Engaging Australia's science industry

By Susan Williamson
Thursday, 19 March, 2015

Engaging Australia's science industry

Lab+Life Scientist: What led you to scientific instrumentation as a career?

Ian Gardner: I’d always considered myself a scientist and thought that would be my career path.

I started work as a laboratory assistant in the paint industry back in 1977. After that I moved into a trainee chemist role and did a Bachelor of Applied Science at Monash University (Caulfield Campus) part-time - I’ve been Melbourne-based throughout my career.

As my career progressed I took on technical management roles, coupled with a Graduate Diploma of Business Administration at Swinburne University. I then moved into laboratory management roles.

I was lucky to be trained back in the 1970s and 80s when people were given a broad skill base. Back in those days as a trainee or lab assistant, people were trained in all aspects of the business. I did some work in quality control, went to the factory and saw how things were done there, did time in sales, talked to customers, so I got a very broad training.

These days training has become very focused. People are given a specific role to do; back in those days people were better able to get a real feel for a company.

I ran my own business for a number of years in the specialty chemical formulation and manufacturing area.

I seemed to have a natural ability to turn my skills to managing small offices.

From there I was drawn into sales and marketing in the specialty chemical area - colleagues encouragingly told me I had natural powers of persuasion and would do well - but I left that industry back in 2009. That was when I happened upon a job in the scientific instrument area with John Morris Scientific and from there became regional manager with AVT Services, also in the scientific instrument area, specialising in vacuum-based applications.

LLS: How did you become president of Science Industry Australia?

IG: I started getting involved in industry associations when I worked in the paint industry. The Surface Coatings Association of Australia was the first association I was involved with.

I went up through the ranks of being on various committees - branch, conference and technical education committees. I then became chairman, a member of national committees and then national president in 2003. After that I became immediate past-president, which coincided with me changing industries.

Having joined AVT Services, I became an active member of Science Industry Australia (SIA). I was elected to the board in 2011 and subsequently elected president in January 2014. I am very fortunate that AVT Services sees value in giving back to the industry in which we operate by actively contributing to relevant industry associations and is supportive of the position I have in SIA.

When I joined the board we had a very good president, Glen O’Sullivan, who had been in the position for about four years. He remains an active board member.

People knew of my past experience with industry associations. I’ve been on boards and subcommittees, making submissions to government and conducting those sort of roles since the late 1980s - so it was suggested that I become president of SIA.

LLS: Can you tell us a bit about the recent restructure the SIA has undergone?

IG: It’s a restructure around developing more consultative decision-making - decision-making on behalf of the industry or the association that involves the whole board and subcommittees of the board.

Our aim is to involve a larger cross-section of members, both our corporate members through SIA and our Australasian Laboratory Managers Association (ALMA) members - SIA also administers ALMA.

We’re involving ALMA members a lot more in the decision-making process which, from a board level, we felt wasn’t happening enough in the past.

We have a good cross-section of people on the SIA board who have substantial and relevant experience over what has been a tough period for the industry.

SIA board members have worked through the global financial crisis and we know how hard it is for companies to look at membership of associations and allow people to be involved - the time and cost factors involved can be unappealing. This also goes for attendance at conferences.

We know it is difficult and we know we need to be very focused on providing value for money in what we do. It’s not rocket science. All industry associations are going through this at the moment.

We’ve already begun this with one of our board members, Nigel Simpson, taking on the role of membership engagement. He is getting out there talking to SIA and ALMA members about what they want from the association.

It’s all very well for us to sit around as a board and say what we think members want - but how would we know? So we are going out there and talking face to face with members asking them what services they want provided. We want to add value to being a member of the association.

LLS: How many members does SIA have?

IG: SIA has around 60 members and ALMA has around 100. We’ve got a good spread of people who are, or have been, working in industry or laboratories.

We’ve clearly got to grow our membership base and we are doing that by engaging with members and talking to them about what they want. And we are getting more input and involvement.

We are not averse to anything at the moment - we are very open-minded about what we could do to grow the association.

LLS: How are you involving members in this year’s annual SIA conference?

IG: We have formed a conference committee that meets regularly and we have a program subcommittee in place that includes a range of people including ALMA members and people involved in lab design. We’re putting together what we think is a really good program for this year’s meeting.

I’m already feeling encouraged and buoyed by the difference this more consultative decision-making approach is making.

This year will be our 10th annual lab managers conference and we are pretty excited about it. We are developing a program and seminars that will be of direct interest to people.

LLS: What else is on offer for SIA members?

IG: Something we identified from our 2014 conference that we think will provide value to members is providing information about areas that are of concern to laboratories.

New labelling legislation for GHS hazardous chemicals (the Globally Harmonised System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals), for example, came up at last year’s conference as an area that many people were unaware of.

This new classification and labelling legislation is coming next year and we are putting together a series of one-day roadshow workshops that will be held around Australia throughout 2015.

The new legislation will have an impact on manufacturers, importers, anyone involved in the use of these chemicals - all the way downstream into the actual labs that use them.

We identified that a lot of lab mangers and staff are not aware of the impact this new legislation will have on them, so we are putting together a series of workshops that will bring people up to speed with what is going to happen and how it will impact their laboratory. It’s all about what is required once a hazardous chemical comes into a lab: how it is stored, handled, labelled, disposed of, the hazards involved and so on, as well as communication of the hazard itself.

We anticipate the workshops will attract members and non-members and hopefully, in attending, they will realise the value of being involved in organisations like ALMA and SIA.

Something else we are working on is gaining representation from South Australia and Western Australia on the board. This goes hand in hand with increasing our membership base across these states.

