The Federal Government has thrown CSIRO a lifeline with $459.2 million of additional direct appropriation investment over the next four years to ‘to address the impacts of COVID-19 on… commercial activities and ensure (CSIRO) is able to continue essential scientific research.’
External earnings – originally forecast by CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall to decline annually by $50-100 million due to the economic impact from coronavirus – are now expected to plummet by more than $150 million in financial year 2020-21.
CSIRO Secretary Sam Popovski welcomed the funding increase.
“The additional $459.2 million funding over four years recognises that CSIRO faces significant budget challenges as the organisation’s external earnings are set to fall steeply due to the ongoing economic impact of COVID-19.”
“So while it’s reassuring that the Federal Government has recognised the valuable role CSIRO research plays in supporting Australian industry and contributing to the nation’s competitive advantage; the additional funding represents less of an investment in capacity and more of a life-line to keep the organisation afloat,” Mr Popovski said.
“Over the next four years CSIRO will receive an additional funding commitment totalling $459 million to address the reduction in our external revenue from the impact of COVID-19 and ensure our financial stability to allow us to continue to deliver critical science for the nation,” Dr Marshall said in an email to staff.
“This commitment is a true reflection of the impact each of you deliver every day in supporting Australian industry, collaborating across the innovation ecosystem, and turning science into solutions.”
Announced as part of the Morrison Government’s economic response to the coronavirus – dubbed JobMaker – $459.2 million in additional funding over the estimates includes $133.1 million in the first year.
However, the Industry, Science, Energy and Resources Portfolio Budget Statements (PBS) reveal the true state of the economic challenges facings CSIRO, with a steeper than forecast decline in external earnings – or own source income – over the forward estimates.
“The concerning thing about the CSIRO budget estimates is the sustained loss of external revenue in the outer years,” Mr Popovski said.
“From our estimation it’s going down about 25 per cent from last year to this financial year, then a very slow recovery in the external revenue amounts in the budget estimates.”
CSIRO will receive some relief from Government employment restrictions, with the organisation’s Average Staffing Level (ASL) set to increase to 5,351 this financial year.
“This will enable CSIRO to potentially hire up to 210 more staff according to ASL figures. That’s a boost for retention of existing researchers and an opportunity for CSIRO to hire researchers including early and mid-career researchers to build its capabilities of our national challenges,” Mr Popovski said.
Elsewhere, the budget papers state that across the federal public sector ‘ASL is expected to increase beyond 2006-07 levels in 2020-21 as the Government implements the COVID-19 Economic Recovery Plan and delivers essential services to all Australians… However much of this additional ASL is temporary, reflecting the nature of the response to COVID-19.’
The additional investment marks a big turnaround in Federal Government funding of CSIRO which reached its nadir in 2014 with heavy cuts ultimately leading to the loss of 1 in 5 jobs.
Australian Academy of Science Chief Executive Anna-Maria Arabia reflected on the changes, from the election of the Coalition Government led by then Prime Minister Tony Abbott to present.
“There is no doubt that in 2013 there were some dark days for science,” Ms Arabia said.
“But under both Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison we have seen an increased focus on science and research [and] this response to the pandemic builds on that,” she said.
“CSIRO is this incredible national asset because it lets us generate the intellectual property that creates jobs for Australians,” Science & Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said.
“So, keeping that asset safe through a crisis like COVID is really important.”
Science Minister Karen Andrews said the increased funding demonstrated the Government’s commitment to science and research.
“CSIRO plays a vitally important role working with businesses to create new products and services and we want to back that crucial collaboration to turbo-charge job creation – both now and for our future,” Minister Andrews said.
“This investment in CSIRO proves the value our Government places on the contribution of Australia’s premier research body to the nation’s economy.”
Translating the additional funding into secure employment at CSIRO is a priority for the union, Mr Popovski said.
“Ensuring that this funding contributes to the creation of permanent jobs at CSIRO – rather than an increase in contracting or labour-hire arrangements – is critical to building the nation’s science capacity. CSIRO staff will campaign for accountability on permanent jobs and career pathways for researchers.”
However, the poor forecast for CSIRO external earnings remained an ongoing concern for future employment growth.
“The government has taken that into account in the way it has boosted appropriation funding, but it shows that research and development (R&D) investment generally in our economy is going to be restrained and take a long time to recover. That’s essentially bad news for CSIRO’s co-investment model for delivering impact in the innovation system.
“We want private sector R&D to be boosted quicker to enable us to solve those challenges and get the best and brightest in CSIRO to support industries,” Mr Popovski said.