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CSIRO closes sites and cuts research as result of budget

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Tom Arup and Nicky Phillips

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CSIRO is closing several research sites, including relocating world-renowned climate research from its long standing atmospheric laboratory in Victoria, following the federal government’s budget cuts.

An annual direction statement, written by CSIRO chief executive Megan Clark and obtained by the organisation’s staff association, details significant internal changes to research as CSIRO enacts the cuts and offsets lower expected commercial revenue.

The organisation will cut key research areas such as geothermal energy, marine biodiversity, liquid fuels and radio astronomy and close eight sites across the country.

The federal government cut CSIRO’s funding by $111 million over four years, which will result in 500 job cuts at the nation’s peak scientific organisation.

The CSIRO Staff Association says closure of some sites was expected as a consolidation of property in capital cities but others were surprising.

Association president Michael Borgas said plans to close the irrigation research laboratory in Griffith came as a shock to staff. The Mopra Telescope near Coonabarabran in NSW will also close.

Dr Borgas said a plan to move the Aspendale Laboratories to the organisation’s larger site in Clayton had been previously discussed but had come to nothing.

He said it was unclear whether the relocation would reduce the research performed by the 130 staff, which includes ice core analysis, air quality and pollution research and climate and atmospheric modelling.

While Dr Borgas acknowledged the proposed budget meant a lot of tough decisions had to be made he hoped the site’s relocation would not be seen as an excuse to cut its research. 

CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan said no decision about the future of Aspendale and Griffith's operations had been made or the timing of the moves.

When asked how much money CSIRO expected to save from closing these sites Mr Morgan said it would be inappropriate to comment. 

The plan to close sites is another blow to the organisation.

‘‘I think people are overwhelmed by a whole range of uncertainties at the moment,’’ Dr Borgas said.

Also as a result of the cuts, and to respond to ‘‘strategically to national priorities’’, CSIRO will overhaul its research efforts. 

In its energy program unconventional gas and mining will receive a boost while low carbon technologies and liquid fuels will be cut back.

The directions statement, marked commercial-in-confidence, says as research and development in unconventional gas – such as coal seam and shale gas – has the potential to ‘‘create significant value for our nation’’ CSIRO will increase research in the area. It will also implement its new mining strategy focusing on activities ‘‘that help to significantly enhance the productivity of this vital sector’’.

But in low emissions energy technologies the statement says: ‘‘To adjust to the more difficult operating environment, we will stop our geothermal work and reduce other activities, especially in CO2 capture and efficient energy management.’’

Neuroscience and colo-rectal research will be cut, unless it relates to nutrition. So will bioscience and nanoscience.

In environmental sciences the document says the organisation will be placing ‘‘special emphasis’’ on supporting industry, such as technologies to boost the resilience of natural and built assets including efforts to support the sustainable development of the offshore oil and gas industry.

Another focus will be providing information to speed up project assessments and approvals, especially in northern Australia and the resources sector.

But urban water research will be reduced and overall investment in terrestrial and marine biodiversity will be lower.