Looking forward

Previous 40 years of impact

The visionaries who conceived the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR) and convinced the Australian Government, led by Prime Minister Fraser, to establish a specialist statutory authority within the Foreign Affairs portfolio, could see that the skills and insights of Australian researchers would be equally valuable on a wider stage, helping to solve the agricultural problems of developing countries in our region.

This book illustrates vividly how right they were. The ACIAR legacy in facilitating science partnerships for reducing poverty and improving food security in our region is one of which all Australians can be rightly proud.

If the world is your farm, then Australia is not your best paddock! Long before anthropogenic global warming, Australia had the most variable climate of all the continents. Now its extremes are more extreme, and catastrophic climatic events are more frequent.

Geologically ancient and stable, its soils are long-weathered and generally depleted of nutrients. Less than 5% of the continent is arable. The biggest global markets are distant, and Australian farmers don’t receive comparable subsidies to their counterparts in the United States, Europe, Japan and Korea.

So Australian agriculture, rural industries and farm businesses have long had to be resilient, resourceful and innovative, to adapt, survive and prosper.

ACIAR is primed and ready to go to a new level in helping to project Australian soft power strategically across the Indo-Pacific region. ACIAR can co-design and broker partnerships in which Australian scientists play leading roles in regional and global collaborations to transform agrifood systems. Australian researchers and postgraduate students should be embedded in such collaborations, building relationships, networks and expertise.

Professor Andrew Campbell
Chief Executive Officer, (2017–2023)

Growing and complex challenges

A world-leading agricultural innovation system has assisted Australian agriculture, rural industries and farm businesses to adapt, survive and prosper. A distinguishing feature of this system is high levels of partnership (including shared funding) between government and industry, and high levels of collaboration between scientists and farmers.

Innovative research funding and management models like the Rural Research and Development Corporations and Cooperative Research Centres have served Australian rural industries very well. The system has fostered generations of researchers accustomed to working closely with farmers, and leading Australian farmers have high levels of involvement in research in their industries, often on their own farms.

Now Australian agriculture and the horticulture, fisheries and forestry sectors face additional challenges that were less acute, or less well understood, when ACIAR was established in 1982.

These ‘converging insecurities’ are the challenges of food security, water security, energy security, biosecurity and health security. These all interact with each other, and all are amplified by climate change. In turn, this complex suite of interacting challenges threatens regional and national security and is catalysing increasing levels of forced human migration.

All countries of the Indo-Pacific region grapple with these same challenges.

In this challenging contemporary context, the traditional commodity focus of much agricultural research that served Australia so well in the twentieth century is no longer fit for purpose.

Australian science is having to adapt, to develop better approaches to research and innovation across industries, landscapes, regions and value chains. These generally make greater use of multi-, inter- and trans-disciplinary research methods, with even higher levels of collaboration between science and industry, and science
and policy.

Australian science and innovation is a strategic national asset that will need to be deployed as never before, to help us reach our own objectives to produce more and healthier food, equitably shared, using less land, water, nutrients and energy, while reducing emissions, restoring habitats and decarbonising. This is among the greatest challenges facing humanity this century.

ACIAR is a strategically valuable soft-power asset for Australia. It is a mature, uniquely capable specialist statutory authority, well known and respected across the region. It is a distinctive asset for both Australia’s diplomatic outreach and our domestic innovation system.

ACIAR is a keeper of the long view, old enough to have a long memory and durable friendships, focused enough to sustain deep expertise, and small enough to be nimble and responsive.

In part helped by ACIAR, science and policy capabilities in partner countries across our region have developed enormously over the last four decades. Most of the scientists who have received scientific, leadership and management training in Australia (650 of whom are active ACIAR alumni members) are in science and policy leadership roles across the region. This engaged network of senior scientists and policymakers across the region with positive, active and enduring links to Australia, is a wonderful platform for greater ambition in strategic partnerships between Australia and the region.

Head shot of Professor Andrew Campbell. He has grey hair and is wearing a suit and a tie.

Professor Andrew Campbell, ACIAR Chief Executive Officer (2017–2023), reflected on how the nature and characteristics of Australian agriculture have led to Australia developing a world-leading agricultural innovation system. In this section, Professor Campbell described how the ACIAR mandate remains relevant, as the challenges facing all farmers, fishers and foresters in the Indo-Pacific region, including Australia, become more complex and interrelated.

Professor Campbell has played influential roles in sustainable agriculture and natural resource management in Australia for over 30 years, including as the first National Landcare Facilitator and Chief Executive of Land and Water Australia. He farms (from a distance) his property in western Victoria, where his family has been since the 1860s.


Relevant and vital into the future

The ACIAR partnership model is even more relevant and vital today than it was in 1982.

The ACIAR mission is pertinent to 12 of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, and increasingly important for regional and national security. This form of strategic investment from the Official Development Assistance (ODA) budget delivers for partner countries, the wider region and Australia.

The challenges faced by partner countries are in many ways analogous to those facing Australian industries and regions, but more acute, with more severe resource constraints. Australian scientists working on ACIAR projects overseas typically find it to be a career-defining experience, and they often bring new expertise back to Australian industries. There is much to be gained for the Australian agricultural innovation system in working closely with ACIAR to build the capabilities that we need here, as much as overseas.

The ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027 set out an ambitious agenda across three partnership and investment models: bilateral, multilateral and co-investment. It consolidated research programs while initiating a new climate change program, and it sharpened the focus on gender equity across the whole portfolio and within ACIAR. It expanded and transformed the network of country and regional offices into more strategic partnership brokering. It overhauled capacity-building programs, introducing several new scholarship and fellowship opportunities including a new leadership program for women, and it substantially boosted outreach, especially online and in partner countries.

The independent mid-term review of the strategy undertaken in 2022 concluded that, notwithstanding the profound disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, the strategy remains fit for purpose. However, the review recommended accelerating elements of the strategy over the next five years. Notably, the expert review panel argued for more ambitious, more transformational research initiatives, and more strategic high-level partnerships with both partner countries and within the Australian Government.

Looking forward, ACIAR is primed and ready to go to a new level in helping to project Australian soft power strategically across the Indo-Pacific region. ACIAR can co-design and broker partnerships in which Australian scientists play leading roles in regional and global collaborations to transform agrifood systems. Australian researchers and postgraduate students should be embedded in such collaborations, building relationships, networks and expertise.

Australian industry partners could also be working closely alongside researchers, as they do in Australia, through complementary Farmer to Farmer (F2F) and Business to Business (B2B) programs. ACIAR-funded research partnerships can be more directly informing wider Australian Government investment – for example the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) programming of development investments through the wider aid program; the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) biosecurity work across the region; and Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water (DCCEEW) partnerships around climate change and water.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade recommended in 1992 that the ACIAR share of the Australian foreign aid budget should grow to 3.5% by 1997 (for several years leading up to 2022 it was around 2%). Given the complexity and urgency of current challenges, such an increase seems modest and sensible. It would enable more ambition and faster progress in implementing the recommendations of the independent mid-term review of the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027, along the lines sketched above.

Reflecting on the last 40 years of ACIAR, and in particular on my seven years as Chief Executive Officer, there have been many lessons learned and much to be celebrated (the raison d’étre for this book). But this is no time for self-congratulation. The need for ACIAR is more acute than ever, and the ACIAR business model needs to continue to adapt, to provide a vital knowledge platform for sustainable development in our region.

We need to be planning for the next 40 years and how best to take ACIAR to new levels of impact.

Given the calibre and commitment of people working within ACIAR and our partner agencies and research institutions, in Australia and overseas, I have every confidence that this mighty little organisation can continue to make a big difference in developing solutions for the biggest problems of our time.

ACIAR 10-year strategy

(left) Mr Don Heatley wears a suite and tie and holds a brochure together with the then Minister for Foreign Affairs the Honourable Julie Bishop. She has blonde hair and long earrings and stands next to Professor Andrew Campbell. He smiles and wears a suit and tie. The ACIAR logo can be seen in the background.

The strategic direction and priorities to implement new areas of research and refine research management were set out in the ACIAR 10-Year Strategy 2018–2027.

The strategy acknowledged that ACIAR was a trusted research broker and hands-on investor in science partnerships between Australia and developing countries in the Indo-Pacific region, and sought to strengthen and build on that established and well-regarded business model.

(left) Professor Andrew Campbell, wears a blue suit and stands next to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Honourable Penny Wong, who is wearing a black suit. They are holding a brochure together. There are trees in the background.

>At the launch of the strategy in 2018, then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Honourable Julie Bishop, said that the strategy ‘reinforces ACIAR’s crucial role in building a scientific platform for tackling some of the biggest issues facing our region. ACIAR’s work over the next 10 years will be vital to improving nutrition and supporting economic growth in many communities throughout our region.’

The strategy provided a clear direction for ACIAR into the future and closely aligned with the key objectives of the Australian Government’s aid policy and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

In January 2022, the Commission for International Agricultural Research initiated a mid-term review of the strategy. Independently chaired by Dr Wendy Craik and supported by six external expert panel members, the review considered written submissions and conducted face-to-face consultations with ACIAR partners and stakeholders.

In June 2022, the panel submitted a report that was congratulatory of ACIAR on the development and implementation of the strategy to date, particularly in the face of the many significant changes in its operating environment since 2018.

The report included 14 recommendations to enhance delivery of the strategy over its second 5-year period, to 2027.

After consideration of the recommendations, the original strategy was updated to reflect new approaches and elements for implementation. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Senator the Honourable Penny Wong, said that the revised strategy was ‘emblematic of the Australian Government’s commitment to building a more stable, prosperous and resilient region’.

A group of people standing in a circle a forested area. They are listening to one man in the group speak.
About 30% of the forested land of the Middle Hills region of Nepal has been handed over to community forest user groups. Starting in 2013, Dr Ian Nuberg of the University of Adelaide led a project (dubbed EnLiFT) that improved management of agroforestry and community forestry systems, for the benefit of livelihoods and food security. The Australian Government has invested in Nepal’s forests since 1966, and continues to do so through ACIAR with the Government of Nepal inviting a second phase of the EnLiFT project. Photo: ACIAR | 2017
Next Acknowledgements