An organisation is only as successful as its staff, and ACIAR has had highly skilled, committed and effective people from the beginning.
Hundreds of people have worked for ACIAR in its 40 years. A common thread of the stories of ACIAR employees is the pride that people feel to be associated with ACIAR. Many say that they have benefited and grown – both professionally and personally. When all is said and done,
ACIAR is its people.
The people leading ACIAR have provided a stable foundation for the work of the organisation throughout its 40-year history, with only six people holding the role of Director or Chief Executive Officer since 1982. This is testament to the passion and commitment of these people, as well as to the judicious process of selection, which culminates in an appointment to the position by Australia’s Governor-General.
Professor Gabrielle Persley AM, who was the first appointed staff member in 1982, described all ACIAR Directors and Chief Executive Officers as having ‘a strong commitment to improving the livelihoods of rural communities in the developing world’.
‘They came 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.
‘Each has brought a different style of leadership 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, 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.’
ACIAR Directors and Chief Executive Officers since 1982
- Professor Jim McWilliam
- Dr George Rothschild
- Dr Bob Clements
- Mr Peter Core
Chief Executive Officer 2007–2009
- Dr Nick Austin
Chief Executive Officer 2009–2016
- Professor Andrew Campbell
Chief Executive Officer 2016–2023
Developing and guiding the research portfolio
Research Program Managers with scientific expertise and rich knowledge about international agriculture are a defining feature of ACIAR. They drive the processes of determining where to invest and identify the best partners and programs for impact.
Professor Gabrielle Persley (Dr Persley in those days) was appointed as Science Adviser for ACIAR in 1982. Her directive was to develop the science strategy and initiate the first portfolio of collaborative projects, across the range of research programs. Soon after, she was appointed Coordinator for the new Crop Sciences Program.
‘When ACIAR was established, it was envisaged that the scientific staff would be experienced research scientists coming from Australian research organisations or international agricultural research centres,’ said Professor Persley.
‘In similar international aid organisations in other countries, administrative and managerial staff fill these roles. For ACIAR, the founders believed having respected senior scientists leading research programs would be key to its success. The program managers would work with science partners to formulate project ideas and then support compelling cases to get approval for funding. The program managers would also oversee implementation of the successful projects.
‘It was considered desirable that the senior research staff leading the research programs would join ACIAR for up to seven 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.’
In fact, the model has worked so well that it has fundamentally remained the same since 1982. While the topic or focus of research programs has evolved, the core role of the Research Program Manager remains in place and at the heart of ACIAR operations.
Forty years later, the ACIAR Research Program Managers remain the technical interface between ACIAR and the Australian and international agricultural innovation systems. As the nature of projects has evolved and the research programs diversified, so has the skillset that ACIAR looks for in a Research Program Manager.
ACIAR Chief Scientist (2017–current), Dr Daniel Walker, observed that the success and flexibility of the system of Research Program Managers leading and brokering research partnerships is attracting a new generation of people to the role.
‘Initially, most ACIAR projects focused on providing a technical solution to a technically defined problem but there was also an economic and social overlay applied to project design, to ensure solutions were feasible for smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters,’ said Dr Walker.
‘Over 40 years, science has changed, development requirements have changed and ACIAR has changed. Now we find projects are increasingly multi-faceted, incorporating social, environmental and value chain dimensions in ways they did not in the past.
‘What we expect of Research Program Managers gets broader all the time. Technical expertise is still fundamental, but our requirements are increasingly diverse. This includes people with knowledge of markets and value chains, agribusiness, gender, different cultural and political perspectives, and evaluation of impact – and those who can tackle the cross-sectoral picture that may illuminate opportunities to partner in new ways to increase impact.’
Critical to the success of the research program has been a small army of Program Support Officers who work with the Research Program Managers to manage the administration and compliance of active projects, as well as the processes associated with projects in development and completed projects.
Many paths to a Research Program Manager role
Dr Anna Okello joined ACIAR in 2017 as Associate Research Program Manager for One Health and then became Research Program Manager for Livestock Systems (2018–current). As a qualified veterinarian and armed with a PhD in political science from the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for African Studies, Anna has spent most of her career working in international livestock development and public health programs in Africa and South-East Asia. She has worked in various project management and technical advisory roles for international non-government organisations, the University of Edinburgh, the Australian Centre for Disease Preparedness, the World Health Organization and the Australian Government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry.
