Science is emerging as a key issue for both major parties at the federal election, with both pledging more funding for the sector.
The federal election is due by May 18 and the Coalition will be challenged to reverse perceptions of an anti-science agenda, following $110 million of funding cuts in 2014.
Early stage science such as CSIRO undertakes is a critical component of Australia’s rural sector, in agricultural research and development and climate science.
Last week Prime Minister Scott Morrison ended a year-long absence in August when he brought science back into Cabinet, appointing Karen Andrews Minister for Industry, Science and Technology.
Mr Morrison announced a new National Science and Technology Council to advise government. It replaces the Commonwealth Science Council, which has been inactive for the past year.
The National Council is chaired by the PM and includes relevant ministers, Australia’s Chief Scientist , CSIRO’s chief executive and six experts, who are yet to be appointed.
The Coalition’s move to increase scientific advice to government pre-empted a major policy announcement by Labor Leader Bill Shorten.
Mr Shorten has is angling to open a new point of policy to differentiate his party with a significant increase to science funding.
The Opposition committed to lift spending on research and development from 1.8 per cent of gross domestic product to 3pc of GDP, to conduct a review of the National Science and Research priorities, and to establish a Prime Minister’s Science and Innovation Council for independent advice to government.
In 2014 the Abbott Government’s $110m science funding cut preceded a loss of 1400 staff across the organisation. The losses bit particularly hard in regional areas.
In 2013 CSIRO annual report listed 6500 staff overall. By 2015 staff level had fallen to 5100.
Metropolitan worksites lost 18 per cent of their staff, while typically smaller regional sites lost 21pc of their staff, starting from a lower base.
In 2013, 368 staff worked in regional areas. By 2015, 78 positions had been lost in the bush and just 290 regional staff remained.
In the past five years four regional sites have been lost, with doors closing at Alice Springs, Griffith, Mildura and Rockhampton. Wodonga is expected to wind up next year.
CSRIO staff association secretary Sam Popovski said he had asked CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall to set benchmarks for regional science capability.
“As our national science agency, CSIRO must have a very significant regional footprint,” Mr Popovski said.
“We think overseas-recruited scientists should work in the regions, in the early stages of their career, which would help invigorate those sites with talent and make them attractive to other workers. CSIRO haven’t agreed to that yet.”