Accusations CSIRO puts dollars before distinctions
- April 12, 2013
Publish or perish.
It’s an ethos scientists live and die by, except some at the country’s peak scientific organisation.
A team of independent experts have found many of the CSIRO’s 12 once highly regarded divisions are failing to produce a sufficient amount of high-level research expected of a publicly funded science institute.
They blamed the organisation’s slump in science quality on the intense pressure from management to meet external revenue targets.
Scientists from one division were told the “the pendulum has swung too far towards a service provider mentality to the detriment of scientific excellence, creativity and discovery”.
Some research groups are required to source more than half of their income from external sources such as industry.
A group of experts who reviewed CSIRO’s Earth Science and Resource Engineering division in 2010 considered the level of scientific publications per researcher per year ”substantially below” what was required of a world-class team.
They found the group’s fundamental research was suffering, and in some groups “entirely absent”, because of a funding-driven focus on short-term industry projects. This environment frustrated staff and was having a deleterious effect on morale, they wrote.
CSIRO claims to sit among the 1 per cent of global science institutes in 14 out of 22 research fields.
But a review of CSIRO’s Molecular and Health Technologies division, now part of Materials Science and Engineering, in 2009 found some of the group’s scientific productivity also lower than expected for such an esteemed group, and rated the science they had conducted as ”tenable” and declining.
Within the world of scientific research, the peer-review publication process is the benchmark by which all scientists are measured.
A researchers’ life-saving discovery or game-changing invention means nothing until the details have passed the scrutiny of their peers and are published in an academic journal.
The reviews applauded the world-class science of some CSIRO teams, particularly the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, the Australia Telescope National Facility, the CSIRO’s ICT centre and the highly regarded ocean modelling by the organisation’s marine and atmospheric researchers.
But the quality of work by groups within the divisions of Land and Water, Sustainable Ecosystems and Food Services/Human Nutrition, now Food and Nutritional Sciences, received harsh criticism.
”So, is the Food Services Australia/CSIRO Human Nutrition jack-of-all-trades but master-of-none?” asked the division’s review team.
The assessors of the Land and Water division said they were “hard pressed” to nominate any outstanding research outcomes from the division’s recent work.
The reviews of the Materials Science and Engineering and Minerals divisions noted the groups had improved their publication record but it was still below the level required of a revered science organisation.
The Minerals division review panel found the priority of meeting project deadlines and the impact of funding pressures meant preparing work for publication was often not given sufficient priority.
In response to the review’s criticism of science quality, the organisation’s general manager for science excellence and standing Jack Steele said the CSIRO was not a university and ran a ”mixed business”. Its goal was to deliver research that made an impact and responded to needs of government and other stakeholders, he said.
”We would love a higher publication rate per person, but it is not our primary deliverable.”
Despite the organisation’s heavy focus on applied research, Dr Steele said one of CSIRO’s own analysis reports had ranked it among the world’s best scientific institutions.
CSIRO’s Science Health Report, based on data collected by Thomson Reuters, placed the organisation in the top 1 per cent of global science organisations in 14 out of 22 research fields over the past year, and in the top 10 global institutions in the fields of plant and animal science, agricultural sciences and environment and ecology.
The ranking was based on the number of CSIRO published papers cited in the research of other scientists over the past 10 years.
CSIRO was the only Australian institution to feature in the top 10 of any field, and its total number of publications had risen each year for the past decade bar one year, Dr Steele said.
The external revenue target for each division was set based on the market or commercial value of its research, he said.
He said it was typical of external panels to question the balance between fundamental research and industry-focused contract work.
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