The head of Australia's national science agency says there are no plans for mass staff cuts, as the CSIRO considers applying for an exemption from the federal government's public service staffing cap.
Senior executives appeared before Senate estimates on Thursday night, as the agency faces having to meet the average staffing level cap for the first time.
After recovering from years of budget cuts, the CSIRO was on track to "substantially exceed" its 5193-person cap that would be difficult to meet "without careful decision making and leadership", a factsheet circulated within the agency in July said.
The factsheet said business units that were over their caps had to pause non-essential recruitment, or only hire for urgent vacancies. It also asked them to consider increasing their use of contractor labour, secondments or overtime.
CSIRO Staff Association - which is a division of the Community and Public Sector Union - is campaigning for the CSIRO to be unshackled from the staffing cap, amid fears the restrictions will endanger the agency's vital work.
CSIRO chief executive Dr Larry Marshall told senators the agency was in talks with the Department of Finance about potentially lifting the cap.
But he said it was likely the agency would look to other means to help meet the requirements.
"One of the things that we've learned previously in this sort of situation is CSIRO needs to show that it's exhausted all other avenues, and then go to government to request help with whatever we're doing," Dr Marshall said.
Dr Marshall also said there was some "flexibility" with the size of its workforce, because more than 1100 staff were on temporary contracts.
But he dismissed allegations from the union that all fixed term and casual staff - about 1500 jobs - were under review.
"For the 5500 CSIRO staff who might be listening tonight, as we've told them personally there's no redundancy plan. There's no big reduction plan or anything like that," Dr Marshall said.
"Because we're such a large organisation, there is a natural turnover ... And we also have a lot of students that work in CSIRO and we think of them as interns, but the technical name for them is postdocs, these are these are kids that have just graduated and they come into CSIRO to actually work on an industry project so that they're more employable by industry, and they tend to cycle through as well.
"So we do have some flexibility in the size of our workforce quite naturally without having to make any other changes."
CSIRO chief operating officer Judi Zielke said no scientists were employed through ABNs at the agency, despite the CSIRO Staff Association telling a separate inquiry scientists were considering asking students to set up a business so they could be contracted externally.
Ms Zielke also denied recruitment was on hold at the agency.
She estimated there were about 100 positions vacant that it was recruiting for, but that it was considering each position on a case-by-case basis with the cap in mind.
But Dr Marshall said there were other creative ways the agency was circumventing the cap.
While the cap meant it could not increase the number of staff on the payroll, the agency could engage staff through collaborations with universities.
"To give you a concrete example might make it easy to explain. When we created the Centre for Southern Hemisphere Oceans Research in Hobart ... we brought in about $10 million from the Chinese Academy of Science," Dr Marshall said.
"We shared part of that funding with University of New South Wales and University of Tasmania. And then they put some people into the centre alongside our people. So that's an example where we shared some revenue, external revenue with other parties so that we didn't actually have to grow our workforce, we could actually let them grow up, grow theirs.
"We've done a number of arrangements like that we've helped grow university capability. We've also created a number of what we call joint appointments, where we take a CSIRO person and we make them a professor at a university and they have kind of two roles.
"That's good for ASL because that only counts for half on our books and half on the university's books, and it's also good for connecting the universities better to industry."
And while the staff association predicted the enforcement of the cap could cost the CSIRO $15 million in lost work, Ms Zielke said, "anecdotally, we don't see it as making a huge difference at this stage". Neither the CSIRO nor the government had modelled the impact of the cap though.
Dr Marshall said he was unaware of any work being turned away because of the cap, although he said the CSIRO often rejected projects if it felt it was not related to its priority areas, or that industry or the university sector could do it better.
He said CSIRO's purpose was not to make money, although 40 per cent of its funding came from external sources.
Dr Marshall said the cap, because it was new for CSIRO was "like a roadblock" in the minds of many staff.
"I think, in practice, it's nowhere near the impediment that it might seem," Dr Marshall said.
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