The CSIRO has appointed a new chief executive to guide it through a period when it is under more pressure than ever to help solve Australia’s existential challenges.
Molecular biologist Professor Doug Hilton will start as the head of Australia’s peak science agency at the end of September.
He replaces the outgoing Dr Larry Marshall who has held the position since 2015 and will finish up at the CSIRO on June 30. The agency’s executive director of future industries Kirsten Rose will act in the role up to 28 September.
Hilton is currently the director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research. He also occupies the Lorenzo and Pamela Galli Chair in Medical Biology and is head of the department of medical biology at the University of Melbourne and has previously served as president of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.
His career has been marked by advances in blood science, where his laboratory team identifies genes and molecular pathways involved in blood cell production, as well as disorders like blood cancers and inflammatory diseases.
In a statement, the CSIRO highlighted Hilton’s collaborative work with industry during his 14 years at the WEHI, including venture capitalists and the biopharmaceutical sector. This background would appeal to the agency, which has pursued a science commercialisation agenda in recent years. In August, Marshall confirmed the CSIRO’s Innovation Fund was managing half a billion dollars of start-up investment across Australia’s innovation sector.
“Doug is a much-respected researcher, leader and communicator of the better outcomes science can deliver,” says CSIRO chairperson Kathryn Fagg. “His fourteen years leading WEHI have been exemplified by his passion for research, mentoring and supporting young researchers, building the infrastructure to support the creativity of researchers and a dedication to translating research to improve the lives of Australians.”
CSIRO claims research leadership in a host of areas: nutrition, health, climate change, pandemic response; and AI. It is preparing a report for the government on deep-sea mining.
Nevertheless, science and technology groups around Australia have uniformly welcomed the appointment.
Science & Technology Australia President Professor Mark Hutchinson described Hilton as “an outstanding Australian science leader with an incredible track record of scientific research into blood cell production and how cells communicate with each other.”
“Professor Hilton also has a deep and longstanding commitment to boosting diversity in science and mentoring and supporting the next generation of great Australian scientists. Professor Hilton is a superb appointment for CSIRO. He will bring deep expertise to the role, and set the organisation up strongly for the future,” Hutchinson told Cosmos.
Hilton’s career has seen him appointed as a fellow of many of Australia’s science academies and associations, which welcomed his appointment on Monday.
The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering president Dr Katherine Woodthorpe welcomed Hilton’s appointment, highlighting CSIRO’s leadership position addressing major scientific and societal challenges.
“The future of our nation’s approach to climate change mitigation and adaption, building a STEM workforce for tomorrow, and driving innovation and commercialisation depends on moving from potential to practical solutions – a pathway CSIRO has an established reputation for creating decade after decade,” Woodthorpe told Cosmos.
“Doug and I share a strong commitment to diversity and inclusion in the STEM sector, and I look forward to working with him to help Australians understand and use technology to solve complex problems. Our values and our focus are aligned.”
The Australian Academy of Science, welcomed his appointment at what it described as a “time of great challenge and opportunities” for Australian science.
“With this in mind, we look forward to further strengthening the Academy’s links with CSIRO as it moves forward under the leadership of Prof Hilton,” it said on Twitter.
In a statement, Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences interim president Professor Ingrid Scheffer told Cosmos it looked forward to working with Hilton.
“Professor Hilton is a clinician-scientist known for his leadership and passion for translating research to deliver better health outcomes for all Australians. He has a wealth of experience that he will bring to his new role.”
Professor Alan Cowman, a malaria researcher, will be WEHI’s acting director from the start of September until a replacement is appointed to the institute’s directorship.