Her interdisciplinary background is invaluable in her role as Research Program Manager, not only to give her perspective in terms of making positive and lasting change for smallholder farmers and their production systems, but also to facilitate change that may not sit comfortably with global views of agriculture.
‘An excellent case in point is raising awareness of the vital role of livestock to the health, nutrition and incomes of the world’s poor, which is often ignored or omitted from current global narratives about the impact of the livestock sector on the environment or human health,’ explained Dr Okello.
‘Blanket narratives overlook the significant opportunities that smallholder and pastoralist livestock keepers have to improve human health and nutrition in their communities through better quality and safety of animal-source foods. Good governance of smallholder livestock sectors that promotes the social, economic and nutritional benefits of livestock keeping, while minimising environmental, welfare and public health impacts of livestock intensification, is an important balancing act.’
Managing partnerships beyond the life of projects
A successful and credible international program needs strong connections and relationships with in-country partners and good local intelligence of on-the-ground issues. Recognising this, the founders of ACIAR quickly established cooperative working relationships with Australia’s overseas diplomatic missions. In the early years of ACIAR, the advisory and project facilitation contributions made by development assistance specialists at Australia’s embassies and high commissions were particularly important to ACIAR operations.
As ACIAR consolidated its research program throughout the Indo-Pacific region, a dedicated in-country liaison officer role was established. The liaison officer provided direct assistance to local research institutions in the development, establishment and administration of collaborative projects. Liaison officers also provided an important link between ACIAR staff in Canberra and in-country partners by identifying research contacts, assisting with the organisation of itineraries and providing early warnings on coordination and administrative problems. In 1986, ACIAR had liaison officers established in Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia.
In 1991, the position of in-country representatives changed to Country Manager, reflecting the increasingly executive nature of the role with the country and region.
‘Managing country partnerships beyond the timespan of individual projects and through political cycles is a core strength of ACIAR, and this is widely recognised by global development agencies and appreciated by partner countries,’ said Dr Peter Horne, who was ACIAR General Manager, Country Partnerships from 2014 to 2023, and previously Research Program Manager for Livestock Production Systems from 2009 to 2013.
‘The capacity of our in-country staff has developed incredibly since 1982. In that time their role has changed from providing administrative support in the partner country to increasingly becoming experienced stakeholder relationship managers.
‘Some of the most enduring ACIAR country partnerships are evolving rapidly towards co-investment partnerships for international research collaboration for mutual benefit. The frontline people of ACIAR, the in-country teams who are collectively known as the Country Network, have responded to these changes by steering many of our partnerships away from being based just on lists of project priorities and towards partnering agreements based on “how” and “why” we work together. This maturing of relationships is an essential foundation for ACIAR in the next decades.’
The transition of the network into its current form has been part of a 10-year plan, put in place after an external review of ACIAR in 2013, which included a recommendation that ACIAR ‘examine the role of country managers with a view to making enhanced use of their in-country knowledge and experience’.
In 2018, the Country Network further extended its role to realise the vision of Country Offices becoming fully resourced, proactive and experienced knowledge and information brokers for ACIAR. Regional and Country Managers were given training in leadership, partnership and knowledge brokering, and how to link research to policy.
‘In addition, ACIAR has made “huge strides” in cross-mentoring between countries, rising to the challenges of working across cultures, institutions and disciplines. A decade ago, researchers in Australia were mostly mentoring researchers in partner countries, but now researchers in Kenya are mentoring counterparts in Laos, Lao researchers are mentoring those in Vietnam, and more. The Country Network is critical in identifying the opportunities and linkages for cross-mentoring between researchers in our partner countries.’
Growing in her role at ACIAR
Ms Mirah Nuryati was appointed as an administration officer to the ACIAR office in Jakarta, Indonesia in 1991. Her story reflects how, as time went on, partner countries increasingly developed their agricultural science capacity and as a result the nature of their relationship with ACIAR changed. Since Ms Nuryati’s appointment, her role and duties have shifted, with the most significant change coming after the 2013 external review of ACIAR.
‘When I started working for ACIAR I had no scientific background, just secretarial and administrative skills,’ said Ms Nuryati.
‘In the 1990s, our role was to offer administrative support, coordinate meetings and act as a travel agent for Australian researchers visiting or working in Indonesia.
