Hoj takes charge in Australia

New ARC chief hopes to bring country's R and D into the 21st century

Aug 18, 2004
Ray Welling(raywel@hotmail.com)

With low business research and development (R&D) dragging Australia's overall research expenditure below the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) average, the Australian government has picked someone whose career has straddled both pure and applied research to head the Australian Research Council (ARC) for the next 5 years.

Peter Hoj, most recently the managing director of the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI), will take office in October. Hoj's responsibilities will increase from an AUD $9 million (USD $6.4 million) budget at the AWRI to a council that distributes more than AUD $400 million (USD $286 million) in competitive grants each year, rising to AUD $550 million in 2005–2006.

Hoj, 47, studied plant biochemistry and chemistry and earned his PhD in genetics and photosynthesis at the University of Copenhagen. He worked as a research scientist in Denmark and Australia on his way to becoming Foundation Professor of Viticultural Science at the University of Adelaide, publishing more than 80 research papers along the way.

But his most recent role at AWRI, held since 1997, has had a strong commercial focus. Hoj told The Scientist that the AWRI has "no recurrent funding and an owner—the Australian wine industry—that demands a return on their investment in the form of applicable outcomes."

Hoj said his tenure at the AWRI taught him "to set priorities and make tough decisions about the investment of limited funds across a range of projects" and prepared him for "dealing with demanding stakeholders and managing a group of talented individuals—such as those I shall work with at the ARC."

In announcing the appointment in June, Australian Science Minister Brendan Nelson said Hoj was "an exceptional candidate" who brings "considerable experience in contemporary management and strong strategic leadership." Andrew Pettigrew, the chief executive officer of the National Health and Medical Research Council—which receives the lion's share of ARC funding—said he was looking forward to working with Hoj and "continuing our good working relationship with the ARC."

"Given we have a relatively modest amount of money to distribute, we need to be prepared to make hard decisions," Hoj told the Australian Financial Review following his appointment. "A lot of people claim to be good researchers, but we need to look hard at whether we are in fact duplicating research effort."

Hoj told The Scientist that Australia needs more "out-of-the-box" thinking to further its research efforts. "While many innovations are dependent on continuous improvements of existing processes, there is ample evidence that the most profound benefits society experiences result from truly transforming step changes and new insights and a drive to do things in entirely new ways," he said.

"The electric globe did not arise from continuous improvements to candlelight design, and the microwave oven was not invented because consumers were dissatisfied with their stoves," Hoj said. "It was an entirely new way of thinking outside the square that gave rise to a transforming step change."

"The causal link between investment in R&D in its broadest sense and enhanced societal prosperity is not universally recognized in the broader community and certain sectors of our business community. It is my sincere hope that I can enhance the public understanding of this link and gain increased investment into this fundamental cornerstone of economic growth and sustainability," Hoj said.

Hoj's predecessor at the ARC, Vicki Sara, told The Scientist in May that there is unease in the Australian research community about a perceived push toward short-term commercialism. Hoj agreed. "While I think it would be very unfortunate to reduce our investment in discovery-type R&D, I think it is fully justified to seek ways to better bridge the gap between the science/research and its application," he said. "It is a matter for all researchers to ensure that the gap is bridged and that disciplines interact to perform cross-cutting research."

Hoj said the biggest problem facing Australian research today was the low business expenditure on R&D. He said the government was already taking steps to address the problem, such as the Backing Australia's Ability initiatives. But, he said, "until such a time that our gross expenditure on R&D compares well with that of other advanced OECD nations, business must work tirelessly to address this imbalance in partnership with government, R&D communities, and the public."