Troubled times as a national icon finds itself being put under the microscope
Midway through last year, a loose alliance of disgruntled CSIRO ex-staff, including some of Australia's most prominent scientists, formed a website called victimsofcsiro.com and began publishing allegations against their former employer.
The obscure blog was a low-key beginning to what has become a full-throated campaign in which some disgruntled scientists claim the independence and therefore credibility of Australia's peak scientific body is threatened by government and now industry interference. They also claim the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has largely jettisoned pure science and is a toxic workplace where bullying is rife and outrageous behaviour by some managers has been ignored.
A parliamentary committee examining workplace bullying published the group's submission, which claimed there were 60 cases of top-flight scientists and others who were harassed and frozen out. The list included names such as Maarten Stapper, a soil scientist allegedly pushed out because of his criticism of genetically modified crops, globally recognised oceanographer Trevor McDougall, and award-winning entomologist Sylwester Chyb. The CSIRO, in an awkward position as it is a government agency, could not respond publicly to the allegations.
In December, Comcare, the federal workplace regulator and insurer, issued CSIRO with a formal legal notice ordering a "review and improvement" of the way it handled workplace misconduct following an investigation. Soon the opposition was claiming it was aware of 100 individual cases of bullying.
In February, CSIRO's head, Megan Clark, responded by posting a letter on the CSIRO website announcing her decision to establish an "independent inquiry" into workplace bullying, which is now being run by a consultant and former Commonwealth ombudsman, Dennis Pearce.
The "victims of CSIRO" group is unimpressed by what its sees as Pearce's limited scope. Not all of his findings will be published. The organisation will not be compelled to act on his recommendations.
Senior CSIRO officials are, however, deeply sceptical of the claims the inquiry has been set up to examine. At one recent Senate hearing, Mike Whelan, a deputy chief executive, said: "Lots of allegations have been tossed around by stakeholders and media in recent times, and I would have to say that the basis for some of those are pretty dodgy."
Whelan may well be right about some of the claims. Some participants have hitched themselves to the campaign with dubious claims of mistreatment; others were themselves the subject of adverse findings for bullying, Fairfax has learnt.
The group suffered a blow recently when the Fair Work Commission dismissed an application by Andrew Hooley, spokesman for the "victims", to be granted an extension of time to appeal his February 2011 dismissal from the CSIRO. The commission found his application had no merit: "There is no evidence upon which I could be satisfied that CSIRO took prejudicial action against Mr Hooley either before or after his employment ended, much less that this was a reason for the delay in making his application."
But there are other cases which are not so easily explained away and which have the potential to seriously embarrass the organisation. The most serious surfaced in December 2012, when a court made adverse findings about two very senior CSIRO officials in a workplace compensation case brought by business manager Martin Williams. One official, Damien Thomas, was found to have sent a "deliberately false" email in an attempt to mislead Williams.
The Administrative Appeals Tribunal found that another official, Calum Drummond, had given evidence that could not be trusted. Drummond had claimed he had followed proper processes in the affair. "I am not satisfied," Deputy President James Constance said, "that Dr Drummond was a reliable witness and I do not make any findings of fact based on his evidence." Drummond now sits one rung below Clark, CSIRO's chief executive officer.
The Williams case was a glimpse of another side of the organisation rarely seen by the public. Senior figures within the CSIRO accept the organisation can sometimes be riven by conflict. They accept, too, that the institute has made a fundamental shift away from "pure science". Those who have departed and speak freely say the national icon acts increasingly as a research arm of industry and the Commonwealth government. And now, 16 previously confidential reviews of the organisation, obtained as part of a Fairfax investigation, largely confirm this view.
The change is having a deleterious effect on staff. Top-flight researchers have departed to find scientific freedom elsewhere, while others have been pushed out. Money is scarce. And as the organisation slides into what insiders have described as a "consultancy" culture, as the funding for fundamental science has dwindled, so CSIRO's researchers have learnt to claw at each other to get it.
The obvious question is why? If it is true that the CSIRO is riven by conflict and overseen by a clubby, inept management, how could this have happened to so loved an institution?
Some sheet home blame to changes made during the tenure of CSIRO's former chief executive, Geoff Garrett. Before his appointment in 2000, each division of the organisation directed its own science, and its leaders enjoyed utter autonomy. Garrett bombshelled these silos, introducing a corporate hierarchy that controlled the organisation's funds. With the money went control of the very direction of the organisation.
It is widely accepted that the CSIRO was in need of change - that the power of the division chiefs sometimes prevented collaboration and fostered expensive duplication. But Garrett's critics say that in his war to modernise the organisation, the best elements of CSIRO's science culture became collateral damage.
