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Australia’s scientists brace for major job losses

Posted on behalf of Stephen Pincock.

Scientists at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Australia’s national science agency, are concerned by a management announcement that may see hundreds of contract and casual employees let go in coming months.

At the end of October, chief executive Megan Clark told staff that CSIRO was implementing a temporary suspension of external recruitment and the renewal of contracts except in “exceptional circumstances”.

CSIRO’s headcount currently stands at 6,299, after a round of redundancies announced earlier this year. Some media outlets have claimed that as many as 1,400 additional jobs may be at risk from the new policy.

But interpreting the impact of CSIRO’s latest announcement is difficult because an end date for the freeze has not been made public. The size of the job losses will depend partly on how long the hiatus remains in place.

There are currently 933 fixed-term employees and 430 casual staff at CSIRO. Among those, 315 fixed-term contracts and 262 casual contracts will expire before June 2014, according to figures supplied to Nature by a spokesman.

Another source of confusion has been the timing of the CSIRO announcement. It came as Prime Minister Tony Abbott was making good on a pre-election promise to dramatically reduce the public-sector payroll.

Earlier this month the Public Service Commission, a workplace authority, had issued orders to agency heads not to renew any temporary contracts or casual positions and to begin sacking “non-ongoing” workers.

But the CSIRO spokesman says the agency decided to make the cuts of its own accord. “It wasn’t a decision of the Federal Government. We certainly took some of our cues from what they were doing with the APS [Australian Public Service] but because we’re a statutory authority, we could make our own decisions,” he says.

At first, staff thought the CSIRO was acting on orders from the government, says Sam Popovski, Secretary of the CSIRO staff union. Realising it was an independent decision left many baffled.

“Initially … staff were upset, but understood the context. They’re more bewildered now. The leadership of the organisation haven’t really made clear what the premise of the decision was.”

Clark said in her statement that the decision would not compromise commitments to industry or other stakeholders.

But Popovski says roughly three-quarters of those employed in fixed-term positions were directly involved in research. “I just can’t see how it [the cuts] can’t have an effect on research.”


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