Scientist aims to grow research

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David McNeil in a trial plot of plantago at Frank Wise Research Institute in Kununurra.
Camera IconDavid McNeil in a trial plot of plantago at Frank Wise Research Institute in Kununurra. Credit: Cally Dupe

The State Government’s spruiked rebuild of the super agency consisting of agriculture, fisheries and regional development has started in the far north of WA, with the hiring of a new scientist to lead tropical cropping research.

David McNeil started work at Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development this month as the irrigated cropping principal research scientist.

From his base at DPIRD’s Frank Wise Research Institute in Kununurra, Professor McNeil will lead a team of five researchers furthering current work with food and fibre crops, and examining opportunities for new crops in the Kimberley.

He joins a team of nine irrigated agriculture research and development staff at the facility, but DPIRD has unveiled plans to recruit an experienced entomologist to focus on crop protection.

His three-year contract will see him work 0.7, with about three-quarters of his work done during the north’s dry season.

It was a homecoming of sorts for Dr McNeil, who spent three years working at the facility when it was called Kimberley Research Station in the early 1980s, when his work focused on pulse crops and new crops, including the grain-producing herb plantago.

That same crop is being trialled again at the centre, as well as a plethora of others including new quinoa and corn varieties, mung beans, soybeans, hemp, chia, sorghum, maize and genetically modified cotton and safflower.

Dr McNeil will work closely with local growers and industry, while also building collaborations with the public and private sector research community, including universities, Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia and the Northern Australia Crop Research Alliance.

“My main goal is to develop and lead the team and link our work to larger audience of scientific organisations, and then take that science and link it to the growers,” he said. “One of the things I am really keen to do is to really get staff to think about the science in their projects, and to develop outcomes that are globally competitive.

“We want this centre to be a tropical research station on par with any other one in the world.”

Dr McNeil is one of the first new senior appointments made through the McGowan Government’s spruiked rebuild of DPIRD.

The $131.5 million cash boost for DPIRD — which the WA Government says will reverse a planned $40 million in cuts and maintain a staffing level of 1580 full-time employees — formed the agricultural centrepiece of the 2019–20 State Budget.

Dr McNeil welcomed the “rebuild phase”, saying it was exciting for the researchers and growers at the centre.

“It is always nice to be art of an expansion rather than a contraction,” he said.

“We are rebuilding and bringing in new scientists, we are going to bring in more new young scientists and working with them, more postgraduate students to work with the universities, we have several universities coming in to work with us, so we want them to bring their students in here.”

WA Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said Professor McNeil would play an “instrumental role” in “leading the department’s efforts to take irrigated agriculture in the Ord River Irrigation area to the next level”.

“Dr McNeil and his team will work closely with industry, governments and researchers to ensure there is strong science behind new crop opportunities to advance globally competitive irrigated agricultural production in the region,” she said.

“The department is recruiting new scientists to its experienced team of researchers at Kununurra.

“We look forward to new, exciting advancements in tropical agriculture in the Ord as it expands, which will generate diversity, jobs and growth in the Kimberley.”

Ord farmer David Menzel, who is also the Shire of Wyndham East Kimberley president, said the Frank Wise Research Institute was uniquely placed to be a hub of tropical agriculture.

“It is fantastic news that the Minster has seen fit to employ someone of that calibre to lead a resurgence in the capacity of the Frank Wise Research Institute,” he said.

“I think an increase of capacity at the centre will give it the ability to take on the role it is uniquely placed to achieve, which is to become a lead in tropical agriculture research.

“We know that there is a demand from around the world to get work done in this geographic zone, so we are looking forward to seeing the results.”

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