CSIRO cuts jobs and closes sites in budget squeeze

Summary:The CSIRO is cutting over 500 jobs, closing multiple sites, and stripping back its research in the wake of the latest federal budget, which slashed more than AU$111 million over four years from the research organisation’s funding.

Australia’s federal government agency for scientific research, the CSIRO, will cut over 500 jobs, scale back research and close several sites as it feels the squeeze of more than AU$111 million in funding cuts in the latest federal budget .

According to the CSIRO staff association, the Community and Public Sector Union (CPSU), the government's funding cuts to the organisation come to around AU$115 million, including the AU$111.4 million budget cut and a separate 'efficiency dividend' cut of AU$3.4 million.

The CSIRO's chief executive, Dr Megan Clarke, has indicated that the organisation expects to cut 420 full-time employee positions by the end of June 2015, with a further 80 full-timers to be cut by June 2015 if its external earnings continue to decline as predicted.

The CSIRO had already announced it would cut 300 full-time jobs as a result of a restructure prompted by the declining external earnings, and the organisation has lost more than 400 positions since last July.

The CSIRO received one-off budget funding of AU$32.2 million for 2013-14 to fund the redundancies.

According to the CPSU, the research organisation has noted and confirmed the findings in the federal Commission of Audit that it is struggling to repair, maintain, and operate its large and diverse property portfolio.

However, the CSIRO said that there were no additional funds in the budget to help it cope with a AU$175 million maintenance shortfall.

According to Clark, the CSIRO will immediately begin closing down eight of its sites, reducing the total number to 48.

The sites to be closed include the Campbell, Crace and Yarralumla sites in the ACT, Victoria's Highett laboratory, Geelong-Belmont in Victoria and Armidale's Arding field station, which will be sold.

Additionally, there are a number of sites earmarked to be closed in Victoria, NSW, and Queensland. The CSIRO indicated it was not yet clear where staff from these sites would be relocated.

The Clarke's Annual Directions Statement also revealed which areas of research the CSIRO would scale back on due to the budget squeeze. These include agriculture, food, health, energy and resources, manufacturing, environment, and radio astronomy.

The CPSU said the areas of research that CSIRO plans to scale back or exit altogether are:

1. Agriculture, Food and Health: Management plans to stop research in neurosciences and colorectal cancer, except in relation to nutrition.

2. Energy and resources: Convention oil and gas work will be reprioritised. Geothermal research will cease completely and reductions will be made in other activities such as carbon capture and storage and efficient energy management. CSIRO will also stop research into liquid fuels.

3. Manufacturing, productivity and services: Activities in bioscience, nanoscience, device engineering and systems, and high performance metal industries will all be reduced.

4. Environment: Investment in urban water research will be cut including all work currently performed at the Highett Laboratory as part of the Water for a Healthy Country flagship. Total investment in social and economic sciences will fall. Overall investment in terrestrial biodiversity research will be reduced. Marine biodiversity will be defunded, especially research currently performed by the Wealth for Oceans flagship on bathymetry and marine habitat mapping.

5. Radio Astronomy: There will be cuts to research in radio astronomy, astrophysics and within the Astronomy and Technology theme. There will be a reduction in effort at the Parkes and Narrabri facilities and the Mopra facility will be closed altogether.

"These funding cuts to CSIRO are short-sighted and destructive," said CSIRO's staff association president Dr Michael Borgas. "They will do lasting harm to CSIRO and the capacity to deliver new inventions and crucial research for the next generation of Australians."

The union said the organisation had already been struggling to cut costs, slashing 400 jobs over the past nine months, and another 300 expected to go by the end of this year.

"These cuts to public funding of CSIRO could not come at a worse time," said Borgas. "These budget cuts will mean more science workers will lose their jobs and more important research will not be done. CSIRO management might be faced with the terrible prospect of getting out of some areas of research altogether."

The cutback announcement comes as Liberal MP, Dr Dennis Jensen, blasts his own party’s science and defence policies, describing them as "foolish" during a speech delivered in Parliament this week.

Central to Jensen's criticism was the Abbott government's AU$20 billion medical research fund, which he said is incoherent and lacked scientific understanding.

"There appears to be a lack of understanding of how science works," Jensen, a former research scientist, said in his speech yesterday. "One of the advisers [I worked with] even suggested that a physicist working at CSIRO who lost their job could get one in medical research! I know that some people think that 'physicist' and 'physician' sound similar, but this is too much."

"Is this funding to medical research going to be general, or specifically targeted at cancer, Alzheimer's and the like? How are we going to source those researchers?" he said. "They don't grow on trees, and the training required is long and arduous, and very long lead times are required."

Jensen also suggested that the perceived crisis in Australian science had been heightened by the lack of a dedicated science minister.

"It is the first time we have had no science minister since 1931. I am bitterly disappointed that my fears have come to pass. This is a critical portfolio," he said. "Not a single G8 nation lacks a dedicated science minister and this bodes ill for our future."

The shadow minister for higher education, research, innovation and industry, Kim Carr, today said the budget cuts to the CSIRO will have a "devastating effect on Australia's science aqnd research sector".

"CSIRO is our premier scientific research organisation, with an international standing, and is the brains behind a number of cutting-edge discoveries, including Wi-Fi, the first effective influenza treatment, Relenza, and the Hendra virus vaccine, among many others," said Carr.

"CSIRO is now in the process of being gutted by a government which has no science minister, no science policy and, as it keeps demonstrating, absolutely no understanding of the benefits of scientific research," he said. "These are short-sighted, ill-considered, cost-cutting measures that will have profound and hugely damaging consequences for Australian expertise, innovation and potential job creation."

Topics: Government : AU, Australia

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Leon covers enterprise technology and start-ups from ZDNet's Sydney newsroom.

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