Technology

CSIRO scientists sorting mail, cleaning labs after budget cuts

<i>Illustration: Cathy Wilcox</i>
Illustration: Cathy Wilcox 

Some highly skilled scientists and project leaders at the CSIRO are being kept from their research to clean laboratories, write promotional material, sort mail and refill photocopiers after government budget cuts and a efficiency drive that have forced the departure of 100 support staff.

A senior CSIRO scientist, who asked not be named, said that meant the scientists in some sections who remained had less time to conduct research or lead projects because they were burdened with extra duties, such as writing pamphlets and stocking chemicals.

"Someone who is paid $150,000 a year shouldn't spend one half day a week washing glassware," he said.

The senior scientist, who worked as a project manager collaborating with industry, said CSIRO had been forced into this position.

"They're doing their best to keep the money in the science, but the consequence is that high-level scientists do a lot of menial tasks because there is no one else to do them."

In the last financial year, CSIRO lost 513 positions after a Labor government-enforced efficiency drive, a recruitment freeze implemented by the Abbott government and falling external revenue.

As a direct consequence of the federal government slashing $111 million from CSIRO's funding over four years in the May budget, the organisation would lose 400 researchers and support staff by mid next year and another 300 positions would be cut after an internal restructure.

In the past year, the organisation had also lost almost half of its science communicators, forcing some scientists to create promotional material themselves.

"We've become amateur publishers," he said.

The secretary of the staff association Sam Popovski was critical of management's decision to cut support staff, and said the consequence was that scientists had less time to deliver science in the national interest or work with collaborators and industry to maximise the impact of their science.

"They lose efficiency if these roles are done by scientists rather than support staff," he said.

The CSIRO was well regarded for its many innovations, such as the technology behind wireless internet, and its collaborations with industry.

"We have a strong, solid track record of producing valuable, high-tech products which have led to Australia owning the technology, developing our own industries and start-ups that produce high-tech goods and employ people in high-paid jobs," said the scientist.

Another staff member, who also asked to remain anonymous, said CSIRO could always employ more people to clean glassware but the staff cuts and budget constraints would hurt the organisation's reputation in the long term.

"What's not reversible is the damage to CSIRO's image, both to young upcoming scientists currently in school and to our overseas colleagues looking to see Australia's direction in science," he said.

Last month, management confirmed eight infectious disease researchers at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, the country's only facility for researching live samples of deadly diseases such as Ebola, would also lose their jobs.

Greens deputy leader Adam Bandt said that, as Médecins Sans Frontières was calling for governments around the world to lift their game to fight Ebola, Australia's leaders were taking research in the opposite direction.

Mr Bandt said Australia needed a vision for the end of the mining boom and a smart, well-funded CSIRO was a crucial part of that.

CSIRO spokesman Huw Morgan said the organisation was in the middle of a reform program to streamline business processes, improve customer satisfaction and staff wellbeing.

"The efficiencies are being directed at supporting the science and research we do."

"We still have good Enterprise support structures and like all professional workplaces, CSIRO provides staff with the tools to do their job and to take responsibility for undertaking some administrative tasks themselves," he said.

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