Robert Furbank

Honorary Doctor of Science

Citation delivered by Professor Jenny Beck, Acting Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Medicine and Health at the University of Wollongong on the occasion of the admission of Robert Thomas Furbank as a Doctor of Science (honoris causa) on 27 April 2016.


Vice-Chancellor, I present Bob Furbank.

Today we celebrate the achievements of Professor Bob Furbank, one of Wollongong’s own, who is internationally renowned for his service to innovative sustainable agricultural development and his research in photosynthesis, carbon allocation and transport in crop plants.

The son of a Wollongong steelworker, Bob was the first of his family to complete Year 10 and the first to go to university. His parents’ commitment to providing opportunities for their son, opportunities that they never had, instilled in Bob both drive and determination. Bob attended Tarrawanna Primary School and Corrimal High School, before graduating with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) from the University of Wollongong in 1979. He went on to gain his Doctor of Philosophy in the field of environmental biology from the Australian National University in 1982. Bob credits his UOW mentor, Associate Professor Ross Lilley, for training him to become an experimental scientist and for planting the seeds of his long term interest in plant biology.

Professor Furbank has spent much of his career with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, with one of his most significant achievements being his role in the development and operation of the High Resolution Plant Phenomics Centre. Under his direction this facility has gained international recognition as a leader in the search for improvements in crop yields with his team devising and implementing new techniques to address the approaching global food supply deficit.

Bob pioneered the concept of “digital agriculture” which is allowing field trials of crop plants to be assessed in important new ways. This concept is rapidly transforming the comprehensive monitoring of tens of thousands of crop field trials conducted each year in Australia. Digital agriculture will enable the analysis of plant responses to the environment to be assessed in ways not previously dreamed of. Professor Furbank’s significant contribution to the agricultural industry was recognised in 2014 when he received the CSIRO Plant Industry Leadership Award.

The Plant Phenomics Centre is also a fertile environment for training PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, with strong national and international linkages through university projects and collaboration with international laboratories and agencies. Professor Furbank has been active in postgraduate training as a mentor to PhD students and postdoctoral fellows since 2003. He has always been happy to assist young researchers, including our own Wollongong students, and has nurtured talented early career researchers from Australia and overseas to develop their full potential.

Professor Furbank’s career spans both pure and applied plant biology with five Patents / Plant Breeders Rights, attesting to his success in providing practical solutions for modern agriculture. He serves on Editorial Boards of two prominent journals and reviews manuscripts for many more. Professor Furbank reviews grant applications to major national and international research fund providers, and since 2003, has collaboratively won research and infrastructure grants from a wide range of local, national, and international sponsors. In January this year, Bob was appointed Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis.

On the global stage, Professor Furbank’s work contributes to future food security through advances in international agricultural research. He is part of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center, the International Wheat Yield Consortium and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Global Rice Initiative Science Partnership. He also leads advisory teams of the International Wheat Yield Consortium and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation C4 Rice Consortium, and is a Board Member for two plant phenotyping networks. Bob’s international reputation in the field of Plant Phenomics is exemplified by the fact that he was the only Australian presenter at a conference to celebrate Bayer’s 150th birthday in Germany in November 2013.

Professor Furbank’s impressive career, demonstrated achievements and contributions to the plant industry are testament to his commitment to this research endeavour. Above all is his passion to do something translational between the laboratory and the farm that is “useful” for agriculture. Bob is equally committed to his family, his wife Julie and children Riley and Georgia, who have supported him throughout his career.

Vice Chancellor, for his outstanding scholarship in plant biology and his national and international service to sustainable agricultural development and innovation, it is a privilege and pleasure to present Professor Bob Furbank for a Doctor of Science, honoris causa.