CSIRO swallows NICTA to form Data61

Australia's two notoriously under-funded science and tech research organisations have announced that they will be creating a new entity under the auspices of the CSIRO.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

The Australian government has announced that it will be merging the digital productivity arm of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) with National ICT Australia (NICTA), saying the combined force will "supercharge" Australia's technological advancements.

The merged entity, announced in a joint statement by Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull and Minister for Industry and Science Ian Macfarlane on Friday morning, will be dubbed "Data61". The name was chosen because 61 is Australia's international calling code, signifying a globally-based mindset for the new organisation, according to NICTA.

"Having a single national organisation will enable Data61 to produce focused research that will deliver strong economic returns and ensure that Australia remains at the forefront of digital innovation," Turnbull said.

"The new combined entity will continue to train Australia's future digital technology leaders through the enhanced PhD program, with more than 300 technology PhDs enrolled at partner universities."

Macfarlane added that Data61 would provide greater digital innovation for the country.

"CSIRO and NICTA are two world-class research organisations with some of the world's leading scientists," Macfarlane said.

"Both have an impressive track record in digital innovation, and have demonstrated their ability to take home-grown technologies to market.

"Together, they will be a force to be reckoned with, creating an internationally recognised digital research powerhouse that will benefit Australian industry as it reaches into new global markets and seizes new opportunities for jobs and growth.

"I'd like to thank the NICTA members and the board for embracing this opportunity to supercharge Australia's digital research."

Technology entrepreneur Adrian Turner has been tapped to lead the organisation. Turner has resided in the Silicon Valley for the past 18 years, having worked for Phillips and built several startups of his own. His companies include Borondi Group, which makes use of technology in the mining, transportation, and agriculture industries; and Mocana Corporation, an IoT security company, for which he raised over $40 million in funding.

Turner said Data61 will have more of a startup feel, and is aiming to drive technological innovation at a more advanced pace to bring greater value to Australia's economy.

"So much of our understanding and interaction with the world is underpinned by digital technology and data," Turner said.

"It is a fast-moving and big growth area for Australia and Australian industry, and Data61 will be well positioned to play a leading role in defining the new economic structures and opportunities that are emerging globally."

Turner's ability to raise funding will be beneficial to Data61, with both NICTA and the CSIRO having been the victims of government budget slashes over the past few years.

Last year, the CSIRO announced that it would be axing more than 500 jobs after the government's 2014-15 Budget cut AU$111.4 million in funding to the research organisation.

The CSIRO had prior to this announced that it would cut 300 full-time jobs after receiving AU$32.3 in funding in the 2013-14 Budget purely to make redundancies.

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

"These cuts to public funding of CSIRO could not come at a worse time. 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."

In November, the federal opposition labelled the Coalition government's funding cuts to the CSIRO as hypocritical, saying it was short sighted not to support science, innovation, and research in Australia.

"[Prime Minister] Tony Abbott likes to talk big about bringing science and research together with business to create growth and opportunities for Australia, but his actions reveal just how hollow his words are," Shadow Minister for Science and Research Senator Kim Carr said. "Mr Abbott says his Industry Growth Centres 'will foster better use by industry of Australia's world class researchers', but at the same time he is getting rid of the researchers.

"Who does Mr Abbott think industry will collaborate with when he is cutting some 800 jobs from Australia's premier scientific research agency?"

NICTA has faced similar issues, with the Coalition in September 2013 cutting AU$42 million in funding in an effort to improve the Budget bottom line by AU$6 billion and reduce government debt by AU$16 billion.

"Cutting $42 million will prevent NICTA from taking on new PhD students and committing to new partnerships with business and other research organisations. This cuts NICTA's core research functions and will essentially force NICTA to start winding down its research program," Labor's former Minister Assisting for the Digital Economy Kate Lundy said in response.

"NICTA has demonstrated how its research can benefit the bottom line of industry sectors such as transport and infrastructure and contribute to social outcomes in health and education. Cutting NICTA means cutting innovative health research. Cutting NICTA means our next innovative research idea.

"This signals a retreat from supporting the expertise and knowledge we need to take a wide range of Australian industries into the digital era."

In February last year, NICTA was forced to axe 30 research jobs in its Victorian office after similar funding cuts from the state government.

"I regret to say that there will need to be a significant number of redundancies at VRL as part of this reduction in size and the refocusing of activities. We will work with everyone concerned to make this as painless as possible," NICTA CEO Hugh Durrant-Whyte said.

The following May, however, Australia's incumbent telecommunications carrier Telstra stepped in to provide millions of dollars in funding to NICTA over a five-year period, with research partnerships also arranged between the organisation and the University of Technology Sydney, Deakin University, and the George Institute.

Telstra said the exact amount of funding it would provide for NICTA would be determined during the course of the five-year deal, depending on what specific projects came up.

"We're working that out on a project-by-project basis to determine what makes sense," Telstra's chief operations officer Kate McKenzie explained to ZDNet at the time.

Earlier this month, it was announced that former Telstra CEO David Thodey would be taking over as chair of the CSIRO. Thodey was said to be joining the board in November, after finishing up with Telstra in May, from which he had announced his retirement in February.

"Thodey is an innovative Australian businessman and an experienced board chairman and senior executive who offers expertise in management, corporate, and government relations, information and communications technology, and sales and marketing," Macfarlane said in August.

"Thodey's experience in building business networks will be valuable to CSIRO as it implements its new 2020 strategy."

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