‘With increasing recognition of the value of national staff – including their local relationships, cultural knowledge and interest and capacity to stay with ACIAR for the longer term – the organisation changed its approach.’
After eight years as Assistant Country Manager and five years as the Stakeholder Relationship Manager, Ms Nuryati was appointed as the Country Manager for Indonesia in 2015. Ms Nuryati is the longest-serving ACIAR staff member – in 2022 she had been with ACIAR for 31 years.
In her role as Country Manager, Ms Nuryati provides critical and strategic in-country knowledge, and maintains a network of local connections that help ACIAR operate and increase its impact.
Ms Nuryati was awarded the Australian Public Service Medal in 2007 for outstanding service in the development of collaborative agricultural research projects between Australia and Indonesia.
Mirah was honoured for being an excellent ambassador for the Australia–Indonesia collaboration in agricultural research for development, promoting and representing ACIAR and the Australian agricultural research fraternity throughout Indonesia.
Supporting the functions of ACIAR
Working alongside the people who ensure ACIAR fulfills its mandated purpose of research, capacity building and communication is corporate services – the backbone of the agency, providing financial, procurement, human resources, and information and communication technology (ICT) support.
For the first few years of operation, ACIAR staff comprised a Director, a group of scientific professionals, a centre secretary, and a small management group. Administrative support for this staff was provided by the Department of Foreign Affairs through the Australian International Development Assistance Bureau (AIDAB), and consultants were engaged as required.
During the 1986–87 financial year, ACIAR undertook a review of its corporate services to address the increasing workload as commissioned projects approached 100 in number, financial constraints resulting from an unexpected 21% reduction of appropriated funds, and new responsibilities when AIDAB handed over accounting functions to ACIAR.
The review supported the introduction of corporate planning and program budgeting processes and resulted in the acquisition of an integrated mini-computer system to support administrative processes and link ACIAR to major international agricultural research and development centres through electronic mail.
In the following decades, there was ongoing consolidation of a corporate services team as project investments grew and staff numbers increased, as well as a growing need for processes to oversee expenditure of government money and ensure compliance with the legislation and rules under which ACIAR operated.
In her time with ACIAR, as Director of Finance (2017–2018) and Chief Finance Officer (2018–current), Ms Audrey Gormley has been part of intensive efforts to ensure ACIAR is compliant with all the legislation and rules that government agencies have to comply with.
‘There has been a lot of change in both the software programs and government regulations for the way we do our accounting and budgeting. There was a time at ACIAR when budgets for the research program were finalised using printouts of Excel spreadsheets joined together with sticky tape!
‘While that may have worked fine a decade or two ago, government agencies are now far more accountable to the taxpayer, and rightly so! Our financial systems have to be efficient and responsive, and ACIAR has invested in and developed systems to support our operations, as well as our accountability for taxpayers’ dollars.’
Another significant change that Ms Gormley has seen in her time at ACIAR is the development of information and communication technology.
‘While there have been information management systems in place since the late 1980s, the importance and value of these systems, to any business, is now critical. We now have a Chief Information Officer and a business systems team of six people to ensure that all ACIAR staff have the hardware and software to perform their role, and to ensure our systems comply with best practice and are cybersafe. ICT used to be a team of two people!
‘Communication technology is also an essential part of business in the 21st century. ACIAR was well down the path of investing in the latest technologies to enhance communication between the Canberra office and people working remotely – especially our Country Network located in 11 offices throughout the Indo-Pacific region. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020, we were very quickly able to move staff to working from home, and conduct meetings and workshops over video.’
Corporate and administrative support often goes unnoticed, which Ms Gormley believes is the sign of a good operation.
‘Ensuring staff are paid every fortnight and projects receive timely payments may seem like a simple action. But for those things to happen correctly and happen on time, it takes a well-resourced and seamlessly operating financial system. And these are the same systems that we depend on to report to the Minister and the public about how we spend taxpayers’ money.’
Many of the people who have worked for ACIAR over four decades are quick to acknowledge the commitment and professionalism of their colleagues in administrative roles in the agency, as well as their contribution to the diverse personalities of the ACIAR family.
Forging a non-science career at ACIAR
Ms Helen Laughlin has been with ACIAR for more than half of its history. The first observation she makes about ACIAR is that while many people have moved on to other agencies and organisations to advance their careers, nearly all of them say ACIAR was the best place they have worked.
