Professor Gabrielle Persley talks about the people behind ACIAR from 1982 to now
By Professor Gabrielle Persley
Honorary Professor with the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, University of Queensland
About the author
Professor Gabrielle Persley AM is an Honorary Professor with the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, University of Queensland. She was one of the first ACIAR staff members, being appointed in 1982 as Science Advisor and ACIAR Research Program Manager for Crops (1982–1991). She also served on Australia’s Commission for International Agricultural Research (2017–2020).
1978–82: inception to commencement
ACIAR was the result of a political opportunity meeting a scientific plan. The Australian Government’s overseas aid programs had supported agricultural and rural development projects, mainly in Asia, since the 1960s. These were primarily technical assistance projects, delivered overseas by agricultural consulting companies, that provided individual technical experts from Australia.
There was limited institutional engagement from Australian agricultural scientists, who were developing new technologies such as improved crop varieties, pest and disease control, and animal vaccines to increase the productivity of Australian agriculture. This limitation was recognised by the then Australian Development Assistance Bureau (ADAB). In 1977–78, the ADAB Director, Mr Jim Ingram, established a Science and Technology (S&T) unit within ADAB and a Consultative Committee on Research and Development (CCRD), chaired by Sir John Crawford, Chancellor of ANU.
This CCRD group included representatives of Australia’s national science agency CSIRO, state government departments of agriculture, and universities. Its task was to find ways to increase the engagement of the Australian scientific community in the Australian overseas aid program, including in agricultural research and development (R&D). The agricultural sub-group of CCRD, chaired by Dr Ted Henzell of CSIRO, was particularly concerned with how Australia’s expertise in agricultural R&D could contribute more towards improving agriculture in neighbouring countries, in a more systematic and long-term way than on a project-by-project basis. ADAB also commissioned a study, led by Professor Helen Hughes of ANU, on the feasibility of Australia establishing a broader S&T agency, similar to the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC) addressing agriculture, health and education. Thus, when the timing was right, a plan for an agricultural research initiative within the overseas aid program had been conceived.
The political opportunity arose because the then Australian Prime Minister, Mr Malcom Fraser, was hosting the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting (CHOGM), in Melbourne (30 September – 7 October 1981). In recognition of hosting the Heads of Government of all Commonwealth countries, Prime Minister Fraser decided he would announce a new Australian aid initiative. Firstly, in January 1981, the Prime Minister sought advice from the then Foreign Minister, Mr Tony Street. Sir John Crawford and the ADAB leadership (Director, Mr Jim Ingram and Deputy Director, Mr Richard Manning), put forward the idea of an agricultural research initiative, based on CCRD’s previous identification of agricultural R&D as an area where the Australian aid program could do better. The concept was to develop an Australian international agricultural research centre that would support research partnerships between scientists in Australia and developing countries to develop solutions to problems of mutual interest that would benefit both Australian and developing country agriculture.
The concept of Australia supporting research partnerships with neighbouring countries to solve problems for mutual benefit to Australia and the partner countries was the critical distinguishing feature of the initiative.
Prime Minister Fraser liked this idea as playing to Australia’s strengths in agriculture and supported its further development in 1981. ADAB was tasked to develop the initiative, under the direction of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. A taskforce was established, led by Dr John Baker, Head of Policy, primarily to develop a Cabinet Submission for the Government’s formal approval and financial commitment. At the time I was the agricultural scientist within ADAB’s S&T unit and I was seconded to this taskforce to assist in preparing the cabinet submission and the ACIAR legislation.
The Australian Government’s intention to support a new international agricultural research initiative in honour of CHOGM was included in a speech Prime Minster Fraser gave at the Commonwealth Club in Adelaide on 9 February 1981, the first time the Prime Minister mentioned the developing initiative in public. Cabinet approved the initiative in mid-1981 and it was formally announced during CHOGM in October 1981. The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research Act 1982 (ACIAR Act) that established ACIAR as a statutory authority was passed by the Parliament, with bipartisan support in the House of Representatives in October 1981, and in the Senate in May 1982. The ACIAR Act was proclaimed by the Governor General on 3 June 1982. Sir John Crawford was appointed as the first Chair of the Board, Dr Denis Blight as interim Director, and me as Science Advisor. Thus, ACIAR was born (with multiple fathers, and a few mothers as well).
1982–2022: policy meets science
An important part of the rationale for establishing ACIAR as a statutory authority within the portfolio of Foreign Affairs was that this would give it a degree of autonomy within the public service and that it would be led by agricultural science professionals.
