CSIRO job cuts threaten lab that ‘invented Wi-Fi’

Fairfax Media reports that proposed cuts at Data61 – the newly created entity that merges NICTA with CSIRO’s Digital Productivity unit – has sparked fears that the future of the Marsfield Laboratory could be under threat.

CSIRO job cuts threaten lab that ‘invented Wi-Fi’
Marcus Strom, Fairfax Media

The CSIRO laboratory credited with “inventing Wi-Fi” is facing job cuts that threaten its commercial capabilities, according to scientists who work there.

The Marsfield lab in north-west Sydney is being restructured as part of the merger between CSIRO’s digital productivity unit and NICTA, the National Information Communications Technology Australia to form Data61, a new CSIRO business unit.

The merger was announced last year and is separate to the broader CSIRO restructure announced in February by chief executive Larry Marshall.

Scientists working at the Marsfield lab in the 1990s developed technology that now underpins most modern Wi-Fi systems.

The CSIRO is so proud of the work at the Marsfield lab it is listed as number one in its “top-10 inventions”.

Now, the Wi-Fi lab is facing job cuts that threaten commercial arrangements with strategic partners, according to CSIRO scientists working at the site.

One scientist at the Marsfield lab told the Herald that redundancies had already reduced capability. He said that from nearly 50 staff in mid 2013 there were now about 35.

“It’s getting to the point where removing a single person will end our ability to produce any useful systems,” the scientist said on condition of anonymity as they were not authorised to speak to the media.

The Marsfield lab undertakes research and product development on antennas, circuits, algorithms and firmware, among other technologies. Some of the commercially-relevant research involves location technology for the mining industry and firmware that allows for faster trading in financial markets.

Another scientist at the site said that “the Wi-Fi lab continues to bring in vital revenue for the CSIRO from the private sector, which will have to be terminated or scaled back owing to the loss of capabilities”.

The Herald understands that the Marsfield lab has commercial arrangements that include contracts with OPTUS, EM Solutions in Queensland and UTS. Further, the lab maintains a strategic partnership with a major US aeronautics company. Staff at the lab are not allowed to mention the company by name, due to sensitivity about the partnership.

The chief executive of Data61, Adrian Turner, told Fairfax Media that “at this time no decisions have been taken about teams impacted, including teams at Marsfield”.

He said: “To speculate about the outcomes at this stage would be irresponsible. We have been open, transparent, thoughtful and inclusive with the Data61 team around this difficult process.”

Mr Turner said: “In the initial analysis we believed the worst case could be some 200 people [made redundant]. Having worked hard to minimise the impact we are now looking at less than 100 impacted team members in total.”

This will be about one-sixth of the merged staff numbers, according to a CSIRO staff member at Marsfield.

One of the leaders of the Wi-Fi team from the ’90s, John O’Sullivan, told Fairfax Media he was “concerned that important skills get dissipated” during redundancies “not to mention the personal consequences”.

Dr O’Sullivan is no longer connected to the Marsfield lab but said he believed people still working there “did not have clarity around what was going on”.

Another member of that Wi-Fi development team said there was “continuing confusion” at the Marsfield lab that was affecting morale.

The federal government is investing $75 million in Data61 as part of the National Innovation and Science Agenda. However, a scientist at the Marsfield lab said that would only replace only 75 per cent of the funding shortfall from the closing of NICTA, meaning that up to 70 staff would need to be redeployed.

There are five teams under two group directors at the Marsfield site, according to a staff member there. About three weeks ago, according to another Marsfield source, two teams at the Wi-Fi lab were asked to “show cause” as to why they should not be shut down.

In an email sent to staff on April 20 and seen by Fairfax Media, Mr Turner said: “We’ve now identified potential impacted team members but are going to take some additional time to look at other ways to minimise reductions.”

The Data61 CEO said he expected to communicate the outcome of this process in the week commencing May 9.

data61 email

Email from Data61 CEO Adrian Turner to staff on April 20, 2016.

A spokesman for the Minister for Science, Christopher Pyne, said: “The CSIRO is an independent statutory agency governed by a board of directors. The board in conjunction with senior management are responsible for operations, including staffing, and setting the CSIRO’s priorities.”

An email sent on Tuesday to all CSIRO staff from Dr Marshall contained new redundancy figures, “lowering the number of staff reductions by 75 from our upper limit estimate of 350 to now be 275”. That email made no mention of Data61. However, a spokesman for the CSIRO said that was because the restructuring of Data61 was separate to the process announced by Dr Marshall in February, not because Data61 was now excluded from redundancies.

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