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Slatyer, Ralph Owen (1929–2012)

by Graham Farquhar

Ralph Slatyer, n.d.

Ralph Slatyer, n.d.

ANU Archives, ANUA 225-1148

Professor Ralph Owen Slatyer AC, who died aged 83, will be long remembered not only as one of Australia’s most distinguished scientists but for his commitment to ecologically sustainable utilisation 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 as a founding Professor of Environmental Biology at the Research School of Biological Sciences at the ANU and then as Director of RSBS from 1984 to 1989. He was also Australian Ambassador to UNESCO (1978–81).

Ralph was born in Melbourne and 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. He took a degree in agriculture at the University of Western Australia, graduating BSc 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 World War II, there was strong competition between the ex-servicemen and women and the school leavers. Each group was determined to do well, which promoted 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 recognised 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 MSc(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 DSc(Agric.) by UWA for a thesis entitled ‘Some aspects of plant-soil-water relationships’. His CSIRO job was as an ecoclimatologist, to predict from climate and soil properties whether a particular region had potential for agriculture. His first book, Practical Micro-climatology, was co-authored with I.C. McIlroy in 1961. 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 (1967), a 350- page monograph that 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 the newly established Research School of Biological Sciences at ANU, 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 much 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 to 1981.

His research was recognised 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 a 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 Willandra Lakes Region (including Lake Mungo) were inscribed on the World Heritage list.

In 1978, Prime Minister Malcolm 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 to 1985. He was appointed Chairman of the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) from 1982 to 1988. 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 and 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 1950s, 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 governments have maintained CRCs to this day as testimony to the success of Ralph’s idea and vision. The Cooperative Research Centres Association has established the annual Ralph Slatyer Address in acknowledgement of this legacy and 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 postdocs. 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.

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 leaves a surviving older sister, Lady Jean Brodie- Hall, and a younger brother, Hugh.

* The above draws heavily on an interview of Professor Slatyer by Dr Max Blythe in 1993 for the Australian Academy of Science.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graham Farquhar, 'Slatyer, Ralph Owen (1929–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/slatyer-ralph-owen-32977/text41095, accessed 4 February 2023.

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