CSIRO scientists slam IT outsourcing, plan strikes

CSIRO staff this week threatened strike action in a bid to halt plans by the federal government to outsource the science body's IT infrastructure and services.

Meetings are being held throughout Australia in coming weeks in preparation for a national Day of Action on August 29 that will call on the federal government to exclude the CSIRO from IT outsourcing plans.

CSIRO is part of the group nine cluster and tenders were initially due to be released in October, but plans have been delayed in recognition of the science agency's research and development role in the IT community.

CSIRO deputy chief executive Ron Sandland told Computerworld tenders will be delayed while the Office of Asset Sales and IT Outsourcing (OASITO) examines a suitable outsourcing model for the CSIRO, taking into account its special needs as a researching body.

Sandland said the CSIRO does not fit the traditional business outsourcing model and suitable criteria will be released in coming weeks to determine if the CSIRO's infrastructure and services will be completely or partly outsourced.

Originally, all CSIRO IT was to be outsourced, but Sandland said the federal government is reconsidering its strategy taking into account the need to safeguard CSIRO intellectual property.

"The model being examined will be far more flexible than previous outsourcing activity undertaken by the government and we are looking at a range of possibilities," he said.

Despite the scoping paper, CSIRO staff association assistant secretary Dr Pauline Gallagher said the federal government's IT outsourcing plans are the biggest threat the science agency has had to face in its 74-year history because "the plans are not only misguided, but dangerous".

Gallagher criticised the government's policy to outsource IT as though the science agency was just another government administrative office without reference to the structure and complexity of CSIRO.

She said CSIRO is already an innovator in IT because so much research is dependent on sophisticated computational systems that have often been modified for particular projects.

But this will be undermined by outsourcing providers, she said.

"IT staff are very science literate and interact closely with research colleagues every day; it would be impossible for an outside contractor to step in and take over this role without jeopardising CSIRO's research work," Gallagher said.

"In many cases the support required by CSIRO is unique; it requires extensive knowledge of systems, instrumentation and research being undertaken with remote fieldwork on land, sea and in the air. The quality and cost effectiveness of contract support in these environments is completely unknown.

"We are talking about research which goes to the heart of many of the issues and problems facing our country as well as supporting billion-dollar industries."The association estimates IT costs will double if outsourced and the monitoring of contract compliance will be a "big issue" because staff time will be diverted to the supervision of contract arrangements.

An association statement said up to 10 per cent of the workforce will be lost and, because outsourcing costs will rise, further job cuts will follow to compensate.

Sandland admitted there will be job losses but said the 10 per cent figure was "too high" adding it is too early to apply numbers.

CSIRO scientists also claim intellectual property will not be secure with outsourcing providers and the agency will not be able to protect its sponsors and industry partners.

A spokesman for the Minister for Finance and Administration, John Fahey, said the association's concerns are being considered in the scoping paper and it is likely off-the-shelf services will be outsourced and specialist research systems will remain in-house.

"There will be no degradation in services, in fact outsourcing will enhance operations because scientists will be free to concentrate on their particular field of endeavour while basic infrastructure work will be maintained by the provider; the minister is working closely with CSIRO and met representatives personally to allay fears," the spokesman said.

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