Denham Sadler
August 1, 2017

CSIRO silent on drug testing

Policy

CSIRO silent on drug testing

Testing times: There is a hold-up on using Australian scientists to catch drug users. But it's a secret

The CSIRO’s involvement with the government’s drug testing of welfare recipients is still up in the air as new documents reveal the organisation has still not signed a contract it received more than two months ago.

The federal budget revealed in May that government would conducting drug tests of 5,000 new welfare recipients across three different locations around the country from the start of next year.

Two days after the budget, social services minister Christian Porter said the CSIRO’s data unit Data61 would assist with the scheme by developing a “data-driven profiling tool” to determine which locations the drug testing will be conducted.

But documents obtained by InnovationAus.com under a Freedom of Information request reveal that CSIRO was informed of the government's welfare drug testing plan a month before it was formally announced.

The organisation has still not signed the contract to work on the project nearly four months after declaring it was “eager” to participate.

The documents, internal correspondence between the CSIRO and the Department of Social Services, were heavily redacted by the CSIRO, with details of the contract and Data61’s planned involvement remaining secret.

They reveal that management at Data61 was “eager” to be involved with the controversial welfare drug testing scheme. CSIRO representatives were first asked to be involved in the drug testing scheme by the Department of Social Services in a meeting nearly four months ago on 7 April.

“The Department will be implementing a trial of 5,000 of activity tested income support recipients across a number of small geographic locations. We are wanting to discuss building a profiling tool for DHS to use looking at certain characteristics of the recipients to choose for the trial,” an email sent by a department representative said

Following this meeting, Data61 representatives were sent a “high-level” description of the planned program on April 11, followed up the next day with a draft services agreement.

“We are really excited to work with your team on this project,” a Data61 representative sent to the department.

Two weeks later, a Data61 manager again emailed the DSS, stating they were “eager” to begin the project and could do so as soon as it could “receive the data in the required specification”.

But it wasn’t until May 15, a week after the welfare drug testing program was revealed in the budget and met with much public outcry, that Data61 was sent the formal Commonwealth contract for their involvement.

The contract was for the development of a “prediction system”. Under the Freedom of Information release, the document has been redacted in its entirety. The contract was reviewed by a legal team and slightly altered, before the final version was sent on May 23.

But this contract is still yet to be signed off on. Data61’s involvement in the government’s highly controversial scheme remaining up in the air.

“We’re still in discussions with DSS about the scope and nature of the work. The project has not yet been finalised and an agreement has yet to be executed,” a Data61 spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.

Despite this, Data61 has conducted “preliminary technical analysis” of de-identified data provided by the department which helped to “determine the design of the full project”, the spokesperson confirmed.

The Department of Social Services confirmed the contract with Data61 still had not been formally agreed.

“Department of Social Services and CSIRO’s Data61 are continuing to discuss the details of risk profiling to support the trial. The government will make further announcements about the trial at an appropriate time,” the spokesperson told InnovationAus.com.

The majority of the correspondence and contained contracts, along with the names of those involved, have been redacted due to them containing “commercially valuable information”.

The FOI decision stated that the release of the contracts would impact the CSIRO’s ability to operate.

“The information does not have exchange value as it is not a trade secret, nor does it relate to CSIRO’s or third parties’ intellectual property. However, the information relates to the profitability or commercial activities in which CSIRO is involved and is therefore of value to CSIRO,” the decision stated.

“I am satisfied that the disclosure of the information would result in more than mere criticism or embarrassment for CSIRO and related third parties. I have determined that the intrinsic value of the information would be diminished if it were disclosed.”

Although the contract is still yet to be signed, the documents do show that Data61, or at least organisation’s management, is enthusiastic and happy to be involved with the highly controversial program.

InnovationAus.com understands that other members of the Data61 team are less enthused with their involvement, with some suggesting the issue had created an “existential crisis”.

But CSIRO boss Dr Larry Marshall told Senate estimates last month that he was supportive of Data61’s possible involvement.

“This is an important issue, organisations all around the world are starting to use data in this way. As the national science agency we feel it’s very important to ensure the science is done to the highest standards,” Dr Marshall said.

Data61’s involvement in the controversial scheme was seemingly prematurely announced by Minister Porter in an interview on 11 May.

“We’ll use a combination of data that we will help develop with Data61 and CSIRO,” Mr Porter said.

The government wants the organisation to draw on data sets from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, internal data from the DHS and the DSS and waste-water analysis, among others, to formulate an algorithm to determine the most suitable places for the drug testing trials to take place.

But the waste-water analysis that would underpin Data61’s work is also in crisis, with both Tasmania and the Northern Territory reportedly refusing to be included in the study.

The program, which is overseen by the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) in partnership with the University of Queensland and the University of South Australia, is supposed to run for three years with $3.6 million in federal funding.

The program just released the second in a series of nine tests for drugs of the nation’s wastewater, but this report did not include data from Tasmania or the Northern Territory, with ACIC claiming that both had backed out of the scheme.

But TasWater, the agency responsible for providing wastewater samples to the program, has disputed this, saying that the state has been involved with the program from the beginning and has been providing data.

The report found that Western Australia has the biggest problem with ice addiction in the country, while Sydney has the highest rate of cocaine use.

The drug testing scheme will be mainly testing for cannabis, ice and ecstasy use in new welfare recipients in the three selected locations.

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