young Liberals – there were a lot of social activities with that too.

People in the club at that time included Lindsay Thompson, a subsequent Premier of Victoria, who was a great guy; Ivor Greenwood, who was a bit too emphatic with his views on politics (as came through later on when he became Attorney-General in the Fraser government); and Alan Missen himself. We all got involved in certain political issues because Kooyong was Sir Robert Menzies' electorate and he was proposing to ban the Communist Party. Many of the Young Liberals were opposed to the banning of a party, on the basis that doing so was actually a restriction of freedom, which was contrary to Liberal Party philosophy. That was in 1949, when I was doing my Masters degree and the Liberal Party was just in its infancy.

At about that time, CSIR was under attack in the media and elsewhere. That must have affected the whole research environment. Would you tell us something about it?

CSIR came under attack because of charges by certain federal government politicians that it employed a lot of people who were left-wing – they were almost labelled Communists. The debate was compounded because CSIR was also doing defence-related research, for example, at its Aeronautics Laboratory at Melbourne, but Rivett wanted to maintain the spirit of free inquiry. He did not want any restrictions placed on research, even if it was defence-related.

CSIR's structure as the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research meant that the government had, at most, a pretty loose control over the organisation. It was very much in the hands of whoever were Chief Executive Officer and Chairman. A new Science and Industry Research Act was proposed which would get rid of the Council and put in a five-man Executive – a Chairman and four others – to run the organisation and to be responsible directly to the Minister in charge.

It was about this time that a CSIR person, Kaiser, who I think was on a studentship at Oxford – he was known to have left-wing tendencies and he was working in physics, in an area which could have connections to defence – was photographed demonstrating outside Australia House in London against the Australian government. The Kaiser incident inflamed the criticism of CSIR even more.

Rivett resigned on the eve of the proclamation of the new Act. He felt that this was the end for free inquiry. There is no doubt that he greatly overreacted: CSIRO expanded enormously during the 1950s and a lot of its work was very long-term basic research, whether it was for agriculture or mineral processing or even the work for industry. For example, Alan Walsh's discovery of atomic absorption came from fundamental studies, looking at absorption spectra. Until then everyone looked at emission spectra, with the old spectrographs. He wanted to work out the fundamentals, with no idea that his research would lead to a method which would be widely applied for medical, mineral and many other areas requiring analysis of elements. So things didn't turn out nearly as bad as they might have been. I think it was just an era, certain politicians fuelled it, and it passed when the 'Communist menace' passed.

Back to top

A fortunate interlude

At the conclusion of your Masters you had some job offers as well as interests in other jobs. What job did you finally decide to take?

I had two offers when I had finished my Masters. One was from the Wool Research Section at CSIR, in Geelong. The other was from Australian Paper Manufacturers, who had set up a central laboratory at Fairfield, a suburb of Melbourne. I chose the Wool Research job, although I had also applied for a job in the Division of Industrial Chemistry because it was developing a tremendous reputation. I was interviewed by the Division Chief, Ian Wark, and also Gordon Lennox but I was beaten by someone from Leeds with more experience. Ian said to me later that he had 'probably made a mistake', but in retrospect it was perhaps a very good thing for my career. I might have become more wedded to straight physical chemistry, whereas I have been able to use my previous training in order to move into new areas.

Would you like to tell us something about that job?

I was only at Geelong for two years. My job was to try to shrinkproof wool – which would be a big advantage – by taking acrylic acid, methacrylic acid and other derivatives and polymerising them on the wool. In actual fact, the amount that you needed to put on in order to stop the shrinkage of the fibres was too great, and also it had an effect on the elasticity, one of the beneficial properties of wool. So that didn't turn out to be a very practical method, even though the shrinkproofing could be achieved quite well in the laboratory.

Nevertheless it provoked you into moving into biochemistry.

It provoked me to learn something about proteins, which I did mostly by reading for myself. I became very fascinated with proteins. In fact, one of the first X-ray crystallography studies of proteins – by Astbury, at Leeds – was of wool. As I became more interested in the structure and the biochemistry of proteins, I determined that I should probably try to go to Cambridge.

Wasn't it about then that you got married?

Although the period at Geelong wasn't a great one in my career, it was there that I met Mary Shepherd, who was a technical assistant with Pip Lipson, the officer in charge of the laboratory. We were engaged to be married just before I left for England, and she came over one year later. We have had a tremendous loving partnership and she has been a terrific mother to our seven children. So that chance meeting and having the job at Geelong have proved to be very fortunate indeed.