The ACIAR Act established ACIAR with a Board of Management and a Policy Advisory Council, with the Director reporting to the Board of Management. Later, the ACIAR Act was updated and the Board of Management was replaced by the Commission for International Agricultural Research, with the CEO reporting directly to the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The Board, and now the Commission, comprises eminent Australians, mainly from the rural sector or the research community, who provide oversight and policy advice to the Minister. In this advisory role to the Minister, the Commission is complemented by the Policy Advisory Council, which consists of members from partner countries and/or international research organisations familiar with ACIAR internationally.
ACIAR has had 6 Directors over its 40-year history, each serving a term of up to 7 years, as set up by the ACIAR Act. Professor Jim McWilliam was appointed as the first substantive Director in 1982, followed by Drs George Rothschild, Bob Clements, Peter Core and Nick Austin, and Professor Andrew Campbell. The Directors have come from a range of backgrounds in agricultural science or economics, with extensive knowledge of Australian agriculture and the challenges of sustainable food and agricultural production in challenging environments. All have come with a strong commitment to improving the livelihoods of rural communities in the developing world. Each has brought a different style to the organisation. All have used their skills to guide ACIAR through the challenges of their time, including several changes of Australian governments of different political persuasions, other changes in Ministers, budget pressures, as well as the changing international environment, and sometimes unforeseen changes within partner countries, due to natural disasters, civil unrest, or financial crises. The fact that ACIAR is celebrating its 40th year of operations in 2022 is testimony to their success.
When ACIAR was established, it was envisaged that the scientific staff would be experienced research scientists coming from Australian research organisations and/or international agricultural research centres. It was also considered desirable that the senior research staff leading the research programs would join ACIAR for up to 7 years as a part of their career, or on a fixed-term secondment from their home organisation. This would give the new organisation both continuity and flexibility in its staffing arrangements and the ability to bring in new skills over time as ACIAR program areas and partnerships evolved. This model has served ACIAR well.
The research program leaders and the leaders of ACIAR global programs, over the past 4 decades are too numerous to mention by name here, but all have contributed mightily to the success of ACIAR, as without successful research programs, there would be no ACIAR to talk about and demonstrate its success.
Myriad people have contributed to ACIAR since 1982, to create an institution that has improved the lives of millions of people in the developing world, and of which all Australians can be proud.
Professor Gabrielle Persley
Honorary Professor with the School of Agriculture and Food Sciences, University of Queensland
An important early decision was to establish an Impact Assessment Unit under the initial leadership of Dr Jim Ryan, ACIAR Deputy Director, which would establish monitoring and evaluation systems and commission independent impact assessments to measure the impact of ACIAR projects and programs over time. In 2022, ACIAR has published a synthesis of 100 impact assessments which demonstrate the value for money of the Australian Government’s investments in international agricultural research and the benefits that have been delivered both to farming communities in the developing world and to Australian farmers over the past 4 decades.
ACIAR has developed strong relationships with partner countries across the Indo Pacific, eastern Africa, and South and West Asia. ACIAR has a network of in-country officers in these geographies, led by dedicated people from the host countries who interact with the host country governments to identify their priorities and where the governments would welcome partnerships with ACIAR in areas of mutual interest.
ACIAR people critically include the science partners – the many scientists in Australia and in partner countries – who develop a shared idea into a joint project, work it through the various approval processes and implement it to develop solutions to shared problems and deliver these solutions to farmers. Strong science partnerships and enduring friendships have been built through scientists working together on these ACIAR projects, which last long after the projects themselves are completed.
A sometimes-overlooked group of ACIAR people are those responsible for the program management and the finance and administration of the organisation. These are the people who make the programs and projects function in Australia and overseas. Each Research Program Manager is supported by an experienced project officer who is responsible for the efficient operation of a suite of projects, including dealing with the reporting and accountability requirements with the commissioned organisations within Australia and with overseas partners.
At the corporate level, there are also many reporting and accountability requirements for ACIAR for a statutory authority within the Australian Government. There is also an increasing emphasis on cross-cutting issues to be addressed in all projects, including gender and diversity, education and training and communications to stakeholders about ACIAR work and the benefits it delivers.
2022 and beyond: the future
Continuity and continuously recreating ACIAR is the secret of its success.
Reflecting on the hundreds of people who have contributed to ACIAR over its lifespan, 2 themes emerge, which may even seem counter factual. The first is the value of continuity and corporate memory in a science-based organisation that is firmly located within the Australian overseas aid program. The second is the ability of the ACIAR leadership, from the responsible Australian Minsters for Foreign Affairs, through to the Directors, the governance bodies and the science leaders, in Australia and overseas, to continuously recreate ACIAR by learning lessons and being an agile organisation able to see around corners and continuously reinvent itself in always-challenging environments. This agility bodes well for ACIAR people celebrating their golden anniversary in 2032.