The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s aims are set out in the Science and Industry Research Act of 1949. 

Our primary national research agency is tasked with:

  • Assisting Australian industry.
  • Furthering the interests of the Australian community.
  • Contributing to the achievement of the Australian national objectives or the performance of the national and international responsibilities of the Commonwealth.

In other words, the role of the CSIRO has always been twofold: it embraces both public-benefit research and assistance to individual businesses.

Getting the right balance has been a vital concern for as long as I’ve had any involvement with the agency.

It’s a great tragedy; therefore, to see so many people with even longer involvement – men and women with 30 years’ experience – fear the balance has now been lost.

The Abbott-Turnbull Government has allowed Australia’s largest public research agency to be degraded in every sense of the term.

In capabilities: $115 million cut in 2014, leading to the biggest job losses in the agency’s history.

Now another 275 jobs are to go, including as many as 75 climate scientists.

This on top of the Turnbull Liberal Government’s $22 million cut to critical climate research programs managed by the Department of the Environment.

It will effectively shut down the CSIRO’s fundamental research in climate science, a decision condemned by scientists around the world.

Despite the fig leaf of the new Climate Science Centre, jobs will go here in Hobart, as they will elsewhere within Oceans and Atmosphere (O&A), as well as from most other divisions.

Or “business units”, as CSIRO management now prefers to call them.

That name change says everything about the direction in which management is taking the agency.

The jargon of Silicon Valley has become official CSIRO-speak.

Just as operational divisions are now business units, strategic reviews are now “deep dives”.

One “deep dive” presentation within O&A acknowledges of the job cuts that:

  • “This level of upheaval is very significant and will be a major distraction to not just the directly impacted staff but also management and indirectly affected staff.
  • “There has been no provision made for ‘disrupted external revenue’…
  • “Some longstanding government clients will be impacted by this realignment.
  • This will require some management given that we are electing to make these changes rather than forced by government funding changes.”

How revealing is that last statement! The job cuts are a choice made by management, that management does not know how to handle.

But they are made with political goals in mind. According to a CSIRO briefing to the Science Minister, Christopher Pyne, the aim of the job cuts is to:

“support research that will position Australian industry to harness the growing digital economy … CSIRO will also increase investment in traditional industries, such as minerals and mining, in order to make them more profitable and sustainable …”

The deliberate narrowing of the CSIRO’s focus could not be more clear.

The CSIRO’s stated intention of hiring later in the same numbers lost now cannot hide the fact that the CSIRO has turned its back on crucial areas of basic research.

You can be sure new hiring will not be in those areas.

CSIRO management, complying with the Turnbull Government’s line, is turning the agency into a glorified commercial consultancy.

In doing so, it has also degraded the CSIRO’s commitment to probity, transparency and proper process.

CSIRO management briefed Science Minister Christopher Pyne on 16 February 2016 that universities were better placed than the agency to continue fundamental climate research.

But the CSIRO did not check with any universities whether this was so. And we have since heard that universities could not offer the scale and longevity to carry out this work.

Nor did the CSIRO consult its closest partners before the 4 February 2016 announcement on job cuts and the abandonment of climate research.

It is just one part of a litany of betrayals of the public trust by CSIRO management.

Senior staff were instructed to use their private email accounts in discussing the job losses. That is a potential breach of the Archives Act and the Public Governance and Accountability Act.

Scandalously, the Senate has learned that management proceeded with the job cuts without explicit Board approval.

In fact, the Senate Committee inquiring into these matters heard that the Board was taken by surprise by Dr Marshall’s email of 4 February 2016 announcing the job cuts.

The draft email the Board had seen made no mention of these plans, and made none of the controversial claims about the state of climate science that appeared in the released version.

Many of the Board members were new. Four of the current Board members, and three who received that email, were appointed either before or after the so-called deep-dive process, which of course followed the release of the 2020 strategy.

On the weight of evidence presented to the Committee, I contend that the Board was not expecting a public announcement of the major cuts to public good research and had not actually signed-off on those cuts.