Back to top

Researching the separation of proteins

I went to Cambridge in August 1951. I was a member of St John's College and also worked in the Low Temperature Research Station with a supervisor, Dr Miles Partridge, who was one of the first to separate sugars by chromatography. He worked on preparative methods of ion exchange chromatography to prepare amino acids and other substances from plants, but he also investigated the proteins of connective tissue, elastin and collagen, so I did a PhD with him. At that time the PhD was normally three years, but with a two-year MSc it was reduced to two years.

You just went straight into a research project, I imagine.

Yes. Partridge wanted me to work on the separation of proteins by chromatography on ion-exchange resins. Moore and Stein, at the Rockefeller Foundation laboratory in New York, had been awarded the Nobel Prize for developing their method for the quantitative determination of amino acids by ion-exchange chromatography. They had also worked on some small peptides and a small basic protein had been separated, but the normal size proteins, the ones with a neutral or acidic iso-electric point, were not amenable. They were adsorbed to the resin and could not then be eluted in their native states.

Partridge gave me the job of separating a basic nuclear histone-type protein from herring roe and then he went off for two months' study at an administrative staff college at Henley. In one way that was a little fortunate. I was only about 50 yards from the Molteno Institute, where Professor Keilin was housed. He had done a lot of the early work on cytochromes in animal tissue. Ralston Lawrie, his Scottish research student, was working on cytochrome c and used to come over to use the lovely coldroom facilities at the Low Temperature Station. He said to me, 'Why don't you work on cytochrome c, a coloured protein? You've got a white ion-exchange resin. You'll be able to see what is happening more easily,' Lawrie helped me prepare cytochrome c from a horse heart. It was a very valuable suggestion, because with cytochrome c you could see what was happening on the resin: not only whether the conditions were moving the cytochrome c band down the column but whether there were more than one component.

With my background in physical chemistry, my job was to study the interaction of the protein with the resin and work out the pH and ionic strength which would be suitable for protein separations. I found there was a narrow range of pH and ionic concentration for satisfactory separation. The resin I used was cross-linked polymethacrylic acid. It had lots of carboxyl groups, which resulted in multivalent absorption of a protein. My experiments showed that the absorption of a protein was a balance between the electrostatic forces, between the resin and the protein, and the shorter-range van der Waals forces. Achieving an appropriate balance resulted in the separation of cytochrome c from other proteins.

I then realised that it should be possible to separate more typical proteins. I chose haemoglobin, again a coloured protein but one with a neutral isoelectric point. Fortunately, the Reader in Physiology at Cambridge, Dr Gilbert Adair, also had a laboratory in the Low Temperature Research Station. He had been working on haemoglobin for 20-odd years, being the first (in 1925) to determine the molecular weight of haemoglobin. That was by osmotic pressure and I do not think you would vary the figure today. He was there to help with samples, and the experiments worked like a charm: we were able to separate different haemoglobins. We took haemoglobin from the sheep foetus and separated it from adult; we took oxidised haemoglobin and separated it from the carboxy derivative. Subsequently other people took up the method and were able to separate haemoglobins resulting from genetic disorders, like sickle cell haemoglobin. That was a significant advance.

Back to top

That Cambridge atmosphere

Keith, what you have been talking about is basic research at its best, with people beavering away on very fundamental questions, essentially unrelated yet with some real contributions to make to one another. Can you tell us something about that Cambridge atmosphere? It must have been very exciting to be there with so many distinguished scientific figures.

I was able to benefit from an enormous atmosphere and effort at Cambridge, in perhaps the heyday of protein chemistry anywhere in the world. At Cambridge you had Sanger, who was coming near the end of his determination of the amino acid sequence in insulin; Perutz, working by X-ray crystallography on the structure of haemoglobin; Kendrew, also in the Cavendish, working on X-ray crystallography of myoglobin. Rodney Porter had just left the Biochemistry Department, having worked on gamma globulin, which he developed more at the National Institute of Medical Research.

As well as those four Nobel Prize winners, you had around you people like Alexander Todd, another Nobel Prize winner, working in organic chemistry on the nucleotides, and Porter and Norrish developing flash photolysis, for which they got the Nobel Prize and which became very important in photosynthesis research. And, to top it all off, Watson and Crick were working on the X-ray structure of DNA. I remember well when Sanger, with whom we interacted a fair bit, came over and told us that Watson and Crick had got the double-helix structure for DNA. That was just before it appeared in Nature but immediately everyone recognised its significance. It was very exciting.

