A delayed train helped Jim Peacock become one of Australia's leading life scientists. Arriving late at the University of Sydney, the education major found that his first choice of degree, the teaching of economics, was oversubscribed. He was advised to pursue his alternative options, botany and zoology, and is glad he did. (See CV)

After gaining a PhD in genetics from the University of Sydney, he worked with noted Drosophila geneticist Ed Novitski at the University of Oregon in Eugene, then completed his training with an introduction to molecular biology at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. He returned to Australia to fulfil an obligation to his postdoc funder, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), but found that his work in plant science lacked the cutting-edge genetic tools being developed elsewhere for Drosophila research.

Peacock took the initiative and applied the molecular tools of Drosophila genetics to plant research. He became chief of the CSIRO's plant-industry division, and, with his colleagues, deciphered the sequence of corn (maize) transposons — genetic sequences that can be rearranged during replication.

Peacock held his CSIRO post for 26 years, and built the division up from 300 to 900 people. He also presided over the development of Australia's first — and so far only — transgenic crop. The genetically modified cotton is less susceptible to pests and is now used in several other countries. “It was a chance to relay fundamental discoveries into Australia's agriculture,” he says.

After four years as president of the Australian Academy of Science, Peacock was chosen to become chief scientist of Australia. This position will allow him to guide government research investments, which he hopes will include more support for basic work. “I'm sympathetic to the pressures for results-based work, but there needs to be a proper balance,” he says. He believes his experience with the controversies of genetic engineering have prepared him well to discuss hot topics such as exploring nuclear power as a source of energy.

Peacock doesn't duck controversial issues, notes CSIRO chief executive Geoff Garrett. “He has the interest, expertise and capability not only on plant science and agribusiness, but also across a broad range of science,” he says.

Peacock's current passion is promoting science literacy in society. He's started taking advantage of his background in education to develop primary-school programmes and to interest young students in science.