CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark.

CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark. Photo: Jamila Toderas

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As the head of Australia's national science agency, Megan Clark oversees some extraordinary researchers, including the likes of John O'Sullivan's team, which brought Wi-Fi technology to the world.

It may explain why the CSIRO chief executive seems somewhat sheepish to have been bestowed the country's top honour: she is now a companion of the Order of Australia.

"Yes, there is a bit of awkwardness there, because many of our teams and scientists deserve this recognition," Dr Clark says.

"I'm not the Nobel prizewinner; I'm not the one who develops the technology.

"I've been lucky enough to work with those people and, if I can help them take those breakthroughs into society in a way that benefits humanity, that's an amazing thing to be part of."

Nonetheless, much of Dr Clark's life has been devoted to the business of science, albeit mostly in the mining industry.

When she was appointed to lead the CSIRO five years ago, she was a vice-president at BHP Billiton, where she was widely admired for combining technical expertise with business savvy (her doctorate was in economic geology).

She is also the organisation's first female chief executive, though this is scarcely mentioned publicly despite the perennial push to entice more women into science.

Dr Clark plays down the importance of this milestone, though it is understood that, during her term at CSIRO headquarters in Canberra, she has quietly encouraged more women to aim for executive roles.

She was a young female geologist when very few women entered the field, and has only praise for how the industry treated her: "I was very lucky to have had some great women pave the way before me."

There was a small "moment of difficulty" early in her career: she was threatened with arrest because she was exploring at a time that mining legislation banned women from working underground.

"That clause was next to the paragraph that said you had to water your horses three time a day," she laughs.

"That particular glitch was a bit confronting but, in terms of the people I worked with, [my mining career] was wonderful.

"It was a very accepting industry. It also had a lot of migrants. If you did your job, you were accepted."

Dr Clark's appointment at the CSIRO, which was extended last year, will expire in December.

She will leave the organisation at a difficult time: the federal government has cut its funding by $111 million over four years; it expects to shed 500 staff; and it is closing research sites across the country, including its world-renowned atmospheric laboratory in Melbourne, which monitors climate change.

Dr Clark has occasionally advised the Business Council of Australia, whose former president, Tony Shepherd, recommended the overhaul of government science funding that is now hitting the CSIRO.

Asked how her agency will cope with this restructure, Dr Clark is circumspect, as senior public servants must be, but offers a warning to all governments.

"Look, CSIRO is here for the long term. And it's very important that we acknowledge our knowledge infrastructure: investment in science and research is as vital to the future of this country as any investment in ports and roads," she says.

"Science is the foundation of our future and it's very important that we remember that."