The Cambridge air must have held quite a sniff of Nobel Prizes in those days.

Yes. Sanger was the first, I think, but Watson and Crick must have been soon after. And yet Crick was only a fellow PhD student, although much older than other students.

After your PhD, there was your post-doc at Cambridge, I think on an ICI fellowship.

I was lucky to get that lucrative post-doc for Cambridge, as there were only a few awarded. I got it because of the work on the separation of proteins. It was a great time, with the advantage that I was able to attend all the seminars around the campus and to learn quite a lot of biochemistry without doing any exams. That's a great way to learn a subject! I attended a series of lectures by Keilin, Slater (an Australian who was there at the time) and Hartree, and also Chignall had a protein unit. The examiners for my PhD were a muscle protein chemist at Cambridge, K Bailey, and A J P Martin, who had got the Nobel Prize for his development of paper chromatography.

Back to top

A good critical mass in photosynthesis research

What led you to return to Australia, to CSIRO Plant Industry?

I had resigned from CSIRO Wool Research after I was awarded the ICI fellowship; I didn't want to come back at that stage. But during my post-doc the lab had played some cricket matches with University College, London. One member of their team being John Falk, who had worked there for several years on porphyrins. He had been appointed to head the biochemistry section of the Division of Plant Industry. Subsequently he came to Cambridge and said he would like to offer me a job in Canberra to set up their chromatography facilities but he had to consult the Chief, Otto Frankel, to see if a position was available. (The Executive of the day still had a pool of positions which they handed out at their discretion.) Knowing the persuasive power of Otto, I believe he didn't have a great deal of trouble in getting the position.

So this was an opportunity to get you into chlorophyll protein complexes?

Yes, that's right. I came back and set up chromatography facilities fairly quickly, and then, with the experience in the haemoglobins – and with John Falk's interest in porphyrins, and also with Rudi Lemberg, in Sydney, having developed quite a school in haem pigments – I decided to investigate chlorophyll complexes.

Soon after I arrived, a paper from the Carnegie Institute in Stanford, California, reported the isolation of a soluble protochlorophyll complex from dark-grown bean leaves. I thought, 'If that's soluble, I'll see whether I can purify it.' So I developed the purification procedure, including density electrophoresis – but in order to be able to assay this protein you had to prepare it in weak green light. Protochlorophyll is converted to chlorophyll in red light; it is a porphyrin going to a chlorin. So I had to set up a whole lab, black it out, put in weak green lights, do the whole purification, and then illuminate the protochlorophyll protein complex in a spectrophotometer and follow the kinetics of the conversion. The kinetics were a little complicated too. They were interpreted in terms of the structure of the hydrogen donor in relation to the protochlorophyll, which needs two hydrogens to go to chlorophyll. I was not able at that time to identify the donor.

That work extended over quite a few years, Keith. Who were your colleagues?

The colleague for the work on the protochlorophyll was myself. But after that I went back to the chlorophyll-protein complexes, where the real rewards were. I was then treasurer of the newly formed Australian Biochemical Society and the secretary was Fred Collins, a lipid biochemist at the John Curtin School. I told him, 'I'm trying to separate these chlorophyll complexes but you've got to use detergents. When I use the normal anionic or cationic detergents I don't get the properties of the chlorophyll as it is in the leaf.' He suggested that I try a natural detergent called digitonin, which had been used very successfully to separate the rods containing the retinin from the eye, with the pigment in a natural state. Sure enough, digitonin didn't wreck the chlorophyll system, and on doing a differential centrifugation I found fractions with different chlorophyll a:b ratios.

An enormous contribution to that advance and to working out what was happening came from the fact that I was working in a biochemistry department with a good critical mass, with colleagues working on projects which were different but had related techniques. For instance, Don Spencer and John Possingham were working on nutrition of plants – they wanted to work out the role of manganese and how it was related to photosynthesis. So they had set up the methods for looking at the electron transport in different parts of the photosynthetic chain. Cyril Appleby had worked on his PhD in Melbourne with Bob Morton, who worked on cytochromes. He persuaded the Division to buy a Cary spectrophotometer to look at cytochromes, so it was ready to go when I had the fractions with different chlorophyll a:b ratios, first of all to look at the photochemical reactions but then to look at their composition. And John David had the analytical methods set up for all the trace elements, so he was able to analyse the fractions for relevant trace elements.

