Land and Water staff at CSIRO’s Black Mountain site in Canberra walked out of a question and answer session with Chief Executive Larry Marshall in unprecedented scenes of staff dismay and frustration.
Along with Oceans and Atmosphere, the Land and Water business unit is set to bear the brunt of Dr Marshall’s proposed cuts, with job losses also planned for Minerals and Energy, Digital Productivity and Manufacturing.
Sources present at the meeting described the Black Mountain meeting as “emotionally charged” with Dr Marshall ducking tough questions from staff and often adopting a combative tone; especially regarding the decision making processes that led to the proposal to slash Land and Water jobs.
However a mix of complex and conflicting messages from Dr Marshall seems to have only compounded staff confusion at the rationale behind the planned cuts.
Dr Marshall acknowledged that communication with staff had been poor but sought to deflect responsibility by blaming “poor editing” across a group of managers.
Marshall: Growth won’t come from government
Responding to questions about the damage of cuts to CSIRO’s reputation and the subsequent difficulties attracting partnerships, Dr Marshall – perhaps glibly – remarked that focussing on increasing funding from Government would have involved job cuts in the thousands.
“I had a choice when I came to CSIRO, I could fire 2600-3000 staff and focus on appropriation … but I don’t want to do that, I want to continue focusing on impact… but growth won’t come from Government,” Dr Marshall is reported to have said.
The comments perhaps echo the rhetoric employed less than 18 months ago by the then newly announced Chief Executive and in hindsight raise questions relating to government intentions regarding science and innovation.
“You don’t hire a guy like me to cut. You just don’t. And I think that was the best message that the board and the government could’ve given the organisation, to hire a guy like me, who’s a company builder,” Dr Marshall told Guardian Australia in December 2014.
Sustained questioning regarding the business case justifying the proposed cuts at Land and Water failed to satisfy attendees, many who reported emerging more confused than ever. Tensions flared with one senior researcher commenting to Fairfax media that “people got fed up of having their questions marginalised, trivialised, and with being lied to.”
Business Unit Leader Paul Hardisty walked out of the meeting in obvious frustration. Many staff in attendance soon followed.
In a subsequent email to staff, Dr Marshall acknowledged that adopting a Question and Answer format had “led to an adversarial style debate” and proposed to try a different approach in future including “listening to (staff) perspectives.”
“I am truly sorry for the pain that this is causing our people,” Dr Marshall wrote. “I know many of us are having sleepless nights.”