Blog icon

Dr Deborah O'Connell

Principal Research Scientist


Please enter a valid first name

Please enter a valid last name

Please enter a valid email address

Please enter your message to send to the contact

Contact details:

GPO BOX 1700


The world is changing at an unprecedented rate, exacerbating complex problems like food and water security, and the potential for disasters. There is uncertainty about the nature and magnitude of many of these changes and they are not easy to predict. Nor are there any "off the shelf" solutions to complex problems. Change and disruption can bring the opportunity to start nudging systems into different directions, towards better outcomes - like the aspirations captured by the Sustainability Development Goals. This will take co-ordinated effort across governments, business, industry and civil society, and will need to draw from many disciplines, across many scales. It is at these boundaries that Deborah likes to work.

Deborah has unique experience and expertise in ‘systems leadership’ – working across the system with a range of stakeholder groups and jurisdictions, developing and applying new approaches to disaster risk reduction, vulnerability assessment and resilience building, systems-based strategy development and policy support, community engagement and facilitation. She is experienced in designing and applying contemporary scientific and engagement approaches to complex, real world problems. She uses systems approaches and enjoys working with people to build strong connections between scientists; those who lead and 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 embraces the arts and humanities as critical ways to improve the relevance and impact of science. She has built many successful partnerships and collaborations in Australia and internationally, 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. She has spent the last 5 years applying these approaches in the areas of how society can navigate global change and shock - for example in climate change adaptation, food and water security, and disaster risk and mitigation.


  • Leadership skills: systems leadership – facilitation, collaboration, negotiation, mentorship, knowing how and where to intervene. Leadership of large national and international project teams. Running effective and inclusive workshops that make a difference (eg Deconstructing Disaster workshops ). Lead facilitator for Homeward Bound, a global women’s leadership initiative ( and ). Delivery of short course on Systems Leadership as a module in leadership executive training via the Dattner Group.
  • From theory to practice in resilience, adaptation pathways, transformation and sustainability of societies in response to global change e.g.
  • Interdisciplinary research; Integration and implementation science; collaborations across science, the arts and humanities
  • Disaster risk reduction; disaster resilience; risk assessment e.g.
  • Disciplinary research: ecology, agriculture, forestry, hydrology, pedology
  • Design and delivery of investment and research programs and portfolios; designing for, and evaluating research impact; project and program leadership; management of people, budgets and stakeholder groups
  • Women in Science leadership, Lead Facilitator for the Homeward Bound leadership initiative for women in STEMM, gender equity, 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 was 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.

In the last 5 years since joining CSIRO's social sciences program, Deborah has led teams in international and domestic projects including: developing guidelines to embed resilience, adaptation and transformation into the design of programs and projects for the Global Environment Facility; piloting the guidelines in the design of large food security investments in Ethiopia (funded by and in collaboration with the Stockholm Resilience Centre); and disaster resilience planning in the Pacific and in Australia.

Deborah co-led CSIRO's contribution to the Australian Vulnerability Profile (commissioned by Emergency Management Australia and the National Resilience Task Force). This project used a co-design approach across many agencies, and included design and delivery of a series of "Deconstructing Disaster" workshops to explore the potential for catastrophic disaster in Australia, and address the underlying values and systemic patterns of risk.

Deb has had a lead role in women's leadership and gender equity in the last 15 years. This has included Chairing the Inclusion and Diversity committee, being on CSIRO's Science Academies Gender Equity (SAGE) team, participating in the inaugural Homeward Bound leadership program in Antarctica and then being appointed Lead Facilitator for the program

Other Interests

Outdoor adventures, yoga, music, reading, writing.

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)
    Homeward Bound

  • 2010-2010

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

Other highlights

  • 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

  • 2010-2018

    First Aid Officer

  • 2016-2018

    Member of CSIRO's Science Academies Gender Equity (SAGE)

  • 2014-2017

    Chair, CSIRO L&W Inclusion and Diversity Committee

  • 1992-1995

    Member, Chair of Board Greening Australia ACT&SENSW