The Cary spectrophotometer had to be adapted. We had highly scattering samples. No-one else could determine the cytochromes in green material: the scattering was too great, the chlorophyll absorbed much of the light. But with the help of our good workshop and Cyril Appleby's contribution, we made an attachment for the Cary which let us do the spectra of scattering materials. Also, we developed a liquid nitrogen attachment for determining spectra at liquid nitrogen temperature. This led to discoveries about the cytochromes which people said we couldn't do with all that chlorophyll there. (Others were extracting the chlorophyll with acetone and other solvents and destroying the native chlorophyll-protein complexes.)

Then Jan Anderson came on board, soon after I had done the first experiments. She was a tremendous colleague. We characterised the chlorophyll-containing fractions to convince the world that there was a separation of the photosystems.

Back to top

Protein synthesis in Los Angeles

When I first came back to Australia from Cambridge I was interested also in cell-free synthesis of protein. Milton Zaitlin was on a three-year award from the United States, working on tobacco mosaic virus. That was an easy protein or virus to isolate and purify, and we tried to achieve cell-free synthesis of it – but without a great deal of success.

At that time Sam Wildman, from UCLA, visited the lab. He said that he had a lovely gentle method of preparing chloroplasts with their jackets on, and that they would be good for protein synthesis. In 1964, just after the separation of the photosystems, he invited me to go to his laboratory. I had a Fulbright award, plus support from him and from CSIRO. (As we had five children we needed good support.) Richard Franki, from Adelaide, and I had an enormously productive year. We were able to get very good cell-free synthesis of chloroplast proteins. I was able to show that they were driven by a bacterial-like 70s ribosome, not the 80s ribosome of the higher plant. Using the model E ultracentrifuge we were able to characterise the ribosomes; also, with a colleague in the medical faculty at UCLA, we could do the electron microscopy of the ribosomes. So it was a very rewarding and successful period.

And another very good example of research collaboration and interaction, with people of different skills and backgrounds contributing to the overall work.

Yes. Paul Boyer had just set up the Molecular Biology Institute at UCLA and tried to persuade me to stay. He was struggling at that time with the mechanism of ATP in mitochondria and energy transduction, and would have liked to add my chloroplast work. I gave a seminar but I said no, I was going back to Canberra. Boyer seemed to be heading in a direction opposite to everybody else in looking at the mechanism of the activation of the ATP. Yet, 30 years later, he shares the Nobel Prize for his work on the mitochondria.

Back to top

A very productive decade indeed

What direction did your research take when you returned to Australia?

The next decade was spent in characterising the photochemical systems and looking at how the photosystems and photochemical activity developed during greening. But also we worked with Olle Bjorkman from the Carnegie Institution and the ANU Research School of Biological Sciences on the comparative photosynthesis of sun and shade plants. In about nine months we did an enormous amount of work, with Bjorkman sitting in the rainforest measuring photosynthesis in situ and the team in Canberra analysing photochemical reactions and structure of the chloroplasts. We showed that a plant did not adapt to light intensity in one reaction alone – the adaptation was to keep everything in unison. We examined not only the CO2 absorption and stomatal resistance but also the chloroplast structure, the reaction centre size, and electron transport. All showed changes in the adaptation. Those 10 years were very productive indeed. But again it was because of the concentration of people. And a large number of quite senior investigators from Germany, the UK and the USA came out for sabbaticals.

That is so stimulating, both to the visitors and to the people who are inviting them.

Yes. One of our visitors was Robin Hill, who had showed in 1939 that the oxygen evolved by green plants did not come from carbon dioxide but from water. His separation of the CO2 fixation was the origin of the Hill reaction. He came out in '73 and spent about four months with us. Also, at that time Germany was still being very generous in sending people.

Back to top

Dealing with big issues for CSIRO

Your first career, in scientific research, was crowned by your election to the Academy and subsequently to the Royal Society. What caused your major career shift to administration in CSIRO, Australia's largest research organisation?

First of all, I had followed you on the Australian Research Grants Committee so I had a very good grounding in having to look at programs over a very wide range of biology. In 1977 the then Chairman of CSIRO, Sir Robert Price, asked whether I would go onto the Executive for a year. Birch was conducting his independent inquiry into CSIRO and CSIRO did not want to commit to an appointment until they knew its result. I said to Jerry Price, 'Well, if you had asked me to go for seven years I would have said no. I don't mind going for a year to see what it is like.'

