License article

CSIRO hailed contribution to gravitation waves find – for work done by axed unit

CSIRO executives are being accused of claiming credit for achievements of a science unit it has recently axed, amid on-going job cuts at the agency.

Separately, an email leaked to Fairfax Media, indicates a key climate monitoring site has had its CSIRO funding slashed by 80 per cent in the past year even as officials pledge to maintain its operations.

The organisation last week trumpeted its contribution to the discovery of gravitational waves – predicted a century ago by Albert Einstein and now detected for the first time.

In a media release hailing "Aussie innovation" on Friday, CSIRO cited its key role – while omitting the fact it had made many of the researchers involved redundant just last year.

"The coatings [on the mirrors], which were developed and applied at CSIRO, are among the most uniform and precise ever made," Cathy Foley, science director of CSIRO Manufacturing, said. "We really are world leaders in this area."

Chris Walsh, a former manager of the research team and now with Sydney University, said the CSIRO's crowing was "pretty bold-faced" given the program "had been run into the ground" and disbanded.


"They are certainly right to claim credit," Dr Walsh said. "But in the future, [CSIRO] will have no capacity to play a role. They've certainly burnt their bridges [to the US managers of the project]."

CSIRO role

A spokesman for CSIRO said the organisation's role in the advanced stage of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) project was limited to coating the optics.

"We have maintained the optical thin film and metrology capability and all the coatings infrastructure," he said. "[California Institute of Technology] which is responsible for [the main] optics are arriving at CSIRO this week to work with us to coat further optics."

Dr Walsh, though, said the closure of the Australian Centre for Precision Optics at the Lindfield site and the departure of the senior team indicated the reduced interest in this field from CSIRO.

CSIRO staff were involved in optical polishing for the first phase of LIGO, and later coating work for the advanced stage of the project, Dr Walsh said.

"Staff of both sides (polishing and coating) have left," he said.

Tim Davis, a former scientist with CSIRO who worked with some of the optics team that was made redundant, was also critical of the organisation's response to the gravitational wave breakthrough.

"Given that the Precision Optics group has done such wonderful work we should be asking why CSIRO management recently sacked most of the staff, effectively closing down the facility," Dr Davis said, adding that he left the organisation after almost three decades as a physicist and now works in Germany.

Fairfax Media also sought comment from Science Minister Christopher Pyne.

'Vandalising' CSIRO

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten linked the abandonment of the optics research to the current CSIRO plan to slash another 350 staff, including half those in climate modelling and monitoring.

"[Prime Minister] Malcolm Turnbull is happy to use the CSIRO for a photo-op but his cuts are vandalising a great Australian institution," Mr Shorten said, referring to the PM's use of the agency to launch his innovation plan last December.

 "Australia cannot compete for the jobs of the future and for innovation with the rest of the world when we have a government that is recklessly sacking 350 scientists."

The latest cuts, which have prompted international calls for the PM to intervene, also drew the ire of former US Vice President Al Gore.

"CSIRO's research has been vital to the world's understanding of how our climate is changing and it has helped to build a foundation on which we can anticipate future change and risk," Mr Gore said in a statement. "[T] he decision to cut this effort from CSIRO should be revisited at the highest levels of the Australian government."

Grim funding slashed

Separately, an email leaked to Fairfax Media shows the climate monitoring site at Cape Grim on Tasmania's north-west – one of three key locations globally talking carbon dioxide readings  – had had its CSIRO funding cut by more than 80 per cent this financial year.

One executive, Alex Wonhas, told a Senate estimates hearing on Thursday CSIRO's funding this financial year for Cape Grim would be $226,246 and the Bureau of Meteorology would chip in $458,500. The installation would not shut down, he said.

An email sent on February 8 to Mr Wonhas's office shows previous years' funding was much higher, including $1.5 million the year before.

"Cape Grim is an important project through which CSIRO delivers international impact by the ongoing monitoring of greenhouse gases," a spokesman said on Sunday. "Funding is negotiated annually with the BoM depending on research activity, priorities and needs."

It's understood, though, that the $226,246 figure is only intended for maintenance of the site. The laboratory in Victoria that analyses the gas for its changing components is not currently funded, and will come under severe pressure given the current plan to cut staff.

"If they keep the funding they are talking about now, the gas lab will be gone," a senior scientist said.

The other two functions – the maintenance carried out by CSIRO and the collection of the gases by the bureau – "will be a complete waste" without the lab, the scientist said.

"From sitting through a week of Senate Estimates it is plain to me that the CSIRO leadership haven't the barest clue about what these cuts will mean to all their partner agencies right across the climate and Antarctic sector," Greens senator Peter Whish-Wilson said.

"The data from Cape Grim is of global importance and having the staff based out of there contributes to a critical mass of scientists that keeps Tasmania competitive as the world leader in Antarctic and climate science," the Tasmanian senator said.