Efficiency tax will stifle scientific work at CSIRO

CSIRO CEO Dr Megan Clark. AAP/Alan Porritt

A $23-million “efficiency dividend” on administrative costs at CSIRO will inevitably affect the quality of scientific research at Australia’s national science agency, staff association president Michael Borgas said.

CSIRO will lose 116 staff as a result of the cut, announced in the budget last night. Deputy CEO, Craig Roy, said the agency would attempt to absorb much of the loss through natural attrition.

But Mr Borgas said the cuts revealed the Government was spurning an opportunity “not only to ensure that Australia can support science careers, but also to generate industries and jobs for an innovation-based economy in the future”.

“We’re quite unhappy with the concept of an efficiency dividend, nominally on the administration component of our organisation,” Mr Borgas said. “Because at the end of the day we run a single budget in the organisation and the end cuts effectively apply everywhere, and will mean the loss of effort in scientific endeavour over the next four years.

"The money out of one bucket effectively drains out of everyone’s. We need to have a good administration and support functions to improve the scientific output. Part of being a member of our organisation is that you have supports available to you that you don’t get if you’re operating independently, as a university scientist, for example.”

Mr Borgas said CSIRO staff were “used to this ratcheting down effect, so it’s not like people will be slashing their wrists at the moment. It’s more death by a thousand cuts.”

In an upbeat email sent to CSIRO staff this morning, chief executive Megan Clark wrote that “in the context of Australia’s overall budget … it is heartening to see the importance of our science and innovation being acknowledged”.

The budget included a small increase in the agency’s appropriation of 1.6% - or $11.9 million - consistent with its Quadrennial Funding Agreement. It also included $6.5 million in funding for the continuation of the scientists and mathematicians in schools program, which CSIRO administers on behalf of the Government, and $29.8 million to build a Manufacturing Technology Innovation Centre that will work with CSIRO.

CSIRO’s total budget for 2012-13 will be $1.26 billion, an increase of 2.6% on the amount it is expected to deliver this year, $1.23 billion.

In her email, Dr Clark conceded that despite “increased investment in our research, it is likely there will be a net reduction to our average staffing level over the next year of 116 as forecast in our Portfolio Budget Statements. One of the factors driving this decrease in staff numbers is that our income is not increasing at the same rate as our costs.

"We will work to achieve these staffing levels through natural attrition as much as possible. However it is likely there will be redundancies in some areas as we continue to ensure that our research efforts align with our strategic goals.

Meanwhile Science and Technology Australia (STA) welcomed measures in the budget to boost maths and science education at school and university. A four-year $54 million package for teacher training announced by the Government is a response to a report by chief scientist Ian Chubb.

The package is designed to promote closer collaboration between scientists and universities with schools. The bulk of the money, $20 million, will be used to encourage a greater take-up of sciences in high school.

"While the budget measures are welcome and necessary, Australia must get better at converting its research strength into innovations that fuel the economy and improve our quality of life,” said STA president, Michael Holland.

“Australia’s greatest resources are more likely to be found above ground that below it.”

Professor Holland added: “It’s time we made good of Australian genius and developed a strong commercialisation environment that includes a well-developed innovation strategy, better collaboration between researchers and industry, strategic investments to support the development of new technologies, and measures to forge strategic partnership with our international counterparts.”

The Conversation receives funding from CSIRO.

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