Scientists suddenly had what felt like sales targets. Groups of researchers had to bring into the organisation a share of what they were spending in contracts with companies and others. Perhaps more than any other factor, it is the heavy emphasis on "applied" science that has prompted CSIRO's internal malaise.
Stephen Cameron, who studies insect genomics and is now working for the Queensland University of Technology, attended a retreat in early 2008 in a Canberra hotel that was meant to be a forum to discuss the future direction of CSIRO's entomology division. There, in front of a room of at least 100 people, a senior CSIRO executive addressed the question of funding for basic research.
"There was an emphasis on how fundable and patentable ideas were, and that led us to a discussion of the academic side of things and [the question of] when you have time to write up papers from projects," he recalled. "What most people do is to put a white lie in ... and put in 'analysis' to cover the period when the writing would happen."
He said what followed was a question of "how do you get new ideas off the ground and do exploratory work because you're meant to spend all the money on the wheat council project, for example. That's when [the executive] said, 'you have to do skunk-work'."
Both he and Chyb (who is embroiled in litigation with the CSIRO) say the term was a colloquialism for using money from paying customers to pay for side projects more useful for CSIRO's global reputation.
CSIRO dug up the presentation in question. The slide that accompanied the remarks said: "Keep 'skunking'; Don't sell 100 per cent of yourself; leave some time for developing ideas, early stage research." A CSIRO spokesman said the executive was simply telling the audience to keep "working harder".
But the pressure for outside money is so great that observers see it, too. Every four years, CSIRO is required by Parliament to invite teams of eminent scientists behind the scenes to review the organisation. Their reports offer glimpses of how widespread the disaffection is.
Some researchers feel "sliced and diced" and "disempowered", according to one 2010 review, by the need to adhere to what paying customers want. They are "dividing their time amongst three, four or even more projects" which "impacts negatively on morale and productivity".
Earth science and resource engineering was assessed in 2010 as suffering from: "An inward-looking culture; low morale in some areas; an ever-increasing demand to earn external income."
The CSIRO executive responsible for managing these reviews, Jack Steele, said that the high targets for external funding were partly a "perception" issue, as they were set after government funds paid for the infrastructure and capital that support each team of researchers.
"Are we thinking ... we should be funding all of our research ... from appropriation and there should not be external revenue targets? Or is it appropriate that industry is investing in the R&D that is relevant to that industry's future?" Steele said. He said the targets were a "strategic issue" and maintained they are adjusted according to the market in each area of industry. But the pressure for revenue is clearly the cause of much angst inside CSIRO. Some groups feel they carry a "disproportionate burden" of low-grade projects directed by paying customers which "will eventually lead to unhappiness and dissent". Similarly, the fact that only some scientists enjoy full funding "may in time lead to some tension with those groups that have very high external earnings targets". In the minerals science and engineering division, researchers had been discouraged from presenting at international conferences - a cornerstone of scientific endeavour - presumably in order to ensure the division could deliver ambitious volumes of industry work. One panel feared that established scientists would be "frozen out" of significant fundamental research projects by managers anxious to keep them available for the industry jobs that bring in external cash.
The result of much of this turmoil is the departure of good people. "A number of first-class scientists have left the [Land and Water] division ... for opportunities they considered would give them more scientific freedom and more opportunity to make major contributions in their fields," the most recent external review of 2009 said. Meanwhile, in other areas, a clubby atmosphere or "overreliance on promoting from within" has blocked promotion for frustrated younger researchers.
Craig Roy, CSIRO's deputy chief executive, said the organisation had "looked very hard" at its culture over the past decade. It had launched new strategies for diversity and inclusion to promote a better gender balance and welcome differing points of view.
"We have done a lot of work in the space of learning and development about how people get on in the workplace," he said. But he also acknowledged "that we have a strong performance-based culture. If you want to be top 10 in the world, you need a very strong performance-based culture. And sometimes that can create some difficulties, but I think we're also a compassionate organisation ... so it's that trade-off between the two."
By July, Clark will have some idea as to how large a problem workplace conflict has been in her institution, when the first of three reports by Pearce is delivered. Described as a "high-level" document that outlines "the overarching findings and recommendations" from the first phase of his inquiry, it will be made public.
A second, confidential report due in February 2014 will tell her which submissions are sufficiently well-evidenced to be investigated during a second phase. But Pearce's scope will restrict these investigations to those matters which have not been "formally investigated in a fair manner, or which have been or are being considered by a judicial or administrative body". It will not consider complaints from current staff and it will not consider allegations against former employees.
In the meantime, Roy is adamant the organisation has managed to perform miracles during the past decade. "I find it quite astounding," he said, "that we've been able to lift our external impact, maintain our science, lift our external revenue demonstrably, and have a low separation rate and a high staff satisfaction rate. That seems quite amazing."