‘ACIAR is an organisation where people feel strongly about the work that we do and that creates an immediate sense of connection. There has been a lot of hard work done, but ACIAR has had a strong sense of family and fun, as well. You know you are working in a special place when people bring their dogs, rabbits, mice and
lambs to work!’
Ms Laughlin worked as a Program Support Officer (PSO) across several research programs including Land and Water Resources, Soil Management and Crop Nutrition, Forestry and Crops, before starting a new journey into corporate functions.
‘I was one of a very small group of people at the time who didn’t have a science background. But within ACIAR I found a career path to pursue my professional interests in records management and IT support. That started with moving from the Research Program to Corporate Services to work on records management.
‘Up until the early 2000s, records management was a wall of filing cabinets full of paper. With the introduction of Meridio, a computer-based records management system, a new filing system had to be designed and staff had to be trained in using the system. I became very involved in that process, including digitising 350 boxes of records, from paper to CDs [compact discs] and then into Meridio.’
With a keen interest and natural affinity for new technology, her enthusiasm led to the creation of a regular newsletter called ‘Tips and Traps’ to help staff learn the new systems in the 2010s. She then pursued formal training qualifications in order to continue and develop staff training in business system applications. As ACIAR passes its 40th anniversary, Ms Laughlin now working in the Business Support Unit, remains committed to supporting colleagues in their learning and use of software, records management systems and communications technology.
Consolidating reputation and impact in the field
The reputation, value and impact of ACIAR over 40 years has been built, not only by ACIAR staff, but equally by the researchers and technicians on project teams, the emerging scientists on ACIAR fellowships and all the associates of ACIAR who have maintained enduring links with the world of agricultural research for development.
Project teams, especially the partner-country members, have been at the heart of project implementation and management, as well as engagement with local stakeholders – from regional and national governments through to the ultimate ACIAR stakeholders, smallholder farmers, fishers and foresters of the Indo-Pacific region.
Many stories in this book feature the project leader from the commissioned organisation of the ACIAR-supported project.
Along with a commissioned organisation, each ACIAR-supported project has several collaborating partners, most of which are organisations and institutions from the partner country.
The researchers from the partner-country collaborators are the ‘heartbeat’ of every single project. The success and reputation of ACIAR is as much due to these quiet achievers, as it is the commissioned organisation and ACIAR staff.
Working towards equal opportunity and benefit
The success of improving the productivity of agriculture, fisheries and forestry, to reduce poverty and increase opportunity, has always been underpinned by several imperatives – one being equity and inclusiveness.
Over 40 years, ACIAR has continuously refined its project design and implementation to ensure that the benefits of improved productivity are accessible to all who participate in agriculture – after all, almost half of the world’s farmers are women.
Empowerment of women has been intrinsic in some projects and in step with Australian Government foreign policy. For example, in the early 2000s, ACIAR supported a project led by Dr Thelma Paris, a social scientist with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), to collect data and information to assess the impact of off-farm employment on agricultural productivity, farm efficiency, welfare and the role of women at the household, farm and local levels in Thailand, Vietnam and Australia.
In Partners in Research for Development, Winter edition, 2006, Dr Paris concluded that ‘while remittances are useful in helping families left behind, women must maintain productivity levels and deal with increased burdens and responsibilities ... our research provides early warning of rapid changes that may be undermining the national and regional food security that we’ve worked so hard to achieve over the past several decades’.
Motivated by the empirical evidence that women around the world are disproportionately affected by poverty, ACIAR recognised it could not credibly pursue its objectives of food security, poverty reduction, improved human health and nutrition, unless it promoted gender equity internally and externally. The ACIAR Gender Equity Policy and Strategy 2017–2022 was launched to articulate and guide this intent.
The strategy guided ACIAR to make important organisational changes and honed its ambitions to drive change internally and externally through its research, capacity-building and outreach activities. Gender parity was achieved with almost 60% of senior managers being women – in 2022.
The strategy guided improved inclusion of women in research for development leadership, both in Australia and in partner countries. It also underpinned expansion of women’s access to capacity-building programs and fellowships with gender parity set as a requirement in established ACIAR fellowship programs and the establishment of the Meryl Williams Fellowship for women researchers.
Building on the success of the 2017 strategy, ACIAR has strengthened its resolve and increased its ambitions in regard to equity and inclusiveness with the development of a new Strategy and Action Plan to be launched in 2023.