Cuts to CSIRO make no sense

Climate science and astronomy are on the chopping block as CSIRO cuts a swathe through its activities in the wake of the federal budget.

Joe Hockey said on budget night: “One of our greatest strengths is our capacity to innovate and invent.”

He’s right.

So, why is there so much in the budget that throws innovation and invention into reverse? 

A $115 million cut to CSIRO last week is tough enough, but look closely at the flow-on effects, and the nation’s most trusted science agency has actually taken a hit of almost three times that size.

CSIRO does not live on public funds alone. Over the years it has built relationships with 2000 companies across 80 countries, and locked in royalties from successful inventions. This brings in around $500 million, or 40 per cent of its budget each year, and a part of that is now in jeopardy as well.

CSIRO CEO Megan Clark gave staff the "plain facts" in a frank update the day after the budget.


An estimated $49 million ($198 million over four years) in external revenue would be lost, with significant collaborative science projects to be closed down or diminished. That's $198 million on top of the $115 million in the budget, taking the total impact to more than $300 million over the next four years.

420 full-time staff would go within 12 months, 80 more later, and that came on top of 300 already cut in 2013. That takes total staff down to just over 5000.  

External dollars were already on the wane due to global market conditions, and previous budget cuts had seen all the fat trimmed.

Now, there is nowhere to cut but bone.

One area to go is radio astronomy, the area that brought us one of Australia’s best-known inventions, wifi. John O’Sullivan’s work cut the cords from devices across the globe, and has returned more than $500 million to Australia, with more to come. 

Also on the block are climate science, urban water, energy efficiency, carbon capture and geothermal energy.

How many of the other great CSIRO inventions will not eventuate if we continue to cut? Remember CSIRO bought us Relenza (the only anti-flu drug that works against all strains of the disease), Hendra Virus vaccine, extended wear contact lenses, plastic banknotes, dual flush toilets, permanent press material and Aeroguard (to protect our soldiers from mosquito-borne malaria). And the list goes on.

There are some budget measures that are good for science and innovation, including the renewal of the Future Fellowships, which fund work from world-class mid-career researchers, many of whom would otherwise be forced to seek work overseas. As well, the government has put aside money for the continued funding of critical big science infrastructure: the huge, high-tech facilities that are essential for modern science.

But at the same time many science agencies have taken a cut, and the Cooperative Research Centres, which have consistently returned much more than has been invested, are pretty much gutted with an $80 million cut and the current bid round cancelled mid-stream.

But why does this matter to the rest of us? Aren’t scientists just eccentric nerds having a whinge?

Well, science and innovation is where the global growth is, where the jobs and wealth are being created, and the rest of the word knows it.

The OECD reports that new sources of global growth are outstripping the old. Innovation activities - science, research and development - are responsible for as much as a whopping 85 per cent of economic growth.

Around the globe, especially in Asia but also in the US, innovation activities continue to outstrip GDP as the economic engine rooms.

The US is training 100,000 new teachers in science, technology, engineering and maths, with the aim of one million new university graduates in a decade.

We all know Australia has done very well out of mining in the past, but all the indications are that this cannot last.

In the budget papers, the Industry Department itself (which is responsible for CSIRO and other key science agencies) calls for an urgent shift to knowledge-intensive industries in areas such as food and agribusiness, technology, oil and gas, medical technology and advanced manufacturing.

So how do we do that?

Cutting funds to the nation’s pre-eminent industrial-research organisation seems a funny place to start.

It is clear that our future lies in a highly educated workforce.

If we don't nurture our own talent, others will.

We will find ourselves living off the scraps of other people's ideas - wondering what happened.

Australia’s scientists are happy to do as the Treasurer asks - make their contribution, take their fair share of the pain - pay more tax and receive fewer benefits.

But why would we force them to stop inventing, to stop working to create the ideas that lead to the new processes and jobs that will make us healthy and prosperous?

It just doesn’t make sense.

Catriona Jackson is CEO of peak advocacy group Science & Technology Australia