ngin - Norfolk Genetic Information Network

8 July 2002

CSIRO & PUBLIC GOOD VERSUS PRIVATE GAIN

1. Public Good Versus Private Gain - CSIRO
2. CSIRO - embedded in the bioindustrial-complex

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1. Public Good Versus Private Gain

The Age (Melbourne) July 6, 2002 Saturday
Insight: Public Good Versus Private Gain
Stephen Cauchi

The CSIRO is ditching public research in favour of lucrative consulting work, and many of the old guard aren't happy about it, reports Stephen Cauchi. Two years ago, Jonathan Shier and Geoff Garrett were plucked from overseas to head the ABC and the CSIRO respectively. Like Shier, Garrett - recruited from South Africa's equivalent of the CSIRO - has an ambitious and extroverted style of leadership. That, coupled with budget cutbacks, job losses and an upgraded focus on making money at Australia's pre-eminent scientific research body, is bringing the critics out of the woodwork. A CSIRO executive from 1981 to 1995, Max Whitten delivered a stinging attack on Garrett this week in the journal Australasian Science (the article was republished in The Age). Whitten accused Garrett of subverting the CSIRO's traditional role of public research in favour of lucrative consulting work for government departments and the private sector. Hence, research into genetically engineered crops, with its promise of intellectual property and revenue streams, is in; research into organic farming is out. The CSIRO's National Awareness Program, which funded science programs for print and radio, has also been axed. CSIRO staff refer to Garrett's style as "management evangelism", a reference to his fondness for such phrases as "if it ain't broke, break it" and acronyms such as BRAGS - "Brilliant Research and Great Stuff!" They also recall a meeting in Canberra last year when Garrett jumped up on a table in imitation of the school teacher played by Robin Williams in one of his favourite films, Dead Poets Society. Garrett's record in South Africa's CSIRO equivalent, CSIR, was what endeared him to the Howard Government. Garrett enabled the CSIR to flourish in the difficult post-apartheid times by increasing its external earnings through consultations. Similarly, the CSIRO now has a formal target of getting 30 per cent of its income from external revenue (half of which comes from commissions from government departments and agencies). Australia's chief scientist, Robin Batterham, is reviewing the formal target concept and is likely to recommend it be scrapped. Given this and Garrett's declared aim of increasing the CSIRO's income by 50 per cent, it is likely a greater proportion of revenue will be derived from external sources. CSIRO old-timers such as Whitten fear traditional CSIRO programs - everything from research into grain storage to work in radio astronomy - will continue to suffer. After all, the CSIRO's budget for research has already shrunk by a fifth.

 "The indisputable facts indicate a serious loss of research capacity within CSIRO," Whitten wrote in his article. "The promise of massive increases in external earnings might have landed Garrett the job, but the strategy could shift CSIRO from being a powerhouse for public-good research into just another consulting firm."

 Staff morale, says Whitten, is plummeting (a charge denied by Garrett): half the divisional chiefs are looking elsewhere for jobs; internal surveys reveal many top managers are stressed; new chiefs are only offered three-year appointments. Garrett declined to speak to The Age, but in an e-mailed response, the CSIRO insists that "public-good research is central to CSIRO's mandate". Yet the organisation's own public statements indicate a clear link between relevance and revenue. "Our goal is to grow total CSIRO revenue by 50 per cent over the next four years as a metric for our enhanced impact and relevance for the nation," it says in the e-mail. The deputy chief of the CSIRO, Dr Ron Sandland, also told The Age: "The goal of a 50 per cent increase in total revenue over the next four years (is) symbolic of enhanced relevance and national contribution."

 Contrast that with 1981, when Whitten started at the CSIRO. Then, the external earnings requirement for his entomology department was 23 per cent. "I was told that was too high, I should reduce it," he says. "In fact, I increased it."

 While he says chasing external dollars is not new, public-good research should be primarily that. Science should be regarded like education or defence: something that is beneficial to the nation but whose benefits are too widely spread for private industry to take on for themselves. Why, asks Whitten, should the taxpayer be funding research intended to benefit private industry? The CSIRO is quick to point out the commercial benefits of its work, including public-good research. In May, John Kerin, chairman of the CSIRO's stored grain research laboratory, released an analysis of his department's work showing that each dollar invested in the laboratory had returned more than $20 in benefits. Four other projects - robotic mining, revitalising the landscape, road crack detection and bushfire control - will generate benefits 100 times greater than they cost, the CSIRO says. If the CSIRO's research is so lucrative, why is funding and external revenue such an issue? "Sometimes the benefits are immediate, but sometimes it can take quite a while," says Whitten. "You're talking about 10 to 15 years between research and its uptake."

