Major Australian research job cuts on the cards

The announcement last week by Australia’s prime minister, Tony Abbott, to cut 12,000 public service jobs through hiring freezes, including temporary positions at the country’s premier national science agency, triggered howls of protest that key national research projects could be paralysed.

But nearly a week after the announcement, there is still pervading uncertainty over how many jobs might be lost at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and what the overall effect on its research might be. ‘The situation remains quite murky and we’ve formally requested clarification from management across a range of issues,’ says CSIRO staff association secretary Sam Popovski.

Abbott’s hiring freeze and it’s the potential disruption to CSIRO was attacked by opposition politicians, scientists and others, including philanthropist and businessman Rob Purves, head of World Wildlife Fund Australia.

Since taking office in September, Abbott’s commitment to science has already been questioned, partly because of his seemingly sceptical stance on climate change and failure to appoint a science minister to his cabinet. Abbott responded by saying: ‘Let me tell you that the United States does not have a secretary for science and no nation on Earth has been as successful and innovative.’

After Abbott’s hiring freeze announcement, initial reports on 8 November, including a statement from the CSIRO staff association, claimed that 1400 term and casual employees, or 22% of CSIRO’s total staff of approximately 6500, could lose their jobs.

But Megan Clark, CSIRO chief executive, issued a statement that appeared to downplay the situation. She described the published job loss estimates as ‘incorrect’, saying that in fiscal year 2013–14 there are 300 non-casual contracted staff whose terms finish and about 50 casual staff whose contracts are due for renewal. ‘I want to remind everyone that, with approval, we can still renew contracts and recruit to positions that are critical for our work,’ she said. ‘We will not be compromising on our commitments to industry or other key stakeholders through these changes.’

A CSIRO staff association spokesperson tells Chemistry World that the association stands by its initial job loss estimate, saying: ‘Potentially, if the freeze is indefinite, up to 1400 term and casual staff employed by CSIRO could lose their jobs through non-renewal of contracts.’ But the spokesperson acknowledged that the job cuts are not set in stone. ‘Put simply, we don’t know how many jobs are potentially lost at this stage, as CSIRO have not confirmed how long the hiring freeze will remain in place.’

Popovski, the CSIRO staff association secretary, wants more information from Clark, specifically which areas of research will be affected and how, and which CSIRO site locations. He adds that the motivation for the job cuts and Clark’s role in the decision remains unclear.

Popovski sent a strongly worded letter to Clark on 11 November demanding clarification. He asked: ‘Why has misleading information been provided to staff which implies that the decision on the recruitment/staffing process at CSIRO is in line with decisions of government and APSC [Australian Public Service Commission], when in fact, no such alignments exist through either legislation or policy?’ He requested a response by 15 November.

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