A Commission of Audit recommendation to give the Federal Government greater control over the CSIRO could damage the organisation’s reputation for independence and scientific integrity, the CSIRO Staff Association has warned.
“CSIRO is trusted by the Australian public – not only because of its extraordinarily strong record of innovation – but also due to the organisation’s reputation for research integrity,” said CSIRO Staff Association Acting Secretary Dr Michael Borgas.
“It’s hard to understand why the Commission of Audit believes that winning formula should be changed,” Dr Borgas said.
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The National Commission of Audit – set up by the Abbott Government to review and report on the performance, functions and roles of the Commonwealth – has made several recommendations relating to CSIRO. These include:
- Increasing government oversight and ministerial control over the work of the CSIRO
- Cutting the Australian Climate Change Science Program which supports research by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology
- Abolish the Cooperative Research Centres program
- Abolishing the current Industry Innovation Precincts programme
- Ending sector-specific industry grants – including the Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships and the Innovation Investment Fund
- Changing the funding of Rural Research and Development Corporations, with potential flow on effects to CSIRO partnership arrangements
- Listing CSIRO’s $1.5 billion property portfolio as part of a central register with a divestment agenda
- Finding a $175 million shortfall in maintenance funding necessary to keep CSIRO facilities up to code
In terms of CSIRO, the Commission of Audit has recommended changes that allow “for more government oversight of the work of the (CSIRO) to ensure that resources are being directed to areas of greatest priority.”
The Commission of Audit report advocates changing the legislative basis for CSIRO into a Financial Management and Accountability Act 1997 body, bringing it under direct control of the Industry Ministry and removing the current ‘at arm’s length’ distance from Government.
Dr Borgas expressed concern at the proposal.
“Scientific integrity at CSIRO could be threatened if a situation develops where politicians have the power of ‘picking winners’ when it comes to research and could open the door to political interference in the work of scientists.”
Dr Borgas said that CSIRO’s independent Board had served the organisation well in terms of accountability and oversight.
“However it’s difficult to see a viable future for an independent CSIRO Board if the Commission of Audit’s recommendation is implemented,” he said.
Dr Borgas said that the proposal to axe the Australian Climate Change Science Program which supports climate research to the tune of $31.6 million would have a major impact on CSIRO.
“It doesn’t make sense to cut this program, especially given that the Federal Government has said they will rely on climate advice from the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) following their earlier decision to abolish the Department of Climate Change,” Dr Borgas said.
“Getting rid of the Australian Climate Change Science Program will damage the capacity of both CSIRO and BOM to deliver accurate advice on global warming.”
CSIRO has spent the last twelve months struggling to maintain research capability in the face of declining external earnings. The organisation has cut hundreds of jobs – both to ongoing positions and through an indefinite hiring freeze targeting term or contract staff.
As of 31 March 2014, staff numbers at CSIRO fell by 400 to a total of 6,079; down from 6,477 positions only nine months earlier.
CSIRO recently announced that another 300 positions – mainly support roles – would go by the end of the year – translating to a reduction of more than ten per cent based on the 2013 head count, or the loss of one in ten jobs at CSIRO.
Some media reports have suggested that the Abbott Government plans to cut CSIRO’s funding by up to twenty per cent – nearly $150 million – in the upcoming federal budget.