New priorities will mean fewer jobs and a change of focus for Australia’s national laboratories.

New priorities will mean fewer jobs and a change of focus for Australia’s national laboratories.

CSIRO (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Australia’s national lab network to cut staff and trim research efforts

Outrage has greeted a decision by the head of Australia’s premier research agency to cut jobs and eliminate work in certain fields, including basic climate science. According to Larry Marshall, chief executive of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) since 2014, there’s no need to “prove” climate change is real. “That question has been answered,” he wrote in an email message to staff yesterday. “The new question is what do we do about it.”

Marshall’s decision to “realign” CSIRO’s priorities could see 350 jobs go over the next 2 years and comes on top of cuts of more than $15 million to climate and environmental science in the 2014–15 federal budget.

Reaction within the scientific community was swift and scathing. Marshall’s decision has been described as “disappointing,” “appalling,” “disastrous,” “ludicrous,” and “deeply disturbing.”

“I am stunned by reports that CSIRO management no longer thinks measuring and understanding climate change is important, innovative, or impactful,” said former Australian chief scientist Penny Sackett, now with the Climate Change Institute at Australian National University in Canberra.

Andrew Holmes, president of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, warns there is now serious concern about the nation’s capacity to conduct climate and environmental science, as well as its ability to contribute to global monitoring of climate change. He said it is essential that research expertise is not lost. He called upon the government “to quickly make alternative arrangements” to continue a “national program of climate research.”

Most job losses will hit research areas dealing with oceans and atmosphere, land and water, manufacturing, and a digital technology group called Data61. In the email, Marshall wrote that Data61 would be the “lynchpin of our new strategy,” without explaining how that entails job cuts.

According to Ian Lowe, an expert in science and society with Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia, Marshall’s thinking reflects his background as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, which he was prior to his appointment to the top job at CSIRO. Lowe points to Marshall’s use of phrases such as “reductions in headcount,” “renew our business,” and “business units.” In interviews Marshall has also talked about “moonshots” and the need to “turn over” staff.

“The language reveals that the government is trying to sabotage our public science body and turn it into a consulting business,” Lowe argues.

Concerns about CSIRO’s direction stretch back to when Marshall was appointed in 2014. Observers worried his selection signalled the federal government’s desire to see CSIRO focus on commercially oriented research. Those fears increased last August when a government committee choose David Thodey, chief executive of Telstra, Australia’s largest telecommunication firm, to chair CSIRO’s board.

Marshall is modeling CSIRO on “Netflix and Silicon Valley,” said Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, which represents CSIRO employees. “IT startups might be agile, but deep science cannot be simply switched on and off again,” Flood said in a statement.

Marshall treated staff as if they were corporate employees, not members of a research organization, said Sam Popovski, CSIRO staff association secretary. “We were shocked,” he said. “No one believes they were consulted.”

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