Do you think they were just softening you up?

[Laughs] Yes. But I think my spread of activities from physical chemistry through to biochemistry and then to aspects of plant physiology was valuable for the assessments we had to make. I had a slightly broader view, particularly as I had just come from research. That was quite a useful year, I think.

It was a very hard decision to continue after the Birch inquiry. Paul Wild was appointed Chairman and I was offered the full-time Executive position – the other one was still vacant. I had had a very good career in science and there was a question whether I could continue that sort of productivity, particularly in a research institute in the absence of students. But also I thought that I had something to contribute to the administration, and that because I had been so well treated in the science career it was something which I should consider taking on. That was a very big decision, and most of my colleagues around Australia didn't want me to take it and leave research.

That second career was crowned by your becoming Chairman in '85 and then Chief Executive Officer till 1990. What were some of issues during your administration?

The issues we were facing at that time concerned the future role of CSIRO. Right from the days of Rivett, the view was that although the organisation was very much directed at applied outcomes you must do strategic long-term research to advance the technology in order to solve the problems. In 1985 questions were being asked about what CSIRO should really do. Should they be contributing more to secondary industry, and if so, what?

Another issue was how much funding should come from appropriation and how much funding CSIRO should be expected to get from other sources. Overseas organisations like TNO in Holland were getting a much bigger percentage from non-government sources. We were worried at the time that our budget might be chopped by 20 per cent and we might be told to go and find that. So we decided to say, 'We will work towards the target of 20 per cent. You, the Government, leave the appropriation where it is and we will go out, get money and build on top of that.'

After all, there needed to be some incentive, didn't there?

Also that meant it wasn't a sudden break. You didn't have to get rid of a lot of people. The other issue at that time was how to cope with the changing nature of CSIRO. It went from a very heavy emphasis on the primary industries to a requirement that we consider not only secondary industry but environmental issues – and with the service sector coming along, there was the question of computing research. How should we change, how could we get a better balance between those sectors?

The issues were funding and the balance: changing the balance of the research effort, and what to do about changing even in a particular area, when some people had been in programs for 20 or 30 years and their contribution was diminishing with time. How could you reactivate and motivate those people?

Back to top

Crowning achievements

Those were very difficult issues. In such jobs there is frequently such a grind in just getting the job done that it is nice to be able to reflect on the real achievements and the highlights. What are some of the things you were pleased with?

In 1983 I had chaired a committee on what would be the role of biotechnology and particularly recombinant DNA in biological research. I was a bit disappointed with that review, because only the plant people recognised this as a big area for the future. That did change very dramatically, but I was very pleased to be able to push for and get extra funding for biotechnology – as a multisectoral program, so it didn't go to one Division. As well as in plant research we could see that recombinant DNA research would be useful for the development of vaccines for animal health, analysis of the wool genes and for the role of bacteria in the production of a whole range of substances. Recombinant DNA research expanded considerably, because the cutting edge science was going that way.

I pushed support for the expansion of two other areas: physical oceanography and research on understanding climate. I was closely involved with Paul in the decision to place the marine science divisions in Hobart. After the government's Callahan review, Malcolm Fraser (the Prime Minister) told CSIRO he wanted substantial activity transferred to Tasmania. He suggested forestry, but in view of the different conditions for forestry and the different climatic conditions of Australia it was not the best research area to transfer. Because we had trouble at Cronulla – the site was very small from our point of view, but the New South Wales government owned a considerable part of it and there were Aboriginal middens on it, so there was very little hope of expansion there – Paul and I decided to put to Fraser that we transfer marine science on condition that we were given the necessary resources: a site in Hobart and a physical oceanography vessel. And when, subsequently, Sir Ninian Stephen (the Governor-General) launched the Franklin in Cairns, we were both present. We saw that physical oceanography was going to play a bigger role, and a ship could be moored in Hobart – we got the wharf of the old passenger terminal. You could go anywhere around Australia by ship, unlike the specific locations of forestry. I think the transfer of marine research to Hobart worked out pretty well.

Another pleasing thing is that with Ian Ross I started the CSIRO-University Collaborative Research Scheme, which eventually all universities entered into. It was only a small thing but it was a start in addressing what you saw as a deficiency when you proposed the Cooperative Research Centre scheme.

