FOR decades it has been considered the jewel in Australia’s crown of science and innovation.
Researchers from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) have brought to the world such marvels as Wi-Fi technology and polymer bank notes, helped beam the moon landing around the globe, and protected millions of people from deadly diseases with their groundbreaking research.
But now the CSIRO is dogged by crippling job cuts and slashes to funding that have left people contemplating a bleak future for Australian scientific research — and for Australia generally.
Today, about 120 scientists, students and unionists have rallied in Canberra to protest against a new wave of job cuts at the CSIRO, which includes a cull of 100 scientists from the climate science division.
It comes days after a new Climate Council report warned shedding those jobs would leave Australia poorly equipped to deal with climate change or meet its commitments under the Paris agreement.
But concerns run deeper than simply climate change.
At a time when the Turnbull government is spruiking a national commitment to innovation and learning in science, technology, engineering and maths, many believe moves to deplete Australia’s most iconic scientific research institutions just doesn’t make sense.
CSIRO chemist Ezio Rizzardo, who invented a new way of producing polymers, has been named among the world’s top 20 chemists in terms of the impact of research.
CSIRO chemist Ezio Rizzardo, who invented a new way of producing polymers, has been named among the world’s top 20 chemists in terms of the impact of research.Source:News Corp Australia
A GROUNDBREAKING CENTURY
This year marks 100 years since the precursor to the modern-day CSIRO was founded and since then, it’s has been a powerhouse of research and innovation, working with thousands of companies on diverse projects that have sparked some of the world’s most important discoveries and inventions.
Among them, CSIRO researchers developed wireless LAN (local area network), or Wi-Fi, technology. Its laboratories played host to the development extended wear soft contact lenses and the game-changing invention of the polymer bank note.
The CSIRO Parkes Observatory in regional NSW, known as “The Dish”, played an integral role in transmitting vision of astronauts walking on the moon in 1969.
CSIRO researchers also developed the world’s most effective influenza treatment Relenza, the world’s first vaccine to prevent the spread of Hendra virus from horses to humans, and even invented the Aussie household staple, Aerogard.
Deep space research, nutrition, manufacturing, marine science, agriculture and drought mitigation are just some of the other far-flung areas of research the organisation is plugged into.
Just weeks ago the CSIRO claimed a role in one the biggest achievements in physics — the detection of gravitational waves that were predicted by Albert Einstein a century ago.
“I think you cannot put a price on the CSIRO’s reputation, which has been garnered by years and years of excellent research and engagement with industries,” CSIRO Staff Association secretary Sam Popovski told news.com.au.
“The CSIRO was one of the first entities to go out into regional Australia and engage with farmers and understand their problems and deliver practical solutions. I think it needs to keep doing that — no other entity will.
“It needs to be supported by everyone to keep finding those practical solutions that will benefit Australia.
“So I think the Climate Council report and all the lobbying by a varied of stakeholders in Australia has shown just how important the CSIRO is to them and to Australian society and the economy and the environment.”
A protester at a rally against the CSIRO job cuts outside Parliament House. Picture: Kym Smith
A protester at a rally against the CSIRO job cuts outside Parliament House. Picture: Kym SmithSource:News Corp Australia
SO WHEN DID THE PROBLEMS START?
The CSIRO has been dealt a few blows over the past few years. The first came by way of Labor’s extra efficiency dividend in its final year in government, which the CSIRO’s staff association attributed to a job cull of about 200 scientists.
The organisation has also suffered from the generally dwindling interest by the corporate sector to invest in research and development.
But the main blow was dealt by the Coalition government’s 2014 budget, which announced a $115 million cut in funding to the CSIRO. In the two years since, the organisation’s workforce has depleted by 20 per cent, according to the staff association.
When the 2014 budget cuts were announced, CSIRO chairman Simon McKeon warned the organisation would struggle to fill the gap in research and development left by Australian businesses, which were generally more focused on natural resources, agriculture and tourism than scientific innovation.
“The private sector does not embrace (research and development) as it does in other nations,” Mr McKeon said.
“That is why is it so important to have CSIRO, as a relatively large and highly effective organisation that basically fills a very big gap.”
Wider cuts to jobs and funding have already forced the CSIRO to scale back, or abandon, some areas of research, such as into Alzheimer’s disease research and colorectal cancer.
Research into marine sciences, radio astronomy, astrophysics and bioscience has been gutted, as well as research into urban water usage, including storm water irrigation and metropolitan water management.
But it’s been the new plan to swing the axe on 100 jobs in climate research and environmental science — especially so soon after Australia signed the historic Paris Agreement — that has especially alarmed the scientific community.
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall has been criticised over the job cuts. Picture: Hollie Adams
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall has been criticised over the job cuts. Picture: Hollie AdamsSource:News Corp Australia
CONCERNS OVER CLIMATE RESEARCH
This month, new problems arose when the CSIRO announced it would cull 350 jobs over two years, mostly in climate sciences and environmental research, but also in manufacturing and minerals research.
The organisation has promised to hire staff in other fields it considers more promising, however the union believes these employment opportunities won’t come until after the 350 axed staff have already been let go.
About 120 scientists, STEM students and unionists rallied outside Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday morning to oppose the job cuts, which will effectively halve the number of CSIRO climate scientists.
Earlier this month, scientists from nearly 60 nations wrote to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull urging him to derail the planned job cull.
“(The job cull) has all the hallmarks of short-termism in that it has sent a bad signal to the Australian science community, and more broadly, it’s been noticed by about 3000 imminent scientists and leaders of science institutions internationally. As a strategic decision we feel it has already damaged the CSIRO’s reputation,” Mr Popovski said.
“People don’t disagree the organisation has to evolve and be able to adapt to the data revolution … but we would say you shouldn’t cut critical research into what is essentially public good research; research that farmers and the tourist industry, as examples, rely on to determine how to manage climate change and the environment.”
In a report released on Monday, the Climate Council warned the cuts would damage Australia’s ability to plan for or respond to climate change.
It also warned that crucial information about climate change in the Southern Hemisphere could be lost and farmers and firefighters would be particularly exposed if climate science capabilities are reduced.
“Cutting climate science now, as the demand escalates for both adaptation and mitigation strategies, is like flying into a violent storm and ripping out the radar, navigation and communication instruments. It just doesn’t make sense,” Professor Will Steffen said.
Andrew Holmes from the Australian Academy of Science said we shouldn’t be “pulling the rug out from our elite scientists”.
“Australia is internationally recognised for its expertise and unique position in climate and environmental research,” Prof Holmes said.
“Realistically, there are no other countries in the Southern Hemisphere that are able to do what we do. We have a singular contribution to make towards global and regional climate knowledge, and with this role comes a great responsibility to the global community.”
Malcolm Turnbull chaired the inaugural meeting of the Government’s Innovation and Science Committee of Cabinet at Parliament House this month. Picture: Ray Strange
Malcolm Turnbull chaired the inaugural meeting of the Government’s Innovation and Science Committee of Cabinet at Parliament House this month. Picture: Ray StrangeSource:News Corp Australia
THINGS DON’T ADD UP
The new wave of job culls at the CSIRO comes precisely at a time when the federal government is promoting its innovation agenda as a way to create a “modern, dynamic 21st century economy”.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced new funding for children’s education in science, technology, engineering and maths, saying around 75 per cent of the fastest-growing industries required skills STEM subjects.
“If we are to be a successful nation of innovation we have to have a stronger commitment to science and technology and it has to start right across the board,” he said.
Senator Kim Carr, the Opposition spokesman for research and innovation, said the CSIRO joined a long list of scientific and research institutions that have been hit with government funding cuts, including the Bureau of Meteorology, the Australian Research Council, the Sustainable Research Excellence and Geoscience Australia.
He told news.com.au moves to deplete the CSIRO was sending entirely the wrong message.
“All those things lead to a mining of the scientific capacity of the nation, and the government claiming it is interested in innovation stands in stark contrast to its actions,” he said.
“It does undermine the whole argument as to the future of science in Australia. What we have here is significant job losses and a significant brain drain in our scientific community.
“What we know is the various cuts to the scientific institutions will have a long term effect and we see it in a lot of our cultural institutions as well; devastating impacts will be felt.
“It’s just a clear case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing.”
Mr Carr said he feared Australian scientists made redundant by the CSIRO would go overseas to seek work.
It’s a fear shared by Sam Popovski from the CSIRO Staff Association, who said the culls were likely to drive Australia’s brightest scientific minds away from home.
“Australia as a country has a very closed innovation system, it doesn’t have huge R and D-intensive industries, and while it relies on innovation to come through small business and other medium enterprises it’s essentially one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of job opportunities in the private sector for anyone involved in science and innovation,” he said.
“If these workers were in the United States, Germany or Singapore, their job prospects in the private sector would be exceedingly higher than they are in Australia.
“Losing a job at CSIRO often means your only opportunities are at universities, but those jobs are limited as well, so we’re concerned they will leave the country and apply their skills elsewhere.”