Protective suits used by infectious disease researchers. Photo: Craig Abraham
The CSIRO will cut the number of infectious disease researchers at its Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, the country’s only facility capable of working with live samples of some of the most deadly diseases, including Ebola and MERS.
As the world's health authorities grapple to contain the largest outbreak of Ebola, infectious disease experts warned cuts to research would leave the country vulnerable to new and emerging diseases.
The CSIRO Staff Association said up to eight researchers would lose their jobs at the facility, which studies Ebola.
Director of CSIRO's Biosecurity Flagship Kurt Zuelke said the changes would affect scientists studying food-borne pathogens and infectious viral enteritis in poultry. He said researchers looking into Hendra virus and Avian flu were safe from the restructure.
The CSIRO also said Ebola researchers would not be directly affected by the cuts and that the organisation’s response to emerging infectious diseases would be protected.
Director of Queensland University’s Australian Infectious Disease Research Centre Mark Walker said CSIRO's AAHL was a world-leading research facility and the only laboratory in the country operating at level four, the highest biosafety level possible.
"Funding cuts will leave the nation exposed to new and emerging infectious disease agents," Professor Walker said.
"The country requires this type of expertise, as we don’t know which new virus will be a major health threat. It could be Ebola, or is could be something completely different," he said.
Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty expressed concern at the impact the staff cuts would have on research, which was dependent on continuity.
Professor Doherty, jointly-awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine, said the laboratory should be prized for its rare capacity to work with large animals, using live samples of some of the world’s most dangerous viruses.
‘‘They are an absolutely unique facility in south-east Asia,’’ he said. ‘‘You can work on large animal models, be it a cow, a sheep, a goat or even a llama and you can do that under level four security conditions.’’
The former Australian of the Year noted that if Prime Minister Tony Abbott wanted to make his name as the infrastructure prime minister then, scientifically speaking, that included staffing federally funded outfits such as CSIRO.
Professor Doherty said given science was a global discipline, Australia’s ‘‘scientifically illiterate government’’ risked losing talent to other countries, such as Singapore, which were investing in research. If or when conditions in the sector improved, they may not be willing or able to return to Australia.
CSIRO staff association's secretary Sam Popovski described the cuts as "particularly illogical and short-sighted.”
The Abbott government cut CSIRO's funding by $111 million over four years in the May federal budget, at the cost of 500 jobs.
Confirmation of the job cuts at CSIRO's Geelong laboratory come amid wider concern for the direction and value placed on science in Australia.
The country's chief scientist, Ian Chubb, this week lamented Australia’s lack of science and research policy during a speech in Sydney, in which he outlined a draft national science strategy which he said had been circulated among politicians.
He reiterated his warning that if Australia’s approach to science remained without purpose or coordination, then the country was at risk of being left behind.