Kathryn Adams

For World IP day this year, we are featuring various women who are ‘powering change’ by making valuable contributions to the Intellectual Property and innovation sector.

Some of these women are well known and some operate a little more behind the scenes but their contributions all help to build prosperity. Agricultural scientist and a lawyer Kathryn Adams is one such woman. She was the first Registrar of Plant Breeder's Rights in Australia, which is in itself a valuable contribution to the IP system. She has also held senior positions in a wide range of organisations.

Can you please provide us with a short background of yourself?

After completing my degree at the University of Sydney in Agricultural Science, my first job was as a research microbiologist for the Department of Agriculture, working with the Australian dairy industry. This is where I realised the importance of investing in research that has clear commercial potential and can improve the competitiveness and viability of an industry or an individual business.

I then had a series of other opportunities that eventually led to my venture as Head of Corporate Services (quite a way from being a research microbiologist) at the National Standards Commission. In addition to the normal corporate responsibilities, this job entailed chairing a National Committees of the heads of State Weights and Measures agencies, including developing model legislation. This tweaked my interest in law which ultimately led (after several other opportunities) to me moving to Canberra and becoming the first Australian Registrar of Plant Breeder’s Rights.

Since then, I have continued to hold a wide range of interesting jobs including:

  • General Manager of the Commonwealth Court Reporting Service (Auscript).
  • Managing Director of the newly formed statutory authority, the Energy Research and Development Corporation
  • Establishing the Forest and Wood Products Research and Development Corporation, jointly funded by industry levy and the Commonwealth government to improve the commercial viability of Australia’s forest and wood products sector.
  • Joining the Qld government as the first Director of the newly formed Horticulture Research Institute and from there as Executive Director in the EPA.
  • Becoming a Senior Research Fellow with the Australian Centre for Intellectual Property in Agriculture within Griffith University Law School, PBR Quality Reviewer for IP Australia, and a non-executive director on a number of Cooperative Research Centres, Research and Development Corporations and IP management companies.

The theme of my career had been:

  • seize opportunities when they come
  • look for outcomes that will benefit industry, the economy and the community
  • never say no to any opportunity
  • when you take on a job, give it 150 percent.

Tell us more about what it was like to be the first Registrar of Plant Breeder’s Rights?
This was not a planned move. I had applied for another position and the Chair of that selection committee said that I might be more interested in the Registrar of Plant Variety Rights (as it was then called). I had a background in Agricultural research investment and management as well as currently doing law. Although Plant intellectual property was a new concept to me (and to Australia) the challenge and opportunity of setting the system up from scratch was extremely exciting. I applied and was successful.

The first Act required a species to be prescribed before plant breeders could apply for rights. When I came on board the Act had commenced but no species were prescribed. I chaired the Advisory Committee and we developed a two year plan to gradually prescribe all plant species. We started with landscape, garden and other horticulture species where there was demand from both Australian and overseas breeders (PBR had been available in Europe for over 30 years before Australia had similar legislation and joined the UPOV Convention). The very first varieties to be granted rights were two macadamia varieties from Henry Bell in Queensland. Henry was on my doorstep the day I was appointed to see when he could file his application.

Were there many women in the industry you were working in at the time?
That depends on how you define ‘industry’. There were a number of female scientists and plant breeders, although the numbers were small by today’s standards. I was the Australian delegate to UPOV and I think there were 3-4 women out of the 55 or so delegates (one delegate from each member country).

I am a full believer in appointment on merit. Women also have to want to be involved in these things and social norms often discouraged that desire. The push to greater sharing of household responsibilities and child care arrangements have meant that over the last thirty years more women have become involved in primary industries, particularly in scientific research, intellectual property management and investment in innovation. I urge all women to get out there and have a go. Don’t be bound by convention and choose whether or not to be bound by family norms. Don’t let people tell you can’t, because you can.

World IP Day this year is about women powering change. How do you power change through your career?
I’m not sure I have ever thought about it in those terms. I have always had fairly firm ideas of how I think things should be done and have always put those views forward. I have always believed in the power of the free market and see innovation and research as a means to helping business to be competitive and viable. Intellectual property rights are one tool to encourage investment and provide a return for that investment while making the resultant innovation available to the market.

What got you interested in agricultural microbiology?
I was originally going to do pharmacy but in my last year of High School I became interested in the interconnection of natural systems and so decided to do science. The only fully structured science course that looked at all elements of the ecosystem was agricultural science as you were required to do the full range of subjects, physics, chemistry, maths, statistics, soil science, biology, botany, plant pathology, microbiology, genetics, agronomy, economics etc. In the final year, with 3 years of integrated systems behind you, you could choose one specialty. Microbiology gave the greatest flexibility of career, either staying in agriculture or moving into the medical micro world; being based in the country or the city or even overseas. The microbial world is a complete system in itself and incredibly efficient.

Is the protection of intellectual property important to scientists? Should it be?

It is not to many and it should be.
It is not a key component of undergraduate science programs or most post graduate programs. Many scientists are not interested in looking at science and innovation as an investment that requires a return and IP rights are one tool to help get that return. Other scientists see obtaining a patent or other IP right as a means to get recognition. They have no intention of exploiting the invention. To me the real value is to undertake research to develop the new knowledge or solve a problem and then look for the most effective pathway to get that into use for a practical outcome. Many scientists lose interest once the technical issues have been resolved and so much new knowledge remains unexploited.

Did you have any role models while you were growing up?
My mother was a real role model. She wanted to go to university in 1930 (and she gained entry) but her mother got sick and my mother had to stay home. I was always brought up with the mind-set that I should go to university and have a science based career, even though my parents struggled financially. When I was in my final year at High School, Macquarie University was just starting and my mother got mature age entry in her late fifties. She graduated and got a scholarship to do graduate studies as a librarian then got a job at age 60 with NSW State library and then with Macquarie University library.

The other role models I had were some key teachers and the Headmistress at Cheltenham Girls’ High School who believed that girls could do anything and should.

What advice do you have for other innovative scientists, particularly females starting out in the STEM careers?

  • Try and do a structured university course that leads to a profession or choose subjects that give you an understanding of complete systems.
  • Don’t just do subjects because they are easy.
  • Don’t consider your first qualification to be your last. Keep moving forward and learning new things.
  • Don’t think of your first job as your last. Move around and grab any opportunity.
  • Don’t be afraid to try something new – often people are looking to employ people who are not carrying preconceived ideas.
  • Just reach for the sky and have a go and if you get knocked back, reassess and have another go, perhaps in a different direction.
Published: 
26 April 2018