James Riley
November 10, 2013

Tough week at the CSIRO

Tough week at the CSIRO

Photo: CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope*

It was a tough week for science in Australia last week as it was revealed staff numbers at the nation’s flagship science agency – the CSIRO – are under threat.

An overblown story suggesting up to 1,400 scientists and researchers’ jobs were on the line was symptomatic of just how nervous the science community is about funding security right now.

The fact that Tony Abbott did not name a dedicated science minister to his ministry had already put the frighteners on the science community. So any news is taken as bad news right now.

Forget that CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark issued a statement saying the number of job cuts suggested by Fairfax media were hugely exaggerated, and that the Prime Minister’s office had denied that it had issued any directives to the CSIRO. The nervousness about the future of science funding is real, and there is good reason for it.

Dr Clark said the changes announced in a memo to staff on October 31 were run-of-business administrative issues – that they had nothing to do with the change in government, or with change in policy.

However, there is no getting around the fact that she announced a suspension on external recruitment (even if it is temporary) and a suspension on contract renewals (unless in exceptional circumstances.)

That alone is enough to give the entire science community the heebee jeebees. The rest of the wider public service will have been watching with trepidation, too..

It is not yet clear what the short to medium term future holds, but the signs are not great. The Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane (who holds the same science responsibilities – if not the title – as the last Science Minister Kim Carr) has not yet turned his attention to science. At least not publicly.

New government’s normally get 100 days before the media gives them their first report card. And as fractured and crippled as “the media” is these days, it is still common sense to wait for that 100 day window.

Because if Ian Macfarlane were to be judged right now, the results would be frightening indeed. It’s all car industry and mining industry from the minister so far.

And so we wait. Because Mr Macfarlane holds the purse strings to an awful lot of programs the tech sector wants to see retained – from Commercialisation Australia, to the Industry Innovation Fund, to the Australian Research Council, to NICTA and CSIRO.

This is big stuff. And so we wait.

The other reason the science community got a little sick last week was the announcement that Australia would be sending neither a Minister nor a senior government represent the nation at the international climate change negotiations in Poland this month.

Environment minister Greg Hunt is staying home. Australia is being represented by climate change ambassador Justin Lee. Of course on face value it is not unreasonable for Mr Hunt to remain in Australia – there has been a change in government and the first sitting weeks of the new Parliament will be held in this period.

But it is demoralising nonetheless. Poland is not a meeting of scientists, but rather a meeting of bureaucrats for negotiations on a new global agreement on how to reduce emissions. But the discussions are all about the science, and not attending paints a demoralising picture. It also sends an unequivocal message about Australia’s position on

There was at least some good news however.

NICTA announced the appointment of Karsten Schulz as National Manager of GroupX – a program being rolled out nationally aimed at increasing the number of local enrollments in tertiary ICT programs.

Dr Schulz is a former head of SAP Research in the Asia Pacific and has more recently been working at NICTA in a commercialisation and business development role. He is perfect for this job – bringing youth and enthusiasm to a program that has already proved effective in Queensland.

Group X is a collaborative initiative of industry, research, universities and government funded by the Australian Government’s Digital Careers Program. It includes representatives from industry, the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA) and the Australian Computer Society (ACS) along with professionals from the education and government sectors.

*Photo Credit: by CSIRO Parkes Radio Telescope via http://bit.ly/1JYdG52

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