Call for inquiry as CSIRO comes under the microscope
Mr Roy is very good at not answering the questions posed to him. A reduction of organisational units from 27 to 23 has little to do with the number of administrative and managerial staff which have exploded to almost half the organisation over the same period.
- April 12, 2013
Nicky Phillips, Linton Besser
Confidential reviews of the CSIRO by some of the world’s most accomplished scientists show that the once great institution is now unable to act in the best interests of advancing research.
They found the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation was being strangled by a bureaucratic labyrinth stifling innovation and persuading science leaders to abandon the 87-year-old institution, the reviews say.
One of Australia’s most renowned scientists, who wished to remain anonymous, said the nation’s peak research body had lost its way and should ”remove the S from its name”.
On Thursday night Science Minister Don Farrell demanded answers from the CSIRO after the Herald reported that officials and others involved in a spin-off joint venture knowingly passed off cheap Chinese chemicals as their trade-secret formula.
In a deal believed to be worth $2.5 million, the venture sold the technology to the Swiss drug company Novartis, one of the biggest pharmaceutical makers.
It was part of its high-security anti-counterfeit technology to protect hundreds of millions of injectable Voltaren ampoules distributed overseas. Voltaren is an anti-inflammatory.
Novartis has confirmed it has begun an investigation into the affair and the federal opposition has called for an independent inquiry into the entire organisation. A dozen previously unreleased assessments reveal the organisation had become bogged down in bureaucracy, doubling the number of managers and putting excessive emphasis on basic paid consulting work at the cost of time and resources for real science.
Its focus on short-term projects was ”paralysing the ability of the groups to act creatively and strategically in the best interests of advancing the science”.
Former CSIRO staff, including division chief Max Whitten, said it was no longer recognised as a world-leading scientific institution, an accusation it vigorously disputes, citing a separate review by a former chief scientist in 2006.
One previously unpublished review, of the earth science and resource engineering division, reported consistently negative responses from all research groups it interviewed about the management model.
”The panel considers that this is … seriously undermining the quality of the research,” the review says. ”In our opinion, the costs significantly outweigh the putative advantages.” The sentiments were echoed in many other reviews, including the nutrition group which found its ”once world-leading laboratories have lost that position, and with a number of exceptions, are now followers of the best front-line centres”.
The reviews commend some areas for world-class research but repeatedly criticise the management structure, which it has dubbed the ”matrix”.
This matrix was incrementally introduced from 2003 by former chief executive Geoff Garrett, aimed at conducting more science targeted to specific problems facing industry, government and the community. Dr Garrett dismantled many of the 22 divisions. In their place he introduced entities called ”flagships”, which are more focused on generating revenue.
Critics say that while the goals of many flagships were worthy, it was inappropriate for the research of the country’s leading scientific organisation to be tied to financial benchmarks because it stifled scientific discovery.
Under the present structure, the 12 divisions host the organisation’s scientific capacity – its staff, infrastructure and expertise. But these resources are mainly used to service projects run not by the divisions but the flagships.
In the past, the CSIRO’s reputation for producing highly valuable and independent science was based on its divisions, led by internationally respected scientists. ”Now CSIRO doesn’t enjoy a good reputation in many areas,” said Dr Whitten.
The reviewers found the matrix fragmented researchers among multiple projects and answerable to several managers. Reviewers of the land and water division found the needs and priorities of the flagship dominated decisions about what science to undertake.
Despite the criticism of the inner workings, staff scientists have achieved successes in the past few years, including developing a hendra vaccine and securing Australia as a co-location for the world’s biggest radio telescope. The review’s complaints also contrasted sharply with a review of the flagship program conducted by the former Australian chief scientist Robin Batterham in 2006, which praised the matrix structure. The deputy chief executive, science strategy and people, Craig Roy, rejected suggestions the matrix had increased management, saying the organisation had reduced its 27 divisions and flagships in 2003 to 23 entities now.
”In 2002 the organisation wasn’t structured to focus on the big issues of low emissions energy, water, oceans, health, food. Those are the places where, in many cases, we’re leading the national R&D agenda today,” he said.
The organisation was also addressing criticism its divisional research was fragmented and researchers were too stretched. ”In the last six months we’ve been working … to address … [the issue] of fragmentation [to] make life easier for scientists so they can focus more on their science,” he said.
The general manager of science excellence and standing, Jack Steele, said only a ”sliver” of the CSIRO’s work was contract testing for industry. ”Almost all of our activity has a component of discovery associated with it.”
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