Indeed, it appears that at least one Board member replied to the draft email saying, “I don't think I approve.” But there was no opportunity for further discussion.

This was a failed process. The Board should have been fully engaged in the decision—and that was always going to be highly contentious and a major cause of disruption within the organisation.

The Minister himself should have been fully engaged as well. I believe there is a very strong element of negligence in regard to Mr Pyne’s role in these matters.

Instead, the Minister has said nothing except to hide behind the independence of the CSIRO.

I certainly acknowledge the responsibility of the Board and management to make operational decisions and to prioritise according to available resources. But I also, as Minister, had to pay close attention to the decisions that were being made.

This is my direct experience in this. In my experience, you work with the Board and with the CEO to ensure that the national interest is being served and that they understand concerns and consult properly.

There has been a failure of governance processes and most importantly a failure of political leadership by the Turnbull Liberal Government on behalf of the nation.

Contrary to the objectives defined in the Act, and contrary to public assertions, there is no doubt there has been quite an extensive conversation within the CSIRO about how the agency could withdraw from its responsibilities for public good research, instead turning the CSIRO into a commercialised consultancy arrangement.

We have seen statements like “public good is not good enough,” “Nature papers do not cut it”, and even a suggestion that CSIRO should “eliminate all capability associated with public good and government-funded climate research”.

There is no doubt in my mind that the conversation about cultural change within the CSIRO has been aimed at fundamentally shifting the scientific priorities of the CSIRO and using commercial or external revenue as the basis for the allocation of resources rather than the critically important role the CSIRO plays to the national good.

It is hardly surprising that CSIRO management has lost the trust of staff, and that morale has collapsed.

We are already seeing the beginning of a brain drain that may take many years to reverse.

The CSIRO has been held in high esteem around the world. That international reputation is now being trashed.

This is evident to everyone except to CSIRO management and the Turnbull Liberal Government.

Prominent international scientists and champions of science – such as Mary Robinson, the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy on climate change, and Dr Karl Taylor of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the US – have responded with dismay at the effect on vital research of these job cuts on the fundamental research and monitoring that underpins all work on mitigation, which Dr Marshall says is now the CSIRO’s focus.

Professor Snow Barlow of the University of Melbourne, who works on climate change mitigation, characterised the downgrading of monitoring and modelling to work only on adaptation and mitigation as “a catastrophic failure of public policy”.

Professor David Karoly, also from the University of Melbourne, advises that the CSIRO is about to waste:

“… 1000 person years of experience or more. And that’s at least $100m of investment. And it appears to be thrown away, or put into a rubbish bin.”

As dire as the performance of CSIRO management has been, the Turnbull Liberal Government must be held accountable for this failure.

The Minister has stood by while all this has happened, all the while encouraging the perversion of the CSIRO’s mission.

This is the same Minister who was willing to hold 1,700 scientists' jobs hostage to ram through his unfair and unnecessary plans on the $100,000 degrees – a plan that remains central to the Liberals’ higher education policies.

I believe the Minister and the Turnbull Liberal Government hold the same attitude of contempt towards the CSIRO.

Labor has a very different attitude. We have different priorities. We would not allow the CSIRO to cut these jobs.

If I had the privilege to serve as Science Minister in a Shorten Labor Government, I would direct the board accordingly.

This is not something that I take lightly. In all my time as Science Minister I never directed the CSIRO board in this way.

 But in this case the stakes are just too high. CSIRO's globally unique climate science capabilities are world recognised. If they are lost, they will never recover.

So I call on the Government once again to do the responsible thing and direct CSIRO to cease and desist in implementing these controversial job cuts.

To stubbornly proceed in the way the Turnbull Liberals are, despite the manifest evidence of failure in the process and consultations that we have seen, is simply wrong. It is not a responsible way to govern.

The Government owes this not just to CSIRO’s staff, but to every Australian.

If the Liberals continue in their neglect, Labor will hold them to account throughout this election campaign for their denigration of CSIRO and for the damage it inflicts upon Australia’s research capacity and reputation.

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