Archive for May, 2013

Litigation by former CSIRO employees on the Increase as Victims investigate legal options

Posted on May 27, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Over the past 12 months, litigation against the CSIRO by former employees has been steadily on the increase as more victims of the CSIRO’s toxic workplace culture look to legal redress as a means of addressing their unresolved grievances.

This is a strong indication of both the failure of the CSIRO’s formal grievance procedures and its general apathy towards genuinely engaging in alternative dispute resolution processes.

The Victims of CSIRO are currently investigating opportunities to provide attainable legal representation on behalf of victims of workplace bullying and other matters of malfeasance as an alternative to the CSIRO sponsored investigation being undertaken by law firm HWL Ebsworth.

We do not believe that a CSIRO funded investigation will provide a positive outcome for those engaging in the investigation process. It offers no form of redress for complainants and may even jeopardise the success of future legal claims.  Previous investigations of this nature undertaken by other government agencies have failed to result in satisfactory outcomes for participants.

Additionally, there is no protection against adverse legal action which may be commenced by either the CSIRO or its employees individually in relation to the information submitted by individuals to the investigation team.

The recent reissuing of a revised Terms of Reference document days before the closing date for submission strongly indicates that this investigative process has been ill-considered and rushed through.

Despite concerns voiced from a number of stakeholders over the lack of initial engagement in forming the Terms of Reference, the updated Terms of Reference have been redrafted, again without stakeholder participation.

We note also that both the CSIRO and HWL Ebsworth have failed to adequately address the real or perceived conflicts of interests which have plagued this investigation from day one.

We urge those considering participation in the CSIRO investigation into Workplace Bullying and Other Misconduct to carefully weigh up the risks of participation before engaging in this process.

If you are interested in being kept informed of potential opportunities through the Victims of CSIRO group, please drop us an email at so that we may keep you apprised of any opportunities as they arise.

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Last Minute Changes to Terms of Reference in CSIRO Investigation

Posted on May 22, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

HWL Ebsworth have contacted Victims of CSIRO to advise us of a change in the terms of reference for the CSIRO independent investigation into workplace bullying and other misconduct. Here is a link to the updated terms of reference which have been provided to us by HWL Ebsworth.

We will review the updated terms of reference and provide our revised position later in the week.

The closing date for Stage 1 submissions has been extended until the 7th of June 2013



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An excellent article on Workplace Bullying

Posted on May 15, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

It is worth taking the time to read the following article on workplace bullying, which is referred to in French culture as “Slow Poison”.   This is a somewhat accurate description of both the process which occurs in toxic workplace cultures which are left to thrive and the effect which long term exposure to bullying has on the body and mind, a long and excruciating process!

The underlying message of this article is that bullying needs to be address as bullying (not a workplace health and safety issue, discrimination, unfair dismissal/unlawful termination) but as bullying itself.

We at Victims of CSIRO have stated publicly on numerous occasions, that unless bullies are held personally accountable for their actions (and those who support their inappropriate and highly damaging workplace behaviour), then bullying behaviour will continue to thrive throughout Australian workplaces.

If people are provided with a strong impetus to change workplace culture, then workplace culture will change!

Read the Article here:  Slow-poison

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Scientist who was retrenched after reporting illegal conduct takes legal action against CSIRO

Posted on May 15, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Dr Gerry Swiegers, the scientist at the centre of the recent disclosures in relation to pharmaceutical giant Novartis and a CSIRO spinoff company, DataTrace DNA has recently launched a lawsuit against his former employer.  Dr Swiegers claims to have been falsely dismissed by the CSIRO after utilising the organisation’s whistleblower provisions to disclose alleged breaches of commercial and criminal law by senior CSIRO officers.

It may come as no surprise that many of those implicated in the recent scandal involving Swiss company Novartis were similarly implicated in Dr Swiegers whistleblower allegations.

Dr Swiegers’ statement of claims says that his allegations were effectively side-stepped by the CSIRO’s Senior Executive Management Team who narrowed the scope of the investigation to exclude his allegations of “breaches of the commercial and criminal law”.

Despite a letter of concern being issued by a firm of solicitors directly to CSIRO Chairman, Dr John Stocker indicating that there was prima facie evidence supporting Dr Swiegers allegations, the CSIRO Board of Directors declined to intervene.

Emails dated a few months after Dr Swiegers’ lodgement of the public interest disclosure suggest that the whistle blower respondents conspired to make his position redundant.  One email between two whistle blower respondents states that “redeployment opportunities would be available for all staff working on the project except for [Dr Swiegers} who would become redundant”.

Such actions fly directly in the face of testimony provided by senior CSIRO officials at past Senate Estimates hearings in which it was stated that a CSIRO employee accused of misconduct would not be left in a position where they had influence over the future employment of a person making such allegations.

