The Narrabri array will only be operated remotely.

The Narrabri array will only be operated remotely.

Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

CSIRO trims Australian space science slots

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australian space scientists are lamenting news that up to 30 astronomy jobs will be eliminated at the national research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). The $21-million-a-year CSIRO Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) program is being reduced by 15% in the wake of an austerity budget announced in May by the country’s conservative government.

CSIRO’s current budget of roughly $700 million is being trimmed by $27 million in this fiscal year and a total of $115 million over the next 4 years. That reduction could lead to as many as 420 fewer jobs across the agency. But those cuts are not spread equally across the agency’s portfolio: Some areas are relatively unaffected, while the space science program is being hit especially hard.

“We’ve been forced into a completely reactive mode,” says CASS head Lewis Ball. In addition to the size of the cuts, Ball is unhappy with what he sees as the frequent changes in government policy toward research and the lack of stable funding for the country’s shared major research facilities. The current ad hoc approach, he says, “barely stops us from dropping off the edge of the cliff each year.”

CSIRO did not respond to questions from ScienceInsider about how it selected certain programs for funding cuts or elimination and spared others. But last week, scientists attending the annual meeting of the Astronomical Society of Australia learned a few more details about how the overall cuts would affect their discipline.

Roughly two-thirds of the personnel cuts will be achieved by not filling vacant or term positions when they come to an end, Ball says. But there will “certainly” be some layoffs at the Parkes radio observatory, he adds. Cuts to support services, he says, will require scientists to operate the Narrabri radio observatory remotely, either from CASS headquarters or their home institutions.

The program’s shrinking budget will also take a toll on Australia’s participation in the $2.5 billion Square Kilometre Array (SKA). The position of CSIRO chief scientist for Australia’s participation in the world’s largest radio telescope, set to begin in 2018 in western Australia and South Africa, will remain vacant, and the Australian government has not committed funding for SKA beyond 2017. “We will aim to fill this role as best we can from within the existing, significantly reduced, astronomy staff in CASS,” says Ball, who calls the cuts to radio astronomy “very shortsighted.”