Scrimp now, pay later: CSIRO cuts could stifle long-term research



This article is by Ben McNeil, Senior Research Fellow at UNSW Australia. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

analysis The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Australia’s national science agency, is said to be preparing for cuts of up to 20% of government funding – that’s around A$150 million – in the coming budget.

This figure is based on a worst-case scenario modelled by senior executives at the organisation. Around 60% of the CSIRO’s funding is from the government, and any cuts would be further compounded by the organisation’s 700 job losses in the space of only a year.

The Federal Government has not commented either way on any possible CSIRO cuts but while reducing funding might help balance the Coalition’s books in the short term, where would this leave Australia in the long term?

The biggest ramifications of the cuts would likely flow through to fundamental research and long-term measurement programs, whether in astronomy, energy systems or oceanography. Fundamental research is pursued to understand the building blocks of our world. Applied research is the practical application of fundamental research. No matter how great a practical idea is, without the basic building blocks of knowledge, applied innovation slows down.

Big ideas such as Google or Facebook only exist as a consequence of long sustained investments in basic research from government agencies such as the CSIRO, which came up with technologies such as Wi-Fi.

Even before these big cuts (if they go ahead as feared), governments have become more impatient and fickle with research laboratories who don’t provide short-term output and applications for industry. Canada’s equivalent to the CSIRO, the National Research Council (NRC), has been transformed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper to be a “business-led” research organisation, with fundamental research cut dramatically.

Government science agencies such as the CSIRO are invaluable because governments can provide long-term funding certainty for critical research, without needing the short-term revenues required by industry. University researchers generally can’t undertake long-term research programs since their funding is uncertain and based around three-year grants. But long-term research programs provide the catalyst and knowledge to which many applications can be developed.

Basic, fundamental research sounds wasteful and frivolous to certain politicians, but in fact is critical for future innovation in Australia, particularly given the recent downturn in traditional industries such as car manufacturing and mining.

Astrophysicist John O’Sullivan, who developed Wi-Fi at the CSIRO in the mid-1990s, wasn’t a particularly successful scientist in the 1980s. He was supported for years to search space for black holes, without any obvious benefit to society in the short-term.

But his research, funded by the CSIRO, was curiosity-driven, something that is already in the firing line for cuts from the government. O’Sullivan never found those black holes, but in the course of his search developed a technique that revolutionised wireless communications – the modern standard of Wi-Fi we use today.

Hundreds of millions of dollars flowed back to the CSIRO from licenses and royalties – until they expired last year – which came from an initial investment into a little understood space phenomenon.

Like government research agencies overseas, the CSIRO has been slowly morphed into less about big discovery and more about short-term political outputs and being an industry research consultancy. Any further cuts will accelerate the decline of those many research programs that don’t have short-term industry-based revenue supporting them. That means that long-term fundamental research so important to the cycle of innovation will likely be squeezed even more than it already has.

Just like O’Sullivan’s failed detection of black holes, groundbreaking scientific discoveries most often come from passionate and curious scientists asking obscure questions about the world over a sustained period of time.

The moment we tie short-term political, economic or social goals to science is the moment we ensure we’ll slow down finding those momentous future breakthroughs that science has brought us. It is a paradox, but one that the government needs to understand before cutting big budgets out of long-term fundamental research programs at the CSIRO.

Ben McNeil receives funding from the Australian Research Council.
He is affiliated with, but currently doesn’t receive any funding from that organisation. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Photo credit: SLU Madrid Campus via photopin cc

The Conversation


  1. “which came from an initial investment into a little understood space phenomenon” – can someone explain this – what is the link?

  2. + Gazillions.

    Sure Climate Change is a dirty word for many. The reality is if we do not have the basic fundamental knowledge, not only we but also our economies will be absolutely screwed.
    Ideological wet dreams don’t deliver long term results.

    I only bring up the following points because they highlight what research is and what it returns

    Ep 6 is still being shown on NITV this week – “The Southern Oceans” – lots from CSIRO and Aust Scientists, 4,5 and 6 are available from SBS

    Actually very concerning.

    Then the big 9 Hour US Special, ep1 loaded onto Youtube

    Scientific Research is dangerous, can negatively impact short term profits

  3. The same thing applies to a lot of government funding and recipients – you don’t try to balance the books during periods of economic downturn or shortly after, you invest in your economy to provide stimulus – something Labor actually understood despite their shortfalls.

    Question – what happened to all the surplus cash for ten years of economic prosperity under Howard? Why wasn’t there a financial safety net available during the GFC? Why are the LNP cutting funding everywhere when it will have significant long term economic ramifications?

    This is merely indicative of a much broader problem – the country is being run by short sighted economically and socially irresponsible capitalists. They are driving away our best scientists and intellectuals because there is no funding, no interest and no jobs for them here (ignoring of course the social disincentive of being educated and knowledgeable in Australia).

    • “the country is being run by short sighted economically and socially irresponsible capitalists.”

      I guess an appropriate descriptor would be Penny Wise and Pound Foolish

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