Dr Deborah O'Connell

Principal Research Scientist

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Deborah is a member of the Enabling Adaptation Pathways team at CSIRO Land and Water. She currently leads global research in the areas of resilience, adaptation pathways and transformation of social-ecological systems. She has a strong interest in designing and applying contemporary scientific approaches to complex, real world problems.

Our world is changing at an unprecedented rate. We are uncertain about the nature and magnitude of many of these changes and we cannot predict them. In response, many governments and non-government organizations, industries, businesses, programs and policies as well as civil society have are now developing aspirational goals which embody the concepts of resilience, adaptation, transformation and sustainability.

The challenge is to make operational the concepts of resilience, adaptation, transformation and sustainability, and use the science to support decision-making in communities, industries, and governments. She has led the development of guidelines to embed resilience, adaptation and sustainability into the design of international development projects for the Global Environment Facility, and is currently leading projects funded by the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) and the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) to pilot these guidelines in Ethiopia.

She takes a systems approach and enjoys working with people to build strong connections between scientists; those who make decisions in business, government and NGOs; and the communities that care about the issues at stake. She has a creative approach to collaboration and co-production of knowledge, and has built many successful partnerships with a range of people and organisations, as is reflected by the range of projects she has led, and her co-authorship on a range of different types of publications.

She has a background across many disciplines including: agriculture, ecology, forestry, hydrology, bioenergy, spatial and statistical analysis. Currently, she specialises in interdisciplinary and implementation sciences: her research in the last 20 years has focused on developing and applying integrated assessment frameworks and systems analysis approaches in the domains of water and energy; as well as sustainability science and adaptive responses to global change.


  • Resilience, adaptation pathways and transformation of societies in response to global change
  • Interdisciplinary research; Integration and implementation science (led several interdisciplinary teams in integrated assessment in domains of water, bioenergy and sustainability)
  • Disciplinary research: ecology, agriculture, forestry, hydrology, pedology
  • Facilitation, collaboration, and leadership of teams and workshops
  • Research leadership, and management of people, budgets and stakeholder groups
  • Women in Science leadership, Science in School partnerships


Deborah first joined CSIRO in 1992 to conduct a doctorate in forest soils and hydrology. She subsequently worked as a catchment hydrologist for the Western Australia Department of Agriculture and as a research manager for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation. She rejoined CSIRO in 2002 and worked as a project leader, hydrologist and systems analyst in the Water for a Healthy Country Flagship.

From 2006 to 2012, Deborah led the CSIRO Energy Flagship ‘Sustainable Biomass Production’ team. The team has been acknowledged as a leading science team in Australia in resource assessment, economics and sustainability analysis for bioenergy at national and regional scales. This team provided the most definitive resource assessment and Greenhouse Gas assessments at a national scale, regional scale economics, and has successfully interfaced with many other teams and projects within, and outside of CSIRO (eg the Future Fuels Forum; the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Forum).

Deborah worked closely with the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Measuring Sustainability to lead a team in reviewing the last 25 years of sustainability theory and practise, producing a guide to navigating this complex area of science and implementation. This builds on earlier work on sustainability frameworks as applied to the bioenergy and water domains.

She has been influential in working with Australian industry and government in developing an ISO standard (ISO13065) for sustainability of bioenergy. Through this forum, she has participated as a tutor, coach and facilitator for the Swedish Institute of Standards (SIS) in skills development workshops to empower international delegates with negotiation and sustainability science skills.

In 2010 Deborah was a consultant to the European Commission, evaluating European research on biomass resource assessment, and facilitating large stakeholder consultation fora. She also held an international TranzFOR scholarship to collaborate with UK Forest Research in reviewing the effectiveness of Sustainable Forest Management and certification processes, and applying the learnings to the biomass and bioenergy domain.

Current Roles

  • Project Leader
    Resilience, Adaptation Pathways and Transformation Assessment (RAPTA)

  • Project Leader
    Navigating Sustainability

Academic Qualifications

  • 1997

    Australian National University

  • 1987

    B.Sc. Agric. Hons.
    University of Western Australia

  • 1985

    B.Sc. (Ecology)(just short of incomplete)
    University of Natal

Achievements and Awards

  • 2015-2016

    Participant Homeward Bound Leadership Program for women in science. First all-female expedition to Antarctic scheduled for Dec 2016
    Homeward Bound, Harvard Business School

  • 2010-2010

    TRANZFOR scholarship, based in UK Forest research, sustainability and policy review
    TRANZFOR, UK Forest Research

Other highlights

  • 2015-2016

    Participant Homeward Bound Leadership Program for women in science. First all-female expedition to Antarctic scheduled for Dec 2016

  • 2012-2015

    Alternate head of delegation, ISO 13065 Sustainability Criteria for Biofuels

  • 2012-2015

    Consultant to Swedish Institute of Standards to coach developing nations teams in sustainability, standards development and negotiation skills

  • 2012-2013

    Worked with the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council for Measuring Sustainability

  • 2010-2010

    Consultant to European Commission, reviewing and evaluating projects, and facilitating stakeholder workshops for bioeconomy

  • 2011-2011

    Participant in EC Global Biopact, biofuel sustainability, Mali

  • 2010-2014

    Project leader for projects for The Boeing Company on biofuels and sustainability

  • 2012-2016

    Member of academic network for ‘Integration and Implementation Sciences’ I2S (ANU)

Community and Corporate Citizenship

  • 2015-2016

    Diversity and Inclusion Committee

  • 2010-2016

    First Aid Officer


We have publications by Dr Deborah O'Connell
For more publications, please see Google Scholar: http://scholar.google.com/citations?hl=en&user=QZIe2MQAAAAJ Researcher ID: D-4222-2011