Dr Neil Turner – Career highlights in agricultural and environmental science

July 1st, 2021

Dr Neil C. Turner was made a Member (AM) of the Order of Australia in the 2021 Queen’s Birthday Honours for significant service to agricultural and environmental science, and to education, through CSIRO and the University of Western Australia.

Neil Turner obtained a BSc (Hons) from the University of Reading in the UK before being awarded a Commonwealth scholarship to study for a PhD at the University of Adelaide in the mid-1960s. This is where he first became challenged by managing crops in dryland environments and chose to study the effects of drought on wheat growth and production under the guidance of Professor Colin Donald, one of Australia’s leading agronomists and crop physiologists.

In 1967, Neil Turner commenced work as a plant physiologist at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, a small experiment station adjacent to Yale University. There he inherited the second pressure chamber made in the world to measure the plant water status, and with Dr Paul Waggoner, Chief Ecologist at the station, developed the first aspirated diffusion porometer to measure stomatal opening and closing. These portable instruments, now both available commercially, enabled the measurement of the water status and stomatal conductance of plants in their natural environment and crops in the field – an area of research that developed rapidly in the subsequent three decades. His measurements of the environmental factors influencing the water loss by maize crops in the field were used in the early US models of climate change. Another important outcome of that early research was the demonstration that the stomatal pores in the leaf controlled water loss by a forest canopy and could be closed chemically to increase the water yield of a forested catchment.

Returning to Australia in 1974 to a position as Senior Research Scientist in CSIRO Plant Industry, Neil Turner initially worked with Dr John Begg (CSIRO) and Mr Brian Hearn (CSIRO) at the Cotton Research Institute in Narrabri on improving the water use efficiency of irrigated cotton and with Dr Howard Rawson (CSIRO) and Dr Richard Smith (University of New England, later CSIRO) on the effect of drought on sorghum and sunflower. This research in the field and glasshouse resulted in the first demonstration of the adaptation to drought by the accumulation of solutes in the leaves, a process known as osmotic adjustment, that four decades later was declared “a prime drought stress adaptive engine in support of plant production” by Dr Abraham Blum a leading Israeli wheat and sorghum breeder. For 31 years as a research scientist in CSIRO, Neil Turner worked with farmers, the grains industry, state departments of agriculture and universities to improve the management and genotypic drought resistance of dryland crops of sunflower, wheat, lupin, canola, chickpea and other pulses.

After 10 years in Canberra, Neil Turner was invited to reinvigorate CSIRO’s Plant Industry and Soils research in Western Australia where he was appointed Research Leader of the Dryland Crops and Soils Research Unit. Working closely with the WA Department of Agriculture, the group worked on the management of nitrogen in relation to rainfall, transient waterlogging, secondary salinity and water use to improve the yields and forage production of wheat, lupin and pastures in the WA wheatbelt. Further details of the group and its research is available in Peter Hick and Adrian Peck (2013) CSIRO in Western Australia – Musings of Some Former Staff,  pp. 148-150

For almost 10 years Neil Turner was project leader of an Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research-supported research project on the development of drought resistant chickpeas for India and Australia. Working with Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) scientists in several states of India and Department of Agriculture scientists in all mainland states of Australia, the project identified new drought-tolerant chickpea genotypes for release in India and pre-breeding genotypes for use in the Australian Chickpea Breeding Program, but the major outcome of the project was the capacity building of Indian scientists, with several subsequently becoming leaders of universities and in ICAR.

After retirement from CSIRO in 2005, Neil Turner took up a part-time appointment in semi-retirement in the Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Western Australia where he was Interim Director of the Centre for Legumes in Mediterranean Agriculture and subsequently Adjunct Professor in the Institute of Agriculture. Throughout his career in CSIRO, Neil Turner was involved in higher education through co-supervision of doctoral students at the Australian National University, The University of Western Australia and Murdoch University and was part of a UNESCO team that helped to develop doctoral courses and research capability in Indian agricultural universities, particularly Haryana Agricultural University, in the late 1970s.

For the 15 years since leaving CSIRO, Neil Turner has spent a month each year as Visiting Professor assisting graduate students and staff at Lanzhou University and Gansu Agricultural University in Lanzhou, Gansu, and the Northwest Agricultural and Forestry University in Yangling, Shaanxi, China with their research on the semiarid Loess Plateau. A number of students and staff have spent from 6 to 18 months at UWA as a result of the exchange between China and Australia. Neil Turner has been recognised for his contribution to China’s education and economy with the Dunhuang Award by the Gansu Provincial government in 2011 and a Friendship Award by the Chinese Central government in 2012.

As well as the Medal of the Order of Australia, Neil Turner was awarded a Centenary Medal by the Australian government in 2003, a Medal by the Agricultural Institute of Australia in 1993,  and a Chancellor’s Medal by the University of Western Australia in 2012, and a DSc in agriculture by the University of Reading in 1983. He was made a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy in 1982, Foundation Fellow of the Crop Science Society of America in 1985, Fellow of the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering in 1992, Fellow of the Agricultural Institute of Australia in 1995, and Fellow of the Indian Academy of Agricultural Sciences in 2003.