 And, in these economically rationalist times, such benefits are viewed sceptically. Graeme Pearman, chief of CSIRO Atmospheric Research since 1994, says times have changed since Whitten was involved in CSIRO. The community has failed to recognise the "breadth" of science's economic contribution, he says. "There's a degree of scepticism there, says Pearman. "Max has a fairly biased view about what is happening . . . it's Geoff's intention to grow all of our potential funding."

 Ironically, one of the CSIRO's sternest critics has been itself. In February, a senate hearing in Canberra was read a CSIRO internal document that said the organisation was "aloof, arrogant and unresponsive". The agency's strategic action plan also described it as too hierarchical and bureaucratic and overly focused on short-term revenue targets. It noted that the CSIRO was no longer considered competitive in the international labour market due to uncompetitive salaries and a weak Australian dollar, and had less scope to do strategic research. These problems are not new. A report in The Age in 1994 could have been written today. "CSIRO bears a close resemblance to that other great Australian corporation, the ABC," wrote The Age's then science reporter. "Both are layered with discontent . . . but most importantly, both seem to be increasingly motivated by the corporate dollar."

 The secretary of the CSIRO staff association, Sandy Ross, says the tensions between public-good research and revenue-based research have been around since the 1980s and are increased when funding becomes tight - as it is today.

 "These are issues that have been around a lot longer than Geoff Garrett," Ross says. "The pressures have been on for the organisation to expand its commercial income."

 Nor is the CSIRO's boss, for all his radical, upbeat behaviour, to be compared with the sacked head of the ABC.

 "There are elements of truth to some of (Whitten's) statements but there's no way (Garrett) is like Jonathan Shier," says one source. "If you went out to the CSIRO divisions you'd get a much more mixed view than what Max says."

 In particular, staff and supporters alike believe the CSIRO has to grow if it is to stay relevant. "There's a lot of common ground we have with Geoff about that," says one former employee. And, Garrett aside, it is undeniably true the Howard Government has cut the CSIRO's funding significantly. In May, Prime Minister John Howard launched Brad Collis' history of the CSIRO, Fields of Discovery, and told the audience he looked forward to the day when the CSIRO could join the Australian cricket team as world leaders. Fine sentiments. But since the Coalition took office in 1996, the CSIRO has lost 12 per cent of its staff, from a peak of 7400 to 6400. During the same period, it has lost a quarter of its budget relative to economic growth. The CSIRO is budgeted to receive $639 million this financial year - $12 million more than last year - but this 1.9 per cent rise fails to keep pace with inflation and real GDP growth. Including external income, the CSIRO has an annual revenue of about $900 million, which Garrett aims to increase to $1.3 billion by 2006. The Minister for Science, Peter McGauran, declined to talk to The Age but issued a statement supporting the government's appointment of Garrett. "Dr Garrett was recruited to lead CSIRO through a reform process. Both he and the board continue to have the complete support of the Federal Government . . . the global economy of 2002 requires CSIRO to be deeply engaged with industry both large and small."

 The opposition science spokesman, Senator Kim Carr, says the CSIRO's problems are not unique and Garrett is not to blame for the difficulties the organisation is facing. "I think the problems go deeper than individuals. The CSIRO is facing the same problems facing the universities and other research agencies. It's too important to be played around with by governments intent on privatising everything."

Stephen Cauchi is The Age science reporter.

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2. CSIRO - strategically embedded in the bioindustrial-complex

(from the NGIN list June 2001)

Following on from the recent exchanges between Devinder Sharma and AgBioWorld supporter, Dr  Malcolm Livingstone
[http://members.tripod.com/~ngin/sharma2.htm],
it may be remembered that Dr Livingstone, a Plant Molecular Biologist with CSIRO in Australia, angrily denied ANY connection with INDUSTRY.

DML:     "OK first of all I am not part of the INDUSTRY. I work for CSIRO (a publicly funded organisation with a rich history of good science) and before that with the University of Queensland. I don't know ANYBODY who works for agricultural companies and never have."

Livingstone's not knowing ANYBODY at all from industry might seem a little surprising for a Prakash ally who it might be thought would be in  contact with quite a few like-minded AgBioWorld supporters.

