Ralph Slatyer died in late July, and I went to a celebration of his life and work yesterday. Older people like me don’t much go to engagement parties or weddings any more; we go to funerals, and there seem to be a lot of them about. If you’re younger you mightn’t know who Ralph Slatyer was.
He was Australia’s first Chief Scientist. He established the Co-operative Research Centres. He was our Ambassador to UNESCO. He was one of the few Australian scientists to have been elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, the Royal Society, and the American National Academy of Sciences. He was a top bloke, interested in society as well as in science, good with people, straightforward, modest, and funny.
I knew him well for a short period – the 1980s – when we were both senior people at the ANU. He was the head of what was then the Research School of Biological Sciences, while I was the Chairman of the Board of the Institute of Advanced Studies. We were both members of a small group, the Heads of Research Schools, whose acronym was HORS. Both of us would grin when someone would ask whether we were going to the HORS meeting. (In similar fashion, when I was working in the Commonwealth, it seemed that I was the only person who found it funny when someone at a meeting would announce himself by saying ‘I’m from DOPIE’ – the then Department of Primary Industry and Energy.)
My job was to try and co-ordinate the ways in which the University’s Research Schools operated, especially in the matter of appointments, indeed in anything to do with staff. In those days, and perhaps even now, the Research Schools tended to behave like independent baronies, wary of the King (the Vice-Chancellor Peter Karmel, another top bloke) to whom I worked. The King would send me out, mostly by myself, but occasionally with a couple of other knights, to try to get them to remember that they were actually part of the same country.
Once I rode out with Peter Doherty (the later Nobel Laureate) and a fine mathematician called Jacob Israelachvili to try to get support for a new way of organising appointments to the Institute. What we were proposing was not wildly popular, and Ralph stood out in our experience as courteous, willing to listen, able to contribute, and supportive of what we were doing.
On another occasion I was given the task of reviewing the performance of each of the Institute’s 280 tenured staff, and discussing with each research school director what might be done in the case of the (relatively small number of) poor performers. Again, Ralph was courteous, helpful and supportive.
We found it easy to talk to one another, and when he asked me if I would enjoy being a member of the Australian Science and Technology Council it was easy to agree. He was an excellent Chairman, courteous, well-prepared, conscious of timing, supportive of his staff and, of course, effective. He reported directly to the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, who had been a schoolmate in Western Australia.
As Peter Karmel’s term as Vice-Chancellor came towards its end I formed the view that I was the right person to be his successor. I had a reform agenda, and bits of it had some support. Ralph was thoughtful, but nodded and said, ‘I’ll support you!’ As it happened, that role was not to be mine. One of life’s ironies is that the jobs you don’t get lead you to other paths and other possibilities. I could not have achieved what I wanted to at the ANU: the timing was wrong, and there would have been too much opposition.
Instead, I was asked to set up and run the new Australian Research Council, and that brought me into close contact with the new Chief Scientist, Ralph Slatyer, who had also moved on from the ANU. He was a natural choice for the role, and he already had a good deal of experience in government. He and I both knew of the Canadian Co-operative Research Centres, and I supported his initiative in establishing the Australian equivalent. I could not persuade him that he should widen the brief to include the social sciences – not that there were any obvious candidates at the time.
I had a second term on ASTEC, but with Ralph’s departure from the chair and his creation of a new source of science advice in his own office, ASTEC’s influence declined. I was asked in due course whether or not I would consider becoming its chair, but decided against it. ASTEC was eventually abolished.
I had become the Vice-Chancellor of the new University of Canberra, the most enjoyable, satisfying and creative job I ever had, and before long Ralph had retired from his Chief Scientist position. We met only occasionally thereafter.
But I remember him with such affection and respect. If only Australia had dozens of him!