Job cuts in Aussie science

Scientists raise concerns after Australia's top government science organization decides to trim support staff

By | November 9, 2005

Australia's major government science body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), announced last week that it is planning to cut up to 25% of its research support staff in an effort to save money. CSIRO executives argued the move would let the group spend more on science, but scientists said they see the cuts as part of a restructuring they fear will enable administrators to make more decisions about what is researched.

Mike Whelan, the organization's chief financial officer, described the plan at a Senate committee hearing on Thursday (November 3). He told politicians that a staff review was being undertaken in an effort to save $30 million a year, and insisted that the cuts would allow the organization to spend more money on science.

Whelan told The Scientist the cuts would bring CSIRO in line with other comparable organizations. "We spend in the order of $985 million a year [in total expenditure] and about one-third of that is on support," he said. "When we look at other organizations in our business…in some cases we spend about double what others spend on support."

He added that cutting back on that expense saves the organization a lot of money. "What we're doing is seeing if it is possible over the next three years to save 20% to 25% of that, which is about $30 million a year by the third year."

Approximately 780 staff members fall within the scope of the review, he said, in areas such as finance, human resources, contract administration, legal and information services. He added that job losses were likely to result from natural attrition, with forced redundancy being a worst-case scenario. Total job losses could be in the order of 200, but would not be as high as 400, he told The Scientist.

The announcement has come after a year in which CSIRO posted a $9.2 million deficit despite an increase in government funding, according to its 2004-2005 annual report, released on October 26. This represented a 73% increase in the size of the deficit from the previous year.

According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Whelan told the Senate committee that the CSIRO was already $1 million in deficit for this year and had sought permission from the Department of Finance to be allowed to run up a deficit of around $14 million.

However, he told The Scientist that the deficits were not an indication that the organization was in financial trouble. "It couldn't be further from the truth," he said. "Revenue from government and external sources is growing. Last year was challenging in the context of the plans we've set for ourselves, it's not that in absolute terms we're in problems."

Michael Borgas, an atmospheric research scientist at CSIRO and president of the organization's staff association, told The Scientist that the job cuts weren't only about saving money—they were also part of a much wider reorganization the agency has been undergoing over the past few years.

Under CEO Geoff Garrett, CSIRO had focused its efforts on several "flagship" programs that involve scientists from the organization's different divisions, Borgas explained. The support services that are being cut were allied to individual divisions, and scientists see the job losses as part of the administration's attempt to move the emphasis away from the divisions, and toward flagship programs. "Part of the change going on now is as much about saving money as it is about breaking down boundaries between organizational units," Borgas noted.

That change has been accompanied by a tendency for executive management to take a stronger role in setting research agendas, Borgas added, which is angering bench scientists. "It's a real problem. I think the scientists in the organization don't like that sort of top-down interference. I think this will lead to some pretty big problems in the near term. There's distrust between bench scientists and senior management."

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