SIA has been inclined to be a bit eastern-seaboard focused - we currently have Sydney-, Melbourne- and Brisbane-based board members and that’s where we rotate our conferences - so we are looking at ways of getting representation from other states.

The roadshow workshops are the first part of this strategy. In fact, the first two locations for the workshops will be Adelaide and Perth. We are hoping this will get the ball rolling in terms of recognition of SIA and ALMA in those states and lead to ongoing activity.

We are also approaching our members about whether they want SIA support, for example, in getting involved in a change to an Australian standard and whether SIA should have a member on a particular standards committee. We want to ensure SIA is involved in matters of genuine concern to the scientific community and industry.

LLS: Is SIA interacting with the government or involved in lobbying for anything at the moment?

IG: At the moment, no.

Representation to government is an area that the SIA board realises it needs to pick up.

This was the reason behind the initial formation of SIA 15 years ago. The government at the time prompted the formation of the association, which involved an action plan for the science industry that was driven by SIA.

Over time, and as a result of changes in government, that action plan has been dropped, but a lot of good information was generated because of it.

Part of our goal in raising the profile of SIA is to increase that component of our activity.

It requires us to look at areas that are relevant, where we can make a difference or have input, and nominate people to sit on the various government subcommittees or legislative committees appropriate to our industry.

My previous involvement with other industry associations involved membership on various government committees, so I am familiar with this type of work.

SIA needs to recognise that government and bureaucrats will look to us as the representative body of the Australian science industry and ask us to become involved in a specific committee or give advice on a change of legislation.

We’re certainly always open to talk to people.

LLS: Does SIA have input into the government’s approach to funding science?

IG: SIA reports to its members on actual research funding. But funding of research is a little bit removed from what we do because we are more focused on the industry side of science and that sits beyond research. But in terms of reporting to our members, we certainly do that.

We produce the Science Industry Digest through which we report on opportunities for, or granting of, funds. It is important to our membership to know where funding has been granted or whether opportunities exist.

We also have the SIA business barometer where we report on industry spending on various categories of scientific instrumentation. We produce that on a quarterly basis.

Obviously it is tough at the moment - funding is tough for everyone.

We would always like to see more government support for research funding. We have some very good research going on here in Australia and obviously we would like to see that continue.

I don’t think science is getting the significance or the support that it needs.

Australia continues to produce high-quality research but when you look at government funding for research in Australia compared to other OECD countries we are a long way down the list. That’s the reality, so as a body SIA aims to do as much as it can in the relevant areas to lobby government to increase that level of funding.

We have a close relationship with the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb. He is our patron and attends SIA functions and addresses discussions with us.

We are very supportive of what he is doing, such as his recommendations for a strategic approach to science.

We understand that science is just one part of an overall budget process, but we certainly are there waving the flag. At the moment we are working hand in hand with the Chief Scientist on this and how SIA can help in terms of new legislation that is coming in.

LLS: Do you think the Australian science industry is in a good position?

IG: In terms of growth, our recent business barometer indicates that things have been fairly stable for the last 12 months - there have been peaks and troughs but overall there is relative stability.

The drop in the dollar has not been that good for the industry because a lot of suppliers import products. From a supplier’s point of view, the battle is trying to maintain the actual supply of product to the customer without imposing the full flow-on of any decrease in the Australian dollar value.

LLS: What about the local science industry, is it receiving enough support?

IG: The local manufacture of scientific products in Australia has declined a lot. There is a little bit going on and those companies maintain membership with SIA, but a large-scale approach to local manufacture has waned in the last 15 or 20 years.

A lot of supply is now reliant on import.

As I mentioned, the formation of SIA was initially based around that, but support for the local manufacture of scientific equipment and that push by the government of the day has been withdrawn. We still see a need for the association and to report on it, but the manufacturing side of the science industry on a large scale has pretty much gone offshore.

The real message we’d like to get out to the research community - local institutions and organisations in particular - is to support local suppliers.

It’s very easy to jump on the web and order something directly from China, the US or Europe, but obviously we, and the government, would like to see support for Australian industry.

Companies that represent overseas suppliers in Australia need support and there are benefits in doing that such as local capability and support being readily available. If you purchase a product on the internet you can run into problems if you need service because it will not be available locally, whereas if you support local suppliers of scientific equipment then that follow-up is at hand.

LLS: What are your plans for the future of the SIA?

IG: It is certainly about membership engagement and involvement.

And we are actively pursuing that. We are throwing our annual conference open to a larger group of people, for example - and already we are starting to see the benefits of that. That diverse input is going to make a big difference to the technical content in our program this year.

Another plan for the future is to grow the association in other areas of Australia - to get more involvement from Western Australia and South Australia. This is both in activities we conduct there, which hopefully will reflect in membership, and involvement on committees and at a board level.

From SIA’s view we try to make sure we are available and that people are aware of us. If a government body says they are looking for support, we want to make sure we are in the right place at the right time so that they are looking to us or advising us.

We have a big database that we’ve built upon over the years, so when someone has a message they want to send to a large group of the sector we are able to spread that message for them - whether they are within universities, research institutions or industry.

We need to increase our profile and be out there to be aware of opportunities where we can put our hand up to represent our industry.

We want to be the body that people turn to to represent them and provide them with support.

We are involved in some government committees.

We’ve got strong links with bureaucrats in Canberra and meet regularly throughout the year; but rather than be involved in one-on-one meetings, I believe we need to be involved in more working parties, for example, on behalf of the industry.

We want to be the voice of industry and provide industry input on those working parties or standards committees or whatever is needed to support the industry.

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