Also I really did push the Double Helix Club, a child science education club. We put extra money into that, and the Club is still very successful.

It certainly is, and quite visible amongst schoolchildren too.

During my time we started a more structured methodology for priority setting. Don McCrae was very much involved in developing the methodology which was published in the ANZAAS journal. It was not easy to transfer resources between areas and it could not be done just off the top of your head. You had to have some rationale, such as benefit to Australia, and whether there were recipients for the research results.

I was pleased that the Australia Telescope, a Bicentenary project, came to fruition during my time and that Ron Ekers took the job as Director. When Ron came to see me there was the issue about whether CSIRO should or should not be running it, and I said to him, 'I will judge the quality of what you do on the quality of the research outcomes and how many top people you can still attract to Australia. There will be spin-offs, as there were previously, but your main job is to ensure that you have top-quality science there.'

That's a pretty good criterion.

Yes, particularly as it was set up to do cutting edge radioastronomy. As you said in your report, research into the southern skies was an important area for Australia.

Back to top

Retirement: a third career

Although you retired formally in 1990, since then you have had a number of major interests, such as the CRC program, in which you played a big role, and the review of the ANU Institute of Advanced Studies. Would you like to talk about any of those?

I was very pleased to be associated with the Cooperative Research Centre program, your brainchild which you persuaded the Prime Minister to support. It has been a great success, generally, not only in realising your original idea of getting the universities, CSIRO, the state governments and possibly industry to collaborate so that you got a critical mass and cross-fertilisation, but also in ensuring that industry has become more interested. I think industry people see themselves as part of the governing board: they can influence the priorities, how people look at intellectual property and how the results are transferred.

Another success is that the Centres were able to get some pretty good directors who not only were good scientists, with a clear vision of the role of their centre, but they have turned out on the whole to be very good administrators of research, able to interact with industry and other users and to see the importance of the transfer of the research results.

The other success story, from what I have seen, is that there has been a change in the culture, and that applies down to the student level. Students now have a much greater realism of the situation, that there are only going to be a few jobs in academia and that their interaction with industry during their PhD – sometimes with a joint supervisor – is of enormous benefit to them, not only in their decision about an interesting career but also to improve enormously their prospects of moving into the industrial scene. And they have seen that intellectual property is important, whereas previously I think people in most universities did not worry about that. So there has been this culture change and this commitment of industry because they are involved.

There have of course been changes and more variety since that first round, when a lot of the university people saw just another bag of money to apply for. But with the evolution and with experience and the different CRCs – from almost a public good area like Tropical Rainforests (which you are Chairman of) to the aero-structures, which is very heavily industrial – the principles behind what one is trying to achieve, whether it is an industrial application or an environmental application, remain the same. It has been a very successful program, despite problems with some centres. On the whole I think you can be very pleased with the result.

And the review of the Institute of Advanced Studies?

It was a pretty high-level committee – it included the Rector of Imperial College, in London, and the President of the California Institute of Technology – which saw that the Institute of Advanced Studies, because of the block grant and the fairly low level of undergraduate teaching, was able to build up very strong schools to attract top visitors and students from around the world and to be in the world class, competitive in almost all areas where it decided to build up an activity. The problem was that the Institute really did not sit comfortably into the unified national system in Australia. The committee looked at the possibilities of partial funding; nevertheless they recommended that continuation of the block funding was fully justified on the basis of the track record.

They said that the Institute had to make sure that it maintained that top standard, because its Achilles heel would have been to support people who did not measure up with what was happening in the rest of the system. They felt also that there would be advantages from more joint appointments with the Faculties, so that as people moved on in time they might change the balance between research and teaching. They felt it was a shame that the undergraduates don't have much interface with some of our best researchers. That hasn't been taken up to any degree, perhaps because the ANU is worried that its funding would be cut if the Institute was assisting in teaching, but it would be a great thing if there were a few more lectures given by the top people in the Institute. Nonetheless the committee decided that the Institute was well worthwhile supporting and despite a few minor things they said, 'Well, you have built up this great research centre. It has been very successful. You should continue with it.'

Thank you very much, Keith, for a fascinating interview. I have enjoyed all of it, and finding out a number of things about you that I wasn't aware of before has made it doubly enjoyable.

Thank you very much. I am very pleased that you have been able to carry out this interview. You and I span a similar time, with similar backgrounds, so it has been very, very interesting.

Back to top

© 2024 Australian Academy of Science