CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall has used a major address to launch a new missions program for the organisation, aimed at ‘solving some of Australia’s greatest challenges’ and contributing to economic recovery in response to the ongoing damage wrought by the coronavirus pandemic.
However, the missions announcement – welcomed by Science Minister Karen Andrews and CSIRO Chair David Thodey – was made with no talk of an increase in Federal Government funding; despite a hefty $100 million price tag and earlier warnings from Dr Marshall that the organisation already expects a steep decline in external earnings.
The shift in approach will be backed up by the development of an internal capability bidding platform dubbed ‘Interchange’ which is aimed at matching projects from business units through the missions funding pool, with the aim of fast-tracking research.
Speaking at the National Press Club, Dr Marshall pointed out that the twin bushfire and coronavirus crises had put the research contribution of CSIRO firmly in the national spotlight.
“COVID-19 and the devastating bushfires of last season have brought into sharp focus the role of science in national preparedness, and in our ability to weather future crises. But it’s important to understand that this doesn’t just happen – it involves foresight, planning, and investment in the right areas.”
“We are announcing a new program of missions to support Australia’s future… they will help us deliver on our six great challenges and accelerate the pace and scale at which we can address each one, focused on outcomes that lead to positive impact, new jobs and economic growth.”
According to CSIRO, the six challenges identified by the missions program are food security and quality, health and wellbeing, resilient and valuable environments, sustainable energy and resources, future industries and regional security.
“We are working with government, universities, industry and the community to co-create and deliver these missions,” Dr Marshall said.
“Some will be led by CSIRO, and some will be led by others, but all will have the collective focus of our science, technology and investment. We will commit at least $100 million annually to this program, and we are calling for partners to join us in a Team Australia approach to solve our seemingly unsolvable challenges.”
However, the speech made no mention of increased funding and only passing references to government and not one specific mention of the Commonwealth.
Responding to questions from the Staff Association, a CSIRO spokesperson later confirmed that “no new appropriation funding is being sought… Missions will be supported through a combination of appropriation and external funding.”
As recently as June, Dr Marshall warned that revenue could decline between $50-100 million as businesses and government clients wind up projects and choose not to renew research partnerships.
CSIRO has developed a new internal bidding platform called Interchange to support the missions program.
An internal management email describes the aim as “to identify available capability across CSIRO and match that with initiatives or projects that Business Unit’s might otherwise not be able to progress or into Missions to ‘fast track’ work packages.”
“The Business Units will retain the Average Staffing Level but the salary costs of these deployments will be funded through Interchange and we anticipate that it will operate like a marketplace where some of the opportunities will be openly available for staff to register interest,” the email reads.
Staff Association representatives have requested more detail and consultation from CSIRO Executive on the new platform.