The recent redirection of CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems research away from wildlife ecology to agricultural industry is one manifestation of a deep-seated quandary about CSIRO’s responsibility to Australians. In his 50-year history of CSIRO, Fields of Discovery, Brad Collis quotes founding father Sir David Rivett: “It has become necessary at times to plead for greater opportunity for our people to freely seek knowledge in a spirit of ultimate faith, rather than in a spirit of immediate profitseeking.”
Parliament established the CSIRO as a statutory body with broadly defined aims and a great deal of freedom to pursue them. Its primary functions were “to carry out scientific research to assist Australian industry and to further the interests of the Australian community”.
Over 20 years, federal governments have changed this by requiring CSIRO to obtain 30 per cent of its finance in addition to budget allocations. Under its current leadership, the drive for even greater external income has led CSIRO to mimic a public corporation. Its senior officers now carry management - rather than scientific - titles and use the language of business by describing users of its research as “clients,” while some senior and still-productive scientists are discarded as “surplus to requirements”.
But the CSIRO is not a company. It does not have directors answerable to shareholders, nor can its board hire or fire the chief executive. Its de facto shareholders - the taxpayers of Australia - have merely token power over its performance, indirectly through Parliament. Increasingly CSIRO gets external money through consultancies for “clients” and by “co-investments”. Both are short-term. In consultancies, clients pay 100 per cent of CSIRO’s costs (salaries, research and administration) and get 100 per cent of the research time of participating scientists and technicians, who then cannot tackle core tasks.
In co-investment, the user provides some of the costs, usually for research, while CSIRO provides salaries and administration in-kind. Thus, the co-investor gets 100 per cent of the time of scientists and technicians for a 50 per cent investment in the research.
If the co-investor is an Industry Research and Development Corporation (IRDC), it contributes only 25 per cent of the costs because IRDC funding is raised on a dollar-for-dollar basis between the relevant industry and the government. Thus, a co-investing IRDC partner gets 100 per cent of the CSIRO research time for a 25 per cent investment, the balance being contributed by taxpayers. This is a very substantial leverage for their contribution, and it is largely hidden from public view.
Because contractual obligations to external clients and co-investors generally take precedence when determining priorities, they drastically diminish the opportunities for CSIRO scientists to undertake long-term research on the highly complex problems besetting this country. These seldom attract external investors but undoubtedly “further the interests of the Australian community”.
Thus CSIRO researches timber production from indigenous forests but not its huge impact on the long-term survival of the forest biota. This is the nub of the problem: public good research is what the taxpayers are entitled to get from a statutory body, yet CSIRO predominantly now does research for private benefit, with a heavy subsidy from taxpayers.
Another disturbing consequence of the restrictive “corporate” ethos is that senior scientists with specialised knowledge seldom now speak publicly on matters of national importance. Those that have done so, including divisional chiefs, often find themselves “surplus to requirements”.
Three scientists with international expertise in climate, water and biodiversity, as well as several other chiefs, have left CSIRO involuntarily in the past two years. It seems that Rivett’s aspiration for CSIRO no longer matters.
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