Professor Ralph Slatyer AC, who has died aged 83, will be long remembered not only as one of Australia’s most distinguished scientists but for his commitment to ecologically sustainable utilization of the natural environment and his determination to ensure Australian science should be as good as any in the world. He was also dedicated to the benefits of cooperation and teamwork in research.
Professor Slatyer achieved international recognition initially for his research on the water relations of plants, and on plant succession. He is best known as a leader of Australian science, including as Australia’s first Chief Scientist (1989-92), where he was instrumental in setting up the system of Cooperative Research Centres. He also had a succession of leadership roles at the CSIRO Division of Land Research, where he became a Chief Research Scientist at an extraordinarily young age, and subsequently in 1967 as founding Professor of Environmental Biology at the Research School of Biological Sciences, at the ANU and then as Director of RSBS from 1984-89. He was also Australian Ambassador to UNESCO (1978-81).
Ralph Owen Slatyer was born on 16 April 1929 in Melbourne and died in Canberra on 26 July 2012. He is survived by his wife June, and children Tony, Beth and Judy, Tony’s wife Robyn and their children Tracy, Evan, Rachel and Harry, Judy’s husband Peter Dean, and Beth’s husband Richard Baker and children Eileen and Anne. Ralph has a surviving older sister Lady Jean Brodie-Hall, and a younger brother, Hugh.
Ralph grew up in Western Australia, one of five siblings. His mother gave him a love of nature and fostered curiosity in all things. His father gave him a love of work, and of mastery of detail. Ralph went to Perth Modern School and Wesley College. He was keen on agriculture and engineering. Luckily for science in Australia, agriculture won out. He took a degree in Agriculture at the University of Western Australia, graduating B.Sc. in 1951, and picking up the David Evans Memorial Prize along the way, the first of many honours. He has recalled that at university after the Second World War, there was strong competition between the ex-servicemen and women, and the school leavers, with each group determined to do well, this promoting hard work and success among both groups around the country. It was then that Ralph met his fellow undergraduate, his lifetime love and companion, June Wade, whom he married in 1953.
This was the era of challenge to feed the world, a challenge that is being recognized again today, and as a young scientist, Ralph was keen to understand what role northern Australia could play. He spent his summer vacations on one or other of the CSIRO research stations at Kununurra, Katherine, and Alice Springs. He started working for CSIRO in 1951 and in parallel in 1955 obtained his M.Sc. (Agric.) UWA, with a thesis entitled “Studies in tropical crop production: The Katherine (N.T.) environment and its influences on crops of cotton, peanuts and grain sorghum”. Then in 1960 he was awarded D.Sc. (Agric.) by UWA for a thesis entitled “Some aspects of plant-soil-water relationships”. His CSIRO job was as an eco-climatologist, to predict from climate and soil properties whether a particular region had potential for agriculture. His first book was co-authored with IC McIlroy in 1961 on “Practical Micro-climatology”. In 1963-64 Ralph spent nine months as a visiting Professor at Duke University in the laboratory of Dr P.J. Kramer. He demonstrated from his Australian arid-zone experience that the permanent wilting point was not solely a soil property, as had been widely believed, but depended on the properties of the plants involved. Following this period he wrote “Plant-Water Relationships”, a 350 page monograph, which was published in April 1967, and became a classic. That same year he was elected a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science and in 1968 became a Foundation Professor at ANU’s newly established Research School of Biological Sciences, where he developed the Environmental Biology Group. His own research was centred on the ecophysiological and community levels with fieldwork in alpine and arid ecosystems. He received the Australian Medal of Agricultural Science. In 1969 he visited the Carnegie Institution of Washington at Stanford, to see first-hand the progress being made toward development of crop plants that incorporated the more efficient C4 metabolism. This topic too has recently attracted a lot of attention. Ralph had become interested in moving from the cell and plant to the canopy and more to the ecological community. His RSBS Department of Environmental Biology now combined biochemical, physiological and ecological interests, housed at the time within the Research School of Chemistry.
In 1969, he was elected President of the Ecological Society of Australia and in 1973 became involved in the Intergovernmental Programme on “Man and the Biosphere”, which he chaired from 1977-81.
His research was recognized internationally when he was elected to the Royal Society of London in 1975, and to the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1976.
At the same time, Ralph developed his growing interest in science policy, and in the important role science could play in economic and social development at national and international levels.
He became chairman of the Australian National Commission for UNESCO in 1976. and member of the international Bureau of UNESCO. As Chairman of the World Heritage Committee from 1981, he played a leading role when the Tasmanian Wilderness (including Franklin River), Kakadu National Park, Lord Howe Island Group and Wilandra Lakes Region (including Lake Mungo) were inscribed on the World Heritage list.
In 1978, Prime Minister Fraser appointed Professor Slatyer to be Australia’s Ambassador to UNESCO. He gave the post scientific credibility and demonstrated his personal ability to operate at the highest levels of government and diplomacy.
On his return to Australia and the ANU, Ralph was appointed as Director of RSBS and was now also greatly in demand for high-level scientific roles. He was President of the Scientific Committee on Problems with the Environment (SCOPE) from 1982-85. He was appointed Chairman of the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) from 1982-88. His term with ASTEC saw the emergence of the Australian Research Council and new directions for CSIRO after a review. He also chaired a report into the mining of uranium in Australia. At the ANU, he changed the Departmental system at RSBS for a smaller and more flexible Group structure, introduced an Ecosystem Dynamics Group that was interested in both theoretical and management aspects, and devolved budgets to a degree that had not been seen in the University before. He also retained his interest in real science during this period, by leading a research project on alpine ecology in Kosciusko National Park, which continues to this day.
In 1989 Prime Minister Bob Hawke decided to have a full-time science adviser, a Prime Minister’s Science Council and to establish a Coordination Committee on Science and Technology. He asked Professor Slatyer to do the full time job of Australia’s first Chief Scientist.
This gave him the chance to develop a theme that was dear to his heart, that of co-operative research. He remembered fondly how CSIRO and university staff worked alongside each other in the fifties and so he looked for world’s best practice in collaboration between industry, universities and other research organisations, particularly long-distance collaboration. In 1990 this vision became reality with the funding of a Cooperative Research Centres program, and successive government’s have maintained CRC’s to this day as testament to the success of Ralph’s idea and vision. The Co-operative Research Centre Association has established the annual Ralph Slatyer Address in acknowledgement of this legacy and to his contribution to Australian science.
Ralph Slatyer worked hard for Australia but also enjoyed his family time to the fullest introducing his children to the beauties of the Snowy Mountains and enjoying outdoors pursuits in and around their home in Canberra and their retreat at Guerilla Bay.
In retirement, Ralph kept a close interest in ecosystem science, and was particularly interested in attending scientific talks by students and post-docs. He continued for many years as Chair of the Rainforest Cooperative Research Centre, based in Cairns, and sat on many other boards and also conducted high-level reviews for the government.
That he was able to devote such energy and commitment to his work and family is itself remarkable because of ill health in different phases of his life. Nevertheless, his overall contribution to science and to Australia has been recognised by the Clunies Ross Foundation Lifetime Award and by his appointment as a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1993.
Ralph Slatyer had ideas for developing Australian science, and he brought them to fruition. Australian science thanks him and salutes him.
Note: The above draws heavily on an interview of Professor Slatyer by Dr Max Blythe in 1993 for the Australian Academy of Science.
*Full title: Professor Ralph Slatyer, AC 1993, AO 1992, DSc (WA), Hon DSc (WA, Qld, Duke, Charles Sturt), FRS, FAA, FTSE.