Date released
02 October 2020

With experience ranging from working as a cattle nutritionist in South-East Asia to establishing a rural women’s mentoring program between Australia and Indonesia, it was unsurprising Catherine Marriott was appointed to be on Australia’s Commission for International Agricultural Research six years ago. Since then she has been bringing her expertise to the table, including her background in agricultural and policy research in northern Australia.

In June this year Ms Marriott’s tenure as a Commissioner concluded. However, she believes she is leaving an organisation that has built a greater public presence, has a sharper focus on gender outcomes and will lead Australia’s foreign aid program on One Health issues in a post-COVID-19 environment.

Communicating ACIAR
Catherine Marriott

‘Something I pushed really hard for early on—which I am so happy we have achieved—is a stronger communication strategy,’ explains Ms Marriott. ‘I could see that there was a risk for ACIAR in not sharing the “good news” stories we had built.

The good news ACIAR can share, Ms Marriott says, is more than just a foreign aid story.

‘ACIAR is the most incredible organisation. It delivers benefit not only to countries around the world but, importantly, also to Australia,’ she says.

‘When Panama Disease broke out in [the Australian state of] Queensland, it could have annihilated the banana industry but we had a researcher in Australia who had been working on an ACIAR project in the Philippines who recognised the disease, and this enabled them to stop it in its tracks.

‘This is one of many examples, and it is these stories—and more—that we need to promote.’

In an environment where Australia’s budget—particularly its foreign aid budget—is tightening, demonstrating broad benefits and clear impacts from investment remains a high priority.

‘We need to be sharing more of what ACIAR does and its wide-ranging benefits so influencers are inspired by the benefit we are able to deliver,’ Ms Marriott adds.

Responding to COVID-19

With greater awareness and appreciation of ACIAR also comes the opportunity to mobilise partners and resources and help respond to emerging issues—including COVID-19. ‘Because ACIAR is a small agency it can be flexible and facilitate [a response to] changing needs,’ Ms Marriott says.

One Health—an integrated approach encompassing human, animal and environmental health—is at the heart of nine new projects jointly funded by ACIAR and the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

‘ACIAR has research capacity in animal diseases, production systems and biosecurity, and is extremely well placed to represent Australia and collaborate globally to proactively manage and predict future pandemics, limiting their impact,’ she says.

‘A real example of this is the memorandum of understanding ACIAR has formed with the Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology to forge cooperation between Australia and Indonesia looking at 
zoonotic malaria.

‘I hope to see more partnerships like this in future. Never has there been a more important time than now to understand the interrelationship between animal and human diseases.’

Ms Marriott adds that, like many other organisations, ACIAR is changing how it operates to include fewer site visits and more remote engagement in response to COVID-19. It is the strong human-to-human connections that the organisation has fostered that provide a resilient base upon which to address new challenges.

‘The thing I really love about ACIAR is the people focus—and that will remain,’ she says. ‘ACIAR has an extraordinary reputation globally because of the effort we have put into human-to-human connections.

‘We have developed strategies with partners to manage current projects as proactively as possible and begin research programs again but be flexible in the project development stage.’

Women in leadership

Another central tenet of Ms Marriott’s contribution to ACIAR was in elevating women to leadership roles. As the founding CEO of the Kimberley Pilbara Cattlemen’s Association and as director on multiple boards, Ms Marriott knows the value women bring to leadership positions. She has supported ACIAR in its own transition to improving gender balance at senior levels.

Since Ms Marriott’s appointment the composition of the ACIAR senior leadership team has changed. Six years ago, ACIAR had two women in leadership roles. In 2020, 14 out of the 18 senior leadership positions were filled by women. 

ACIAR is the most incredible organisation. It delivers benefit not only to countries around the world, but, importantly, also to Australia.

ACIAR CEO Professor Andrew Campbell says that better gender balance at higher levels within ACIAR demonstrates that gender equity can be improved rapidly, even within small organisations and that ACIAR is ‘walking the talk’ when it advocates for gender issues internationally. 

A vision for the future of ACIAR

ACIAR is also shifting towards deliberately measuring the impact it has across the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including gender, health and climate change, among others.

Ms Marriott says she sees a strong future for ACIAR in helping deliver on the SDGs as well as driving the One Health and international research agendas.

‘This has been important for us to monitor and shape our programs but also to effectively communicate the impact our organisation is having, both here in Australia and internationally,’ Ms Marriott says.

‘With the current management and capacity of ACIAR we are very well placed to contribute to and indeed lead some of the most important animal and human science the world needs into the future.’

Recognising the need to respond to a rapidly changing world, Ms Marriott supports ACIAR work that invests in agricultural research differently. She says it is important to recognise not just the finances countries and partners contribute but their intellectual input and research capacity. 

Key points
  • Greater awareness of the impact of ACIAR is one of the legacies Ms Catherine Marriott leaves following her six-year stint on Australia’s Commission for International Agricultural Research.
  • Maintaining its people focus and a greater attention to gender issues and One Health will position ACIAR to further increase its impact.