Later, three of the whistleblower respondents are said to have engaged in a “sting”, in which they invited Dr Swiegers to apply for a redeployment position where they comprised 3 of the 4 people on the selection panel.

The whistleblower complaint, the composition of the interview panel, the email indicating that Dr Swiegers was to be treated detrimentally, and subsequent sacking of Dr Swiegers all paint a very different picture to that normally put out by the CSIRO executive.

It is not difficult to ascertain why so few whistleblower complaints are made in an organisation like the CSIRO, where people such as Dr Swiegers are presented as a clear example of what will happen to employees who consider disclosing unethical /criminal behaviours in the public interest.

We may also mention that in a letter published on this website, Minster for Finance, the Hon. Senator Penny Wong subsequently agreed that there was “a need to investigate” Dr Swiegers’ allegations.  We also previously noted an answer to a senate estimates question on notice which confirmed that CSIRO staff had generated 12,000 pages of confidential internal emails about Dr Swiegers in the last 3 years of his employment.

This is scary stuff and a poignant example of exactly what lengths federal agencies are prepared to go to in order to avoid taking responsibility for the actions of their senior employees.

Dr Sweigers’ Statement of Claim can be viewed here.

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12 Questions put to CSIRO Inquiry Investigators by Advocacy Group “Victims of CSIRO”

Posted on May 13, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

On 22 March 2013, two representatives of Victims of CSIRO met with Prof Dennis Pearce and Melanie McKean of HWL Ebsworth, who are the investigators in the CSIRO Inquiry into Workplace Bullying and Other Unreasonable Behaviours (see Terms of Reference).  The investigators were asked a number of questions.  Summarised versions of some of the questions and their answers are provided below.  While we do not doubt the sincerity or personal integrity of the investigators, their answers do not overcome the serious concerns we have in respect of this “investigation”.


Question number


Question from ‘Victims of CSIRO’



Answer from Dennis Pearce (DP) or Melanie McKean (MM) of investigators

HWL Ebsworth (HWLE)



Question: There appear to be a number of untenable conflicts-of-interest in this inquiry. For example, the inquiry will report back to the very same senior managers that many members of Victims of CSIRO allege to be responsible for the apparent systemic unlawful conduct.  Won’t these managers simply ignore your recommendations?  That has been the pattern of conduct by them to date. Answer to question 1


Question: The CSIRO Inquiry is not directed to investigate the central allegation raised by many members of Victims of CSIRO, namely that there has been a long-term, systemic pattern of unlawful conduct, including bullying, by the most senior managers of CSIRO. Rather, it is focussed on investigating individual acts of workplace bullying. Why? Answer to question 2


Question: If the inquiry will consider systemic problems, why then does it exclude so many cases that would be highly pertinent to a proper investigation of systemic unlawful conduct by the senior management of CSIRO?  Additional Information:  The inquiry excludes cases that: (i) occurred before 2006, (ii) have been before courts and tribunals, (iii) involve alleged criminal conduct, (iv) are brought by current employees, and (v) involve respondents which are no longer employed by CSIRO. Answer to question 3


 Question: Haven’t the exclusions been put into place by CSIRO legal specifically to minimise the number of people making reports and thereby conceal the systemic patterns?  Additional Information:  Phase 2 of the investigation will not deal with complaints from current employees.  Also, if a respondent is no longer employed by CSIRO, then there will be no further investigation. Exclusions such as these arguably make it impossible to properly investigate the systemic patterns that exist. Answer to question 4


Question: CSIRO is known for re-interpreting allegations into unrepresentative forms that are more favourable to the organisation.  They then investigate these unrepresentative allegations instead of the original allegations.  Doesn’t the current inquiry do that and, moreover, create exclusions that make the proper investigation of our original allegation of systemic problems effectively impossible?  Answer to question 5


 Question: Won’t CSIRO simply ignore unfavourable recommendations you make?  They haven’t committed to take any action whatsoever.  Answer to question 6


Question: By participating in an unrepresentative, CSIRO-driven, re-interpretation of our central allegation, haven’t you compromised your “honest broker” status? Answer to question 7


Question: Why didn’t you ask CSIRO to consult with the stakeholders, including ourselves, before setting the terms of reference?  There was no consultation even with the Shadow Minister of Science, who has publicly said that she is aware of over 60 complaints about CSIRO. Answer to question 8


Question: The problem is that our members think your investigation is fatally flawed.  Would you be willing to restructure the terms of reference? Answer to question 9


Question:  People who lodge complaints with the inquiry will be placing themselves at substantial risk, both psychologically and legally. What benefit is there for them to participate? Answer to question 10


Question: Isn’t the inquiry designed so that, in the first Phase, CSIRO will find out who of their staff are in trouble.  Then, before the second phase, they will have the opportunity to get rid of them, so that their cases are not investigated in Phase 2.  In such a scenario, people will submit their allegations to you, but you will then not be allowed to tell them whether the respondents to their allegations are still employed by CSIRO.  In effect such complainants will get no feedback whatsoever as to whether their allegations will even be investigated at all. Answer to question 11


Question: The Inquiry appears set to repeat many of the “mistakes” and “problems” that occurred in the recent Defence Inquiry. The same persons who ran the Defence Inquiry are now running the CSIRO inquiry. Why were no corrections made? Additional information: The proposed CSIRO inquiry is very similar in structure to the Defence Inquiry which concluded in 2011. That inquiry was run by the same persons who will run the current CSIRO inquiry; namely, Prof Dennis Pearce and Melanie McKean. This raises the question: why should the same problems, dysfunction, and conflicts that occurred in the Defence Inquiry not occur in the CSIRO inquiry? The problems include:i. The public allegations of Adair Donaldson of Shine Lawyers (see here ), who complained that many of his clients made submissions to the Defence Inquiry, but received no feedback, or worse they received feedback that was unwarranted and distressing.

ii. The public complaints by, amongst others, Senator Nick Xenophon, that the entire Defence Inquiry was hugely conflicted (see here). DLA Piper, who ran the inquiry, allegedly received in the order of $20 million per annum in fees from Defence for external legal work; they were the major supplier of external legal services to Defence. Thus, serious conflicts of interest appear to lie at the heart of the Defence Inquiry as they do in the CSIRO Inquiry.

iii. The personal role of Melanie McKean, who co-ran the DLA Piper investigation and has now moved to HWL Ebsworth to direct an inquiry into CSIRO that is substantially in the same format as that of Defence. (See her bio here). Hasn’t her move and that of Prof Pearce, to HWL Ebsworth been simply intended to obscure the fact that this is an identical Inquiry, run by the same team?

iv. The testimony of Dr Rumble of DLA Piper to Senate Estimates, noting that the government has failed to implement the recommendations of the Defence Inquiry more than 1 year after they were issued. Instead, a new inquiry has effectively been commissioned …. (Rumble’s complaints can be seen here). If that is the case, why will it not also happen with the CSIRO Inquiry? Why should our members submit reports under such circumstances?

Answer to question 12
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Accountability & Integrity

Posted on May 10, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

Most people understand the term ‘accountability’ to mean holding one responsible for ones actions.  Within a corporate or managerial context, ‘accountability’ is typically understood to mean a checkbox in a list of Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) , the purpose of which is to justify the high salaries of most senior executives.  The perversion of this principle in such circles can enable such highly paid individuals to be rewarded for ‘accountability’ without ever really being held to account for the actions of their employees or indeed their own personal actions.

Take for example, health and safety issues within the CSIRO.  Every executive level employee has within their KPI’s a mandatory workplace health and safety component.

Given the woeful performance of CSIRO management in this aspect of their operation and the associated massive insurance premium hikes from Comcare (in the order of 4 times), how many senior executives have actually been held to account for their failures?

How many senior executives have been denied their annual performance bonus (at risk salary component in CSIRO terms) on the basis that they have failed to reasonably maintain a safe working environment or to adequately address complaints of this nature, in particular those relating to psychosocial factors within the workplace?

Was Dr Calum Drummond held to account for his part in the injury sustained by Mr Martin Williams?

Have any CSIRO executives been held to account for their part in the injuries of numerous other employees?

Will they be held to account in the future?

This is a fundamental flaw in the “Independent Investigation” announced by CSIRO earlier in the year, as not one of the terms of reference actually requires CSIRO to accept and be held to account for any outcome or determination published by the investigator

Unfortunately the problem of accountability within the CSIRO goes right to the very top, and we have seen far too many examples of the failure of senior executives to accept responsibility for their actions or to be held to account for their conduct.

Again the AAT matter of Williams and ComCare [2012] comes to mind.  CSIRO Chief Executive Officer, Dr Megan Clark admits there were absolutely no sanctions against 3 senior officers of the CSIRO, despite a finding by Deputy President J W Constance that they had made statements that were deliberately false, unreliable or purporting to be fact which they were forced to concede they had no basis for making.  Under CSIRO’s own code of conduct policy these three senior officers appear to have breached their obligations by failing:

  • Act ethically
  • Act with care and diligence
  • Treat everyone with respect and courtesy
  • Treat colleagues fairly, equitably and with due consideration
  • Perform their duties competently and with professionalism, honesty and integrity
  • Providing false or misleading information
  • Bully, victimise or discriminate against any staff member or CSIRO affiliate (assumedly harassment is OK as it is not specifically mentioned)
  • Behave in a way that intimidates, offends, degrades, insults or humiliates another person

Dr Clark has spectacularly failed in this matter by failing to:

  • Manage inappropriate behaviour and misconduct,

in failing to discipline CSIRO offices for the aforementioned breaches and in excusing their conduct as the result of faulty recollections irrespective of the injury done to Mr Williams which also constitutes a significant breach of the CSIRO’s model litigant obligations under the Legal Services Directions [2005].

Has the CSIRO Board of Directors sanctioned Dr Clark over her failure to discipline senior officers for breaches of CSIRO’s Code of Conduct and bringing the organisation into public disrepute?

Dr Clark has also not been forthcoming in providing a response to questions relating to the process undertaken by Dr Clark and CSIRO’s Acting General Counsel in determining this matter.  At the time of publishing CSIRO has still not responded to a number of Senate Questions On Notice relating to this and a number of other serious matter.

Why not?

Is it true that the Acting General Counsel who exonerated Calum Drummond and the other CSIRO staff held that “Acting” role for quite a brief period and was, in fact, appointed by Calum Drummond himself and directly reports to Calum Drummond?

Is this indicative of the CSIRO’s commitment to public transparency and accountability?

The public conduct of the CSIRO Chief Executive Officer, Dr Megan Clark and other Senior Executive Officers before the Senate Estimates (Economics) Committee and in a number of other public forums, appears to demonstrate the extent to which the CSIRO senior officers will go in order to avoid or deflect accountability for their actions.

For example, Dr Clark has been publicly rebutting suggestions for the past 2 or more years that there is a culture of bullying and other inappropriate behaviours within the CSIRO, yet in February 2013 announced out of the blue that she had commissioned an “independent” investigation into allegations of bullying and other misconduct, which as stated earlier on in this piece does not promote transparency as there is no obligation on the part of CSIRO to release the unedited results of the investigation and does not commit to any affirmative action in relation to those found guilty of misconduct.


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Internal Letter from Dr Megan Clark re Media Allegations

Posted on May 3, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

A number of conscientious employees have drawn our attention to the following internal communication released by Dr Clark to All Staff.   It is most definitely not the best work of fiction we have seen but it is certainly not the worst.  There are so many things wrong with this email it is hard to know where to begin…so lets begin with the tone of the communication.

This communication reads as an attempt to illicit sympathy and subtly avoid responsibility for any of the negative media surround the CSIRO.  It’s not our fault, we’ve been unfairly targeted, we’ve not had a right of reply…..(yawn)!

The word that comes to mind starts with a Bull, ends in hit and has an ‘s’ somewhere in the middle!

If Dr Clark were to take a decisive stand in relation to the conduct of her employees, and in particular her Senior Executive’s, rather than expending vast amounts of resources and tax payer dollars in an attempt to justify and legitimise their actions, much unnecessary pain and suffering and damage to the reputation of the CSIRO could be avoid.  Instead, she continues to assume the role of victim and lay blame upon every other possible scapegoat.  When this fails, the litigators move in and issue baseless threats of dire legal responses.

Dr Clark, you are paid a great deal of money, in fact far more than even our own Prime Minister, to assume responsibility for the CSIRO.  Start taking some responsibility!

Provide below is the internal communication to CSIRO staff by Dr Clark.  We have included some of our own notes in red:

From: Clark, Megan (OCE, Campbell)
Sent: Thursday, 2 May 2013 3:09 PM
To: CSIRO – All Staff
Subject: Recent allegations in the media relating to CSIRO

Dear all,

As many of you will know CSIRO was the subject of a series of stories in the Fairfax press last month. I wanted to share with you our response to the allegations made in these stories and why we are responding that way.

I have taken the allegations made in the stories very seriously – not just because they impact on our reputation but because they make serious assertions about behaviour in CSIRO and have unfairly and unjustly named individual staff members without due process or right of reply. To them and to all our people who every day serve this nation with integrity and dedication let me extend my full support.

The CSIRO have had many opportunities to respond to or provide comment in relation to media articles.  It is our understanding that journalists approached CSIRO for comment prior to the publication of these media articles and even approached the individuals name to provide comment.  It would appear, that until developing a taste for obscene language and questioning the professionalism of journalists (link), the only words CSIRO spokesperson, Huw Morgan was capable of issuing publicly on behalf of CSIRO when invited to respond were “No Comment” or other subtle variations of that theme.  It is interesting in the previous paragraph that Dr Clark separates “them” (assumedly those named in media) from “all our people who every day serve this nation with integrity”. We will give Dr Clark the benefit of the doubt in assuming this was an unfortunate phrasing rather than a deliberate distinction.

Operating with the highest ethical standards is fundamental to who we are and we welcome the opportunity to continue to improve. In addition to our values and Code of Conduct we hold ourselves accountable to the highest independent standards of integrity and scrutiny. We do this via many avenues including our reports to Parliament, independent review of our finances and related business activities by the Australian National Audit Office, by CSIRO experts being quizzed by Parliamentary and other public enquiries and from time to time the decisions of CSIRO being challenged before courts and tribunals.

Accountability you say?

Please explain why you have still not responded to the previous Questions On Notice lodged by Senators after the last Senate Estimates Economics Committee hearing, and why you attempted to sneak in answers to sensitive or uncomfortable Questions On Notice, shortly before the next Senate Estimates hearings, assumedly in the hope that such responses will be overlooked?

Please explain why your senior executives (yourself included) claimed before Senate Estimates to have no knowledge of occurrences within your organisation, which it is later revealed that you had knowledge off.  Is this not technically a ‘Contempt of Parliament’?

Please explain why you unreasonably refuse the quite reasonable request of the Victims of CSIRO to concurrently publicly release the report by the “independent” investigation team into workplace bullying and other misconduct.  Why do you need to review the document before publishing it, if you are intending to publish it anyway?

Please explain why you will not reasonably agree to undertake misconduct proceedings against those found by this investigation process to have engaged in serious misconduct and refuse to publicly state that it will be applied equally to all employees irrespective of level?

Please explain why two whistle-blowers who revealed their identities were dismissed from employment within weeks or months of making a public interest disclosure while those accused of unlawful activity were never disciplined?

It is important that all parties submit to these independent processes and don’t try to prosecute their partial version of events in the public arena because that’s simply not fair and doesn’t lead to natural justice. When coupled with personal attacks about CSIRO staff it is truly unacceptable.

However, apparently attacks on victims are acceptable, and inequitable application of CSIRO’s internal policies to the benefit or detriment of employees is also quite acceptable.  If it was truly the case that all employees, including senior executives of the CSIRO submitted to independent processes then there would be no need for public disclosures to occur.  If the CSIRO had properly addressed the issues raised then there would be no reason for people to resort to using the public arena to address these matters.

Let me address some of the specific allegations made.

Novartis DataTrace story

On April 11 2013, an article was published that questioned our commercial integrity in dealing with DataTrace and Novartis.

The allegations have not previously been raised with CSIRO. Neither CSIRO nor the individuals named were given the right of reply prior to publication.

It is our understanding that comment was sought from CSIRO prior to publication of this material.

Immediately after the story broke we committed to conduct an internal review led by our General Counsel, Brett Walker, of all the issues relating to CSIRO. This review involves examination of our own records, discussions with staff, with DataTrace and Novartis. The review is proceeding swiftly, however, because the core allegations relate to negotiations and discussions between DataTrace and Novartis and are one step removed from CSIRO, we are dependent on the outcomes of the investigations being undertaken by DataTrace and Novartis to enable us to finalise our own process. We have open communications with DataTrace and Novartis and are receiving their co-operation in this process.

And what will be the ramifications to those CSIRO staff involved in the scandal, that is, if hypothetically the internal review is conducted with any intent other than to protect those involved?

DataTrace is conducting its own review and its parent company, DatatDot Technologies Limited issued an announcement to the Australian Stock Exchange on 15 April 2013 in which it rejected the allegations.

The independence and the ethics of our organisation and our people are vital to the trust we have in the community. Until this review is complete I will not be able to make further comment, but rest assured that we will complete this final step. Once our review process is concluded and all the facts are clear I will look to share them with you and outline the actions we will be taking.

Administrative Appeals Tribunal (AAT) findings

On 12 April 2013, an article was published in the Fairfax media that made assertions about CSIRO and its staff resulting from a restructure of our operations in 2008 which need to be addressed. When the findings of the AAT were released earlier this year I sought advice from our Acting General Counsel regarding the Tribunal’s findings and the available facts and asked him to make recommendations on the implications of the case, including whether there was the basis for misconduct action against any CSIRO officers, and what we could do better in the future. This advice was an input into a broader review of the case by CSIRO and the lessons to be learned.

The lesson to be learned here is that CSIRO employees should not make statements before a court or tribunal which they have not verified to be correct.  This lesson should also be applied to responses of CSIRO executives to questions in parliamentary committees.

The restructure in 2008 was complex and any change of this magnitude requires careful risk assessment and appropriate change management. The review concluded that our change management processes at the time could have been better, including clear and consistent communication to affected staff, and better documentation of decisions. CSIRO’s change management practices have improved considerably since 2008 although there is still room for improvement as indicated by the results of the staff survey last year.

With regard to our senior officers, the review concluded that there are areas where we could improve in the future including ensuring that our senior officers are properly prepared to provide the necessary standard of evidence at such hearings.

Those senior officers provided testimony, arguably with the intent to discredit or destroy the credibility of the applicant.  This is not the only matter in which CSIRO officers have provided unreliable evidence before a court or tribunal and CSIRO officers are still engaging in this conduct so what has really changed?  Such conduct breaches the CSIRO’s obligations to act as a model litigant under the Legal Services Directions (2005).

Conduct with the intent to injure someone who is attempting to address a legal right is not only a serious breach of CSIRO’s Code of Conduct, in a number of legal jurisdictions breaches the Criminal Code.

Attempting to pass off knowingly inaccurate testimony as a simple failure of recollection is not only insulting to those who are the targets of such reprehensible conduct but seriously questions the lengths to which the CSIRO leadership will go in order to avoid responsibility for their actions or the conduct of their employees.

I am satisfied with the conclusions and recommendations from the review and while there are important learnings for all involved, there is not a case of misconduct for any of our officers and as such the senior officers have my full support and the support of the Board.

Important lessons, important learnings…..Dr Clark has made similar public comments ad-nauseum but have any lessons truly been learned other than, we need to cover ourselves better next time to avoid public ridicule and professional scorn?  It is quite obvious that no lessons have been learned as the same things keep happening over and over again.

I respect the Tribunal’s decision that compensation be paid, and I regret that a CSIRO colleague left CSIRO feeling mistreated.

Obviously you don’t regret this as you have not disciplined your senior officers over their conduct which resulted in the mistreatment of a “CSIRO colleague”.  You still knowingly allow employees of the CSIRO to bully and mistreat other employees without censure, even after those victims have approached you directly for help.  You also continue to expend obscene amounts of taxpayer funds in defending those people.

Allegations made about unreasonable behaviour

On 13 April 2013, a further article was published in the Fairfax media which included a personal attack on Dr Stephen Trowell, a senior, respected scientist in CSIRO’s Ecosystem Sciences Division. It also sets out a series of allegations which are the subject of court proceedings between CSIRO and a former member of staff. I have stated many times that it is inappropriate for CSIRO or anyone else involved to comment publically on matters which are before a Court, for reasons of privacy, confidentiality, and respect for the legal process. Personal attacks on individuals are just as inappropriate. With those considerations in mind, let me say that CSIRO does not accept the allegations made in the newspaper article, and that they will continue to be vigorously defended. Further, I wish to take this opportunity to express my full support for Dr Trowell, and I invite anyone interested in this matter to consider Dr Trowell’s record of professional achievement including being the foundation leader of the team that developed CYBERNOSE® technology, which uses smell receptors from worms to detect chemical vapours and leading the team that developed The LepTon™ Test Kit, an immunodiagnostic kit previously used to manage insecticide resistance in the cotton industry.

I would like to remind you all that we are striving to create and maintain an environment and a future where all our people feel valued and respected for who they are and what they bring to our workplace. A workplace where it is obvious we are accepting of each other’s differences and help one another to reach our full potential. A workplace where we all take responsibility for being inclusive and feel safe to speak up against behaviour that’s contrary to our Code of Conduct and Values Compass.

It could well be argued that you are striving to create an environment in which it is harder to have these matters addressed and the ramifications for someone making a complaint or public disclosure are much greater.  Changes to public comment policy prohibiting CSIRO employees from commenting on matters within their professional areas, even on a personal basis is one such example!

If you have witnessed, or have been subject to, inappropriate behaviour CSIRO has a number of ways to report the incident and these are outlined in our Preventing Workplace Discrimination and Bullying Procedure. This procedure defines all roles and responsibilities, including those of leaders, for staff dealing with allegations of inappropriate behaviour. It also now provides greater clarity on the steps to be taken to resolve complaints.

Dr Clark. have you actually tested these processes or followed any of them through to conclusion to ensure they are being applied fairly and equitably?  You have personally received complaints from staff complaining that these processes have not been applied correctly or have been used in obstructing investigation of serious allegations.  When was the last time you followed up with any of these people to see whether their matters had been successfully resolved?

People in glass houses, really shouldn’t throw stones!

I would also like to remind you that we have an Employee Assistance Program (EAP) which is a free, confidential counselling service available to all CSIRO staff and their families.

Dr Megan Clark
Chief Executive

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The Curious Case Of CSIRO’s GM Field-Pea

Posted on May 2, 2013. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The Curious Case Of CSIRO’s GM Field-Pea

By Katherine Wilson
CSIRO abandoned costly development of a GM pea over safety concerns – but research continued overseas. Katherine Wilson examines the questions of political and commercial bias raised by the case
CSIRO is again steeped in scandal. CSIRO — an organisation leaning on industry partners — has been besieged by accusations of improper industry influence. In the past decade, it has had to fend off several exposés revealing coal industry influence on research, and scientists in Nature and elsewhere attacked claims in the bestselling CSIRO Wellbeing Diet, funded by meat and dairy industry bodies. It was accused of “gagging climate debate”, and its principal research scientist of 23 years, Dr Maarten Stapper, claimed he was sacked after CSIRO “tried to gag his criticisms of GM crops”. In this context, the following is a provocation for CSIRO to answer some questions about money and power. At the centre of my case is an expensive transgenic pea and its spectacular reversal of fortune. Eight years ago, the pea was doomed to “never be seen on the planet again”. The world was told the pea’s DNA would be destroyed. But in a backflip from its 2005 decision to abandon its GM field-pea, CSIRO is now reviving the pea’s reputation. It is now casting doubt on the studies that suggested the pea is unsafe for consumption. The GM field-pea took $3 million and 10 years to develop by (then) CSIRO Plant Industry Deputy Director, Dr TJ Higgins. Higgins and his team copied a bean gene and spliced the copy into a pea. They engineered the GM field-pea to be resistant to weevils. But the pea was abandoned when a 2005 feeding trial study found significant immune responses and inflammation in the lungs of mice. These types of feeding trials are not required by Australian or US regulators of GM food for human consumption. But Higgins said of the 2005 feeding study: “If there was any chance it would have the same effect on humans, the responsible thing to do was to stop the research immediately.” At the time, the trial was a landmark in its suggestion that the GM process could create novel and potentially hazardous proteins (later, it was thought that novel sugar-chains were responsible). Other feeding-trials found the GM field-pea caused digestion problems in pigs and poultry when it was added to their feed. In 2005,  Higgins said: “This is a very big setback… hopes have been dashed.” He said the pea crops would be destroyed under strict supervision and: “The DNA of our GM peas dies with them, and will never be seen on the planet again.” But it has now come to light that not all peas were destroyed. They were exiled to Europe, where Higgins, CSIRO and other scientists sought millions of euros for further overseas research. In an August 2008 grant application, they applied for a millions from the European Commission to identify biomarkers “for the detection of harmful effects of GM foods”. So the GM pea’s role in science was recast. The grant application rationale was to help “predict harmful GMO effects after product authorisation”. It allowed that “risk assessment cannot predict all the possible untoward effects of GM consumption”. Weeks earlier, Higgins sent a controversial letter to Australian chefs urging them to embrace GM foods because “tests have not found any connection between health problems and GM”. This January, CSIRO promoted the new 2013 study. Conducted at the Medical University of Vienna, it finds “only minor differences in the immune response of mice compared to significant differences observed in the 2005 study”. It finds the GM peas “are not specifically allergenic in mice” and the immune responses to the GM pea are similar to responses for other (non-GM) legumes. These results have been reported as if they overturn the results of the previous study. (Most science bulletins reproduced verbatim the study’s media release.) The new study speculates that “the source of the mice and their normal baseline diets may play a role” in the opposing results of each study. The 2013 study suggests flaws in the 2005 one, which Dr Higgins co-authored and at the time upheld as a gold-standard indication that the “system” of safety testing is working. The new study’s leader Dr Michelle Epstein now “questions the utility of rodents for evaluating biotech crops”. It is not the aim here to quarrel with the 2013 study, but to show how each study’s conception, rationale, methods and promotion raise broader questions of political and commercial bias. Commercial interests do not automatically suggest scientific dishonesty. But it is well-documented that they may influence the results, interpretations and promotion of science research. More, they influence which research gets funded in the first place. At the time CSIRO applied for the European grant, Higgins was no stranger to controversial GM industry promotion, and in this context, CSIRO’s involvement in the new study’s design, funding and interpretation raises many political questions. First, let’s consider the study’s funding. It received € 2,606,622 from the EC. Other funds from undisclosed sources bring costs to € 3,424,843. The funds were granted to a recently established body called GMSAFOOD, set up to conduct “post market monitoring” to “assess possible nutritional and health effects of authorized GM foods on a mixed population of human and animal consumers”. (The GM field-pea is not an “authorized GM food”, nor one that is “post-market”.) Among GMSAFOOD’s listed partners are the authors of the new study, including Higgins and CSIRO. According to his own CSIRO page, toxicology, immunology and food safety assessment are outside Higgins’ principal field of expertise: his honorary role at CSIRO is to develop “gene technology for plant improvement” in its profit-seeking Plant Industries division. It is not uncommon for a biotech product inventor to put their name to such studies, but according to the 2013 study, Dr Higgins “conceived and designed the experiments”, “analysed the data” and “wrote the paper” with others (he did not conduct the experiments). The study declares that “no competing interests exist”. It is difficult to have confidence in a process in which a product-developer assesses its safety. This was a lesson offered by the CSIRO Wellbeing Diet, when the scientists who created the product had very different interpretations from the many independent scientists who scrutinised it. In the case of GM pea studies, the famously flawed peer review process (like democracy, the ‘least-worst’ system we have) failed to screen inherent conflicts of interest. CSIRO is regarded as a public body, but its Plant Industries division is geared toward profit and bound in contracts with biotech companies, the terms of which are exempt from disclosure by FOI requests. More, CSIRO’s biotechnical products such as GM legumes are patented commodity forms. So CSIRO has a questionable role as partners in the “independent” GMSAFOOD body that receives public funds to assess health risks. Let’s turn our gaze to the new study itself. It used “the same batches of seeds produced at CSIRO”. This contradicts earlier reports that the field-pea DNA “will never be seen on the planet again” and “will be burned or otherwise destroyed under strict supervision”. How and why the peas were preserved, and the effect of preservation on  nutritional profile, is not disclosed. The possibility of degradation in the pea proteins and attendant sugars in the eight years since the earlier study are not discussed. Casting doubt on both studies, the 2013 study allows that “it is still not clear that these immune responses are biologically relevant for humans… or indeed be relevant in human disease.” Such assessment, it adds: “cannot predict all the possible untoward effects of GM consumption by a genetically varied population of animals and humans… [nor] undesired effects of GM foods fed to animals that are then consumed by humans.” Australians are already eating such animals (for example, Ingham’s chickens are sometimes fed GM grains). The field-pea itself was not developed for human consumption. It was promoted as a weevil-resistant rotation crop to fix nitrogen in the soil, and was tested to assess its effects on livestock. Independent scientists have argued that these tests should be required for GM food for human consumption. Given that these feeding trials are not required by Australian or US regulators, and are excluded from regulatory assessments, how does this study contribute toward “improving safety-testing for GM products with the potential of being placed on the market in the future”? (As the authors claim.) Is CSIRO looking toward Europe to pave the way to commercialise its GM legumes for human consumption? CSIRO is also invited to explain why the favourable 2013 study is discussed and linked on CSIRO’s information page (updated on 10 Jan 2013), but unfavourable studies are not discussed, nor linked. They are referenced in endnotes as if to support CSIRO’s proponent story, but the originals paint an unfavourable picture. A 2006 feeding study co-authored by Higgins found chickens fed the GM field-pea “reflected the lower starch digestibility” compared with those fed the non-GM pea. Another 2006 feeding study of pigs, also co-authored by Higgins, found “digestibility was significantly reduced in the transgenic [GM field-] peas compared with the non-transgenic peas”. Another 2012 study, not authored by Higgins, concludes that “insect herbivores have developed various adaptation mechanisms to overcome the defensive effects of [transgenic] plant inhibitors.” This study spans many transgenic plants with pest-resistance genes, but it casts doubt on the long-term weevil-resistance of the GM field-pea. Would further safety studies have been conceived had initial studies been favourable? What is their public-interest value? CSIRO argues that such studies contribute to broad understandings of GM food risks. This seems a circular argument, because such studies help bankroll the GM legume industry that poses such risks. Untold millions of public funds flow to assess products that promise crop improvement but have no evidence of public demand or long-term benefit. These products are spruiked by CSIRO as “addressing global food security issues” and “delivering science that assists developing nations” — unrealised promises for such GM crop products for the past 25 years that have been comprehensively debunked by international development bodies. Without proven long-term benefits of CSIRO’s GM legume products, and with acknowledged shortcomings of the studies that assess their risks, is good public money being thrown after bad? NM put several questions to CSIRO about the GM fieldpea research to which CSIRO provided no formal response by publication. Read the list of questions.

Enter your comments here

jack03 Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013 – 14:05
Very interesting article
Merri Bee Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013 – 21:38
Great article thank you Katherine Wilson.  Investigative journalism  is now so rare, it is refreshing to read a very revealing article like thisone , which  gives us an idea of corruption of science, the scandals taking place, the moral disintergration at the CSIRO, and  the shocking amounts of money that have been spent on GM research for over 50 years. Nature knows better than to  combine the of genes of 2 different species  together but some humans persist in trying . grantnw Posted Wednesday, May 1, 2013 – 23:09
CSIRO used to be one of the most respected research organisations in the World.  Now it’s officially a National Disgrace.  If this weed gets into the food chain it would be a National Disaster.
carphologist Posted Thursday, May 2, 2013 – 10:17
The original pea study exposed all the lies and failings of the GE industry. It showed that even small genetic changes could have major health impacts and it showed that the regulatory system wasn’t even trying to determine whether GE foods were safe for human consumption. Even better, it was a study undertaken by a friend of the biotech industry – no wonder CSIRO and Higgins were so desperate to undermine their own results. Well done Katherine, in exposing the lengths that the GE industry will go to in order to maintain the fictions that all is perfect in the land of biotech.
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