Professor Judith Whitworth is a world-recognised leader in medical research policy. She is also a manager who understands that hard decisions need to be made. Deborah Tarrant discusses leadership with one of Australia’s top medical scientists.
When facing one of the most difficult situations in her distinguished scientific career Professor Judith Whitworth recalled some advice gleaned from reading Machiavelli’s The Prince: If you have to take tough action, do it upfront. After that, everything gets better.
It was a piece of salutary intelligence. At the time Whitworth realised she needed to put the wisdom of the 16th century political writer to the test, she was finishing off as the Commonwealth’s Chief Medical Officer. She had accepted the director’s role at Canberra’s John Curtin School of Medical Research, an internationally recognised institution that has produced two Nobel prize winners.
“I received a call from the school’s interim director to say there was bad news about the budget, that the school was substantially in debt, the debt was increasing, and the financial position was terrible,” she says, matter-of-factly.
It was not an auspicious start for an eminent scientist who had been honoured to be asked to head the world-class research body, but Whitworth was ready for the challenge. It called for hard decisions: a complete review of the school that resulted in cutting operations by about 25 per cent. “It was pretty painful,” she recalls. “But if you’ve got to do the hard stuff, you’ve got to do it – it’s part of the job.”
Whitworth can now speak with the benefit of having proved Machiavelli correct. “I went in and put in the changes that needed to be made. Now the pain is over and people are much better resourced than they were.”
Apart from making the necessary cuts, Whitworth revamped the school’s equipment, improved funding by gaining access to the national Competitive Grants Scheme, and made plans for a new building, now under construction, to provide facilities to match the stellar efforts of the scientists who work there.
On accepting the role, she had also suggested creating a separate undergraduate medical school at the Australian National University (ANU) where the John Curtin School of Medical Research is based. The ANU Medical School is now up and running.
Judith Whitworth, AC, DSc, MD, PhD, BS (Melb), FRACP is a world-recognised leader in medical research policy. She sits on the World Health Organisation (WHO) Global Advisory Committee on Health Research and co-chairs the WHO Guidelines Committee on Hypertension, her area of specialisation. Prior to her role in the mid-90s as the nation’s top medical officer within the Department of Health, her achievements in Australia have included chairing the Medical Research Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council and holding the position of Professor of Medicine at St George Hospital, University of NSW. She is also a board member of ANUTech, the company set up to commercialise ANU’s scientific endeavours.
For all her esteemed credentials, perhaps Whitworth’s most publicly controversial act was in 1999 as the member of the Vos Committee on taxation who determined that tampons should be subject to GST.
With management experience encompassing academic departments, major government committees, the bureaucracy, and now a big research school, Whitworth has an extraordinary perspective and strong views on what makes organisations thrive.
“When I was a Professor of Medicine, I started out thinking the key was in recruiting good people, and at the end I thought it was the only thing. If you get good people everything else falls into place. It’s absolutely crucial,” she insists.
This recruiting rule is particularly pertinent with academics, Whitworth points out, “as there are no second prizes in medical research”.
Bureaucratic and academic management are chalk and cheese, she notes. Bureaucracies where senior people call the shots, are much easier. “Leadership and management in the academic context is more challenging. Academics like to express their views on how things should happen – they feel they have a right to say – and there is potential for tension when it slips from matters which are rightly the province of the academic,” she says.
Not that she is critical of academics for their rigour. In the course of an interview, it quickly becomes apparent that her passion lies with those who are pushing back the frontiers of medical research. “You don’t select researchers to be good corporate citizens, you select them to be bright, creative and original . . . A lot of researchers are very intense. It’s what makes them successful – so I don’t select people to be malleable.”
At the school, where she oversees 350 people – including scientific, technical and administrative staff, academics, doctoral students and a summer program of students from Australia and New Zealand – the frontiers of medical science definitely are moving. In varying stages of progress are: successful clinical trials of an anti-cancer drug and an HIV vaccine; work on the immune system’s memory and how nerves transmit messages; along with the establishment of a phenome research facility, an international resource, on how genes function . . . Whitworth’s own lab works on the causes of high blood pressure, the world’s number one risk factor for death.
Much of her management expertise has been learned from experience, with her early medical training providing a sound basis. “Doctors are used to making immediate decisions based on the best available evidence. The decisions might not always be right but they can’t equivocate. They pursue a course of action and modify it depending on new information.”
As director, she is focused on leadership, leaving much of the school’s day-to-day running to managers covering off business, human resources, general services and animal services. “My job is to provide the right environment so a whole lot of great people can get on and do research, plus train the next generation of researchers.” Individual leaders take responsibility for the academic divisions of neuroscience, immunology and genetics, and molecular bioscience, leaving Whitworth to deal with over-arching concerns and direction of the school.
One of the immutable issues is “chronic under-investment” in medical research in Australia: “not so much to do with government investment, which is reasonable by OECD standards, but because the philanthropic sector here is small and business research and development is vanishingly small in relation to comparator countries”. This is an irony as Australia is undoubtedly a world leader in scientific discovery, she says. We are 0.3 per cent of the world’s population but we publish 2.8 per cent of the world’s scientific papers, and we make a proportionate number of significant findings.
Shortage of funds is all-pervasive, impacting on Whitworth’s recent efforts to upgrade the school’s 50-year-old building. A combination of Federal and ACT government assistance and loans to the university has now raised $34 million to build Stage One, leaving the $90 million required for Stage Two hanging in the balance.
Of course, the funding limitations were most critical when she arrived at the school to face the financial crunch. Managing that situation demanded immediate decisive action. Her first step was seconding an assistant secretary from the Department of Health to review the efficiency of all operations. The result was a restructure of administration and the outsourcing of some services. At the same time she set up an independent review of scientific group leaders, but after union objections Whitworth conducted a voluntary review, ranking people and funding until the money ran out. “We lost a lot of excellent people, but they were under-resourced and you can’t do cutting edge science like that,” she explains.
(Numbers have built again as researchers have returned to the school bringing their own salaries in the form of grants.)
This may have been a watershed for the school, but Whitworth says her task of convincing staff and researchers to embrace the necessary changes was made easier, because “in general people recognised that [the changes] were designed to help them and their science”. She draws on another Machiavellian truism: “In times of change, you’ll have lukewarm support from those who will benefit and violent opposition from those who won’t.”
It was Whitworth’s personal style of leadership – which she describes as “straight forward” – along with the respect she commands as a scientist, that allowed her to triumph in a difficult period. Core values for all managers, she believes, are integrity and honesty, “without these you have nothing”.
“There are people who would tell you I am tough because I am willing to make hard decisions – but that doesn’t make being tough any easier,” she admits, insisting that most vital to any leader is a sounding board.
“You need at least one person you can talk to who is interested and understands what you do too because it is lonely at the top.” Other essentials to strong leadership she believes, are:
- a clear idea of where the organisation needs to go and how to get there;
- a commitment from staff as to what the goals are; and
- a buy in from staff on how to achieve those goals.
“It’s important that people have an opportunity to input decisions; not as window-dressing, but because, quite often, you get a really useful idea,” she says. Staff development is also a keen focus. “We make our annual performance reviews into career development sessions exploring courses that would help with new skills, discussing goals and determining where individuals see themselves going. People need to feel good about where they work.”
While the school offers a unique working environment, within an iconic institution, pride in being part of a top-class organisation only goes so far. “The day-to-day also needs to be right. People are more likely to be thinking about the immediate, rather than 50 years of scientific history,” she says.
Important to this is celebrating successes. What keeps staff happy at the John Curtin School of Medical Research is discovery – scientific breakthroughs and having papers published in important scientific journals. The successes are publicised in bulletin boards, while major breakthroughs are unquestionably cause for a party.
Deborah Tarrant is a Sydney-based business writer.
An eminent career
Professor Judith Whitworth was born in 1944 in Melbourne, Australia. Commencing her career as a Resident Medical Officer and Registrar at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in 1968, Prof Whitworth graduated from the University of Melbourne with a Doctor of Medicine in 1974, a PhD in 1978, and a Doctor of Science in 1992.
Whitworth has practiced medicine and research extensively in Australia and overseas. She chaired the Medical Research Committee of the National Health and Medical Research Council and is a past-President of the Australian Society for Medical Research, and the High Blood Pressure Research Council of Australia.
Among Whitworth’s previous appointments; she has held the position of Australia’s Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Health and Family Services, and Professor of Medicine at St George Hospital, University of New South Wales. Whitworth is the Director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research and Howard Florey Professor of Medical Research at the Australian National University in Canberra and heads the High Blood Pressure Research Unit.
As well as an Ambassador for Canberra and an Ambassador for women, she is co-Chair of the World Health Organisation/International Society of Hypertension Committee (WHO/ISH) Guidelines for Management of Hypertension and a member of WHO’s Global Advisory Committee on Health Research.
Whitworth is a Fellow of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. She was made a Companion in the Order of Australia in 2001 for service to the advancement of academic medicine and as a major contributor to research policy and medical research administration in Australia and internationally. She was named 2002 Telstra ACT Business Woman of the Year.
John Curtin School of Medical Research
Professor Judith Whitworth has a twin career in both medical research and medical research administration. Her particular research interest is mechanisms of high blood pressure. Prof Whitworth was invited to become Director of the John Curtin School of Medical Research (JCSMR) in 1999.
“I was always interested in the politics of funding for medical research. I have spent many years lobbying for promotion and funding for medical research. The experience is certainly proving valuable as Director.
“The JCSMR has an incredibly talented and hard working group of scientists and students and I’m enjoying my role here creating an environment where their research will flourish. The current climate is wonderful for research collaboration.”
It’s in the timing
Internal communications is a delicate balancing act, according to Professor Judith Whitworth. It’s a matter of weighing up people’s need to know what’s happening within the organisation, without giving them information overload. “Communication is one of the hardest things to get right,” she says. “You get caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. We’ve tried being very open, sending everyone the minutes of meetings to let them know what’s happening. Being a university, people complained they were getting too many emails and they didn’t want them.”
It’s not just the right amount of information that’s hard to gauge, but the timing. Whitworth admits she’s yet to find the answer to one of the most pressing communications questions: “When something is changing, at what point do you communicate it to staff?”.