CSIRO braces for budget cut of up to $150 million

Australia’s peak science body is bracing for a May budget cut of up $150 million, or more than 20 per cent of its total government funding.

Fairfax Media can reveal the CSIRO’s top executive team has been modelling a range of scenarios that would see the scientific agency lose up 20 per cent of its $757 million a year funding. Some in the agency's upper echelons expect funding will be cut by 10-15 per cent or by $75 to $110 million. It is expected the federal government's Commission of Audit will recommend big savings.

CSIRO chairman Simon McKeon acknowledged the organisation was preparing its response to different budget scenarios. ‘‘We’ll all be biting our nails in the lead-up to the budget," he said.

It is understood the CSIRO has not finalised its operational budget for the next financial year and is waiting for the May budget in a further sign the agency expects a big hit. CSIRO receives about 60 per cent of its funding from the federal government.

Several sources said the CSIRO's 10-member executive team, led by chief executive Megan Clark is preparing for the worst. On Friday, the agency announced 300 jobs would go in the next financial year. The move comes after the CSIRO axed 400 jobs last year.

The agency's executive management council, which includes the chiefs of the the energy, environment, IT, manufacturing and health sciences divisions, have been told by the executive team to put their divisions under the microscope.

One well-placed CSIRO source said managers had been told “We can’t do everything so we to have work out what we can do’’.

A second source familiar with CSIRO’s budget planning said managers had been told to identify areas of scientific research the organisation could “get out of”.

Mr McKeon, the 2011 Australian of the year, told Fairfax Media it was impossible to know what the budget would hold for the organisation next month.

‘‘We have to wait until budget night to see what the marching orders are,’’ he said. ‘‘But clearly we are in an era where there is a likelihood of some belt-tightening.’’ 

Last week, Fairfax Media revealed Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane had been told to find up to $2 billion in savings in his portolfio, which includes science.

Deputy Greens leader Adam Bandt said a 15-20 per cent funding cut would "rip the guts out of CSIRO and accelerate Australia’s ‘brain drain’ and promised his party would fight the move.

"We can’t continue to produce world-class research if the government keeps threatening the research budget every May. Tony Abbott must rule out any cuts to CSIRO and research in the May budget,'' he said.

Labor science spokesman Kim Carr said the cut would be a travesty for science in Australia.

“The government is doing great harm to Australia’s national interest and putting us at an immense disadvantage in the highly competitive international science community."

Last year, Mr Abbott acknowledged the Coalition did not have a science minister but urged the country’s scientific community to judge his government ‘‘by our performance, not by our titles’’.

Former Victorian chief scientist Sir Gustav Nossal said he would be appalled if the cuts hit the organisation, which he described as a national icon.

‘‘CSIRO will produce research results that will sponsor innovation and help to create smarter industries which is what Australia needs after a mining boom,’’ he said.

And Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Brian Schmidt said the government and agency needed to agree on a common vision for its role in Australia’s future.

"I would be very disappointed with the agency being restructured without a grand vision for its future in place first."

A spokeswoman for industry minister Ian Macfarlane refused to comment on the budget.

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