CSIRO documents released under a Freedom of Information (FOI) request and made public today on Drink Tank raise fresh concerns about a corporate culture that has forgotten or completely abandoned its social licence to operate.
Has the CSIRO deserted its stated purpose to “further the interests of the Australian community” in its thirst to monetise all research efforts, and determination to “assist Australian industry” regardless of the societal cost?
Has a ‘pro-alcohol’ agenda prevailed over the broader public interest?
Drink Tank investigates.
Whistleblower and former CSIRO scientist Dr Saul Newman first raised concerns in correspondence published by The Lancet, calling for an end to government support for pro-alcohol research, pointing out that any economic benefit is far outweighed by the human cost of alcohol harm.
Speaking to Drink Tank, Dr Newman claimed that while working at the CSIRO, he repeatedly requested evidence to prove CSIRO’s assertion that pro-alcohol research was in the public or even economic interest of Australians. Those requests fell on deaf ears or were actively discouraged.
And he pulled no punches stating that the CSIRO …has a mandate to serve the people of Australia. However, the activity of this government department stands directly at odds with the public good.
Those concerns were echoed by Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) Chief Executive Michael Thorn, who told the Guardian’s Melissa Davey, Newman’s published criticisms of CSIRO having a pro-alcohol research and development agenda paid for by Australian taxpayers is of genuine concern to FARE, as it should be to all Australians. CSIRO’s dismissive attitude does not bode well for the country’s premier scientific institution.
It was that dismissive attitude that motivated FARE to make a Freedom of Information request for documents relating to Dr Newman’s criticism of the CSIRO for having a pro-alcohol research bias.
I was curious to see how the CSIRO would respond to this valid criticism now it was in the public domain. How does the CSIRO reconcile investing heavily in the alcohol industry in the full knowledge of the devastating toll that results, and how does it respond, internally to such criticism? Mr Thorn said.
The CSIRO complied, identifying 38 documents relevant to the request. In the interests of transparency, those documents, in the main being email correspondence, are published today on Drink Tank.
What do they tell us?
Ambitious, aspirational and with a clear social conscience; the CSIRO’s mission statement explicitly suggests that Australia’s premier scientific and research institution cares about the greater good.
That position is further emphasised by the Science and Industry Research Act 1949 that defines its purpose:
- To carry out scientific research for any of the following purposes:
- Assisting Australian industry;
- Furthering the interests of the Australian community;
- Contributing to the achievement of Australian national objectives or the performance of the national and international responsibilities of the Commonwealth; and
- Any other purpose determined by the Minister;
- To encourage or facilitate the application or utilisation of the results of such research.
Yet despite what the CSIRO proudly proclaims on its corporate website, it is the very justifiable concern that the CSIRO – far from creating social benefits that better our world and furthering the interests of the Australian community – are in fact doing more harm than good, that lies at the heart of Dr Newman’s criticism.
That concern, echoed by FARE, is only amplified when reading through the CSIRO and Wine Australia email correspondence secured through FARE’s FOI request and published in full today.
Nothing to see here
If the CSIRO does have a story it is proud of, clearly it would rather not tell anyone about it. At times aggressive, churlish, defensive, and at all times dismissive, the CSIRO’s media management appears for the most part as sophisticated as turning off the lights and pretending no one is home.
On Wednesday 17 April 2019, the Guardian’s Melbourne Bureau Chief, Melissa Davey, emailed the CSIRO requesting a response to Dr Newman’s allegations. Responding, CSIRO Corporate Affairs Media Liaison Manager Huw Morgan took the unusual approach of being openly hostile; telling Ms Davey, Can I suggest you put more effort into researching your story idea and accusations from a single source before returning to ask for a formal response. Mr Morgan also flagged that he saw the allegations as nothing more than a vendetta from an ex-employee, stating It seems that this is a personal campaign by Dr Newman who is using his position at ANU to promote it.
Singing from the same song sheet
Proving the CSIRO to be adept at managing some stakeholder relationships, the FOI paper trail reveals how quickly the CSIRO and Wine Australia came together to literally get their story – or rather what little they were prepared to reveal – straight.
Recounting a telephone call between Wine Australia and CSIRO Corporate Affairs, Communications Advisor Darius Koreis emails his counterparts Huw Morgan and Kate Langford to say, They (Wine Australia) would be keen to sing from the same song sheet if we respond.
It could be argued that such an approach is stakeholder management 1-0-1, especially in light of CSIRO and Wine Australia having signed a five-year, $37 million co-investment agreement in 2017.
But it is a weak argument.
Surely two years down the track the CSIRO should know exactly why they are in bed with Wine Australia, and have an awareness of the benefits and negative consequences of working hand-in-glove with a statutory authority driven by commerciality and, in many ways, entirely beholden to the business interests of its alcohol industry stakeholders.
There really should be no need for any singing from the same song sheet.
In the circumstances, it smacks more of collusion than it does of good stakeholder relations.
On the afternoon of Wednesday 17 April 2019, and over a series of emails (Docs 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 19, 21) exchanged internally and between the CSIRO and Wine Australia, the two entities massaged and signed off on their respective sparse responses, even agreeing to respond to the Guardian within minutes of each other.
Emailing colleague Kate Langford, CSIRO Communications Advisor Darius Koreis writes, