Scientists fear break up of Aussie research body

September 12, 2003

Staff at Australia's principal research organisation fear that the nation's universities want it broken up so they can sift through the pieces and take the best sections for themselves.

The 80-year-old Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has some 4,000 scientists working in different divisions across Australia. But it is facing sweeping changes and staff claim it is struggling to remain viable while its divisions are involved in internally destructive competition to attract funds.

Michael Borgas, president of the CSIRO staff association and a senior scientist in the division of atmospheric research, estimated the organisation would lose 250 staff this year. Dr Borgas said that, following years of government spending cuts, there was a definite threat that the organisation would be broken up and divisions taken over by the universities.

"They see it as in their interests to break us up to get more resources and to get access to the research agencies, such as the Australian Research Council, for other sources of funding," he said.

The creation of a "flagships" scheme, intended to put the emphasis on the commercial application of research, had been given A$20 million (£8.3 million) by the conservative government of prime minister John Howard in its May budget. It is also being funded from reductions in division budgets, with a 10 per cent cut from their funding this year.

Dr Borgas said about A$60 million was available to get projects under way.

But the result would be job losses across the organisation.

He said his division was likely to lose up to 20 of its 120 scientists and would have to abandon many areas of research. Long-term fundamental research into climate change and likely levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would have to be scrapped, with serious implications for the future.

"Flagships are hyped for high impact, but they address a narrow range of issues, relegating other problems that require painstaking research," he said.

CSIRO chief executive Geoff Garrett said the flagships initiative was aligned with the government's national research priorities and marked a new era for the organisation and its research partners in science and industry.

"Flagships provide focus and critical mass, and will make substantial new impacts on national challenges and opportunities," Dr Garrett said.

He rejected claims that the CSIRO was facing collapse or that it was shedding staff. He said that staff numbers had grown by more than 250 in the past year while federal funding had increased by almost 7 per cent.

"For too long we have relied on our great scientists taking on extra business development and commercialisation roles. The bottom line is that we need teams with complementary skills to fully leverage our world-class research and maximise its benefit for the organisation and for the nation," Dr Garrett said.

CSIRO staff first became concerned when the federal government announced a review last May into Australia's publicly funded science agencies.

But science minister Peter McGauran said the review was not about structural change. The focus was on creating closer links between the CSIRO and universities to ensure collaboration within the public sector was maximised, Mr McGauran said.

Privatising profitable parts of the CSIRO would remove income that supported research in other parts of the organisation, he said.

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