To date, 3172  'Scientists In Support Of Agricultural Biotechnology' have signed the Prakash declaration. A sizeable percentage of these seem  to be directly employed by the biotech industry, eg by Novartis, Dow, Pioneer Hi-bred, BASF, Aventis etc. If you take a sample page such as that for the letter 'L', where Dr Livingstone's name is to be found , you'll find that employees of Monsanto alone account for over 10% of the  declaration signaturies listed.
[http://agbioworld.org/PHP/index_search.phtml?alpha=L ]

But let's assume that none of these industrially-linked like minded individuals are among Dr Livingstone's correspondents, and that his professional/social network has been limited exclusively to his places of work: CSIRO and, before that, the University of Queensland.

CSIRO stands for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Reseach Organisation. Note the "Industrial" bit. Although ostensibly "publicly funded" CSIRO is, in reality, encouraged to get 30% of its funding from buisness with the CSIRO top management encouraging its staff to go to 40% (as a point of comparison, only about 10% of the funding of Europe's  leading plant biotech institute, the John Innes Centre, is thought to come directly from industry). A CSIRO division like "Plant Industry" is organised to reflect this, ie its research focus is conducive to industrial interests.

The following are excerpts from an article by Richard Hindmarsh in the Journal of Australian Political Economy (No 44.), 'Consolidating Control: Plant Variety Rights, Genes and Seeds':
http://www.biotech-info.net/consolidating_control.pdf

"These factors, in addition to IPR developments, coupled to the R&D programmes of key Australian public sector research institutions like the CSIRO and the Waite Institute which have long been aligned to intensive agricultural R&D and agribusiness, are tending to generate convergence between private sector and public sector plant breeding operators.  The CSIRO, in keeping with its position of being at the forefront of scientific research, prioritised genetic engineering research in 1979.  CSIRO scientists have since been very active in the promotion of GE to the Australian community, and especially to other scientists (Hindmarsh, 1996).  In addition, multinational companies are seen as the key avenue to theinternational commercialisation of biotechnology products and research of both Australian public sector institutions and biotechnology firms. A key programme to bring the public and private sectors together has been the Cooperative Research Centres programme introduced in 1990, as noted earlier.  The CSIRO has played a key role in these centres, and multinational companies like Groupe Limagrain and Zeneca subsidiary Pacific Seeds have participated."

"...the indications are that a Byzantine web of formal contractual obligations and informal connections has emerged between the CSIRO and other public-sector agencies..., universities, small or new biotechnology firms (NBFs), and multinational corporations."

Those listed by Hindmarsh as having direct connections with CSIRO include: Agrigenetics, Monsanto, Rhone Poulenc and AgrEvo.

"...in 1998, CSIRO, with the Australian National University, announced a  five-year strategic research alliance to collaborate with AgrEvo to develop "innovative enabling platform technologies"...  The alliance gives CSIRO ownership of intellectual property associated with the research projects, while AgrEvo will obtain licenses for a range of crops including cereals, vegetables, oilseeds and cotton.  At the same time, AgrEvo will improve its distribution of its agribusiness technologies to Australian farmers through the CSIRO (CSIRO 1998a: 1)."

"With regard to insect-resistant varieties, cotton...  Significantly,a collaboration between the CSIRO and Monsanto has generated Australia's first major GE commercial crop.  The CSIRO licensed Monsanto's patented Bt Cry IA(c) gene, the Ingard« gene, and inserted it into local varieties of cotton, which are now sold by Cotton Seed Distributors as Monsanto's PI Ingard« cotton.."

"...a long history of CSIRO collaboration with multinationals, its advocacy of globalisation as a key avenue for Australian biotechnology, and its increasing dependency upon industry funding."

Hindmarsh's article makes clear the huge extent of private-public sector  interlocking of R&D at CSIRO, which, as indicated above, has even formed  cooperative ventures with agTNCs, like Monsanto, and also does much collaborative work with TNCs, eg Groupe Limagrain, Zeneca and Monsanto.

According to  John Stocker, CSIRO's former chief executive, "Working with the transnationals makes a lot of sense, in the context of market access.  There are very few Australian companies that have developed market access in the United States, in Europe and in Japan, the world's major marketplaces. Yes, we do find that it is often the best strategy to get into bed with these companies." (Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1992).

While CSIRO is strategically embedded within the bioindustrial-complex, Dr Livingstone's former workplace, the University of Queensland is, we are reliably informed, inundated with scientists working in agbiotech, who have taken out patents etc.

So if Dr Livingstone really has never known ANYBODY who has gotten into bed with INDUSTRY, we can only assume that throughout his entire working  life he has been chained to his lab bench with a severe case of myopia and a hearing aid that's permanently switched off. No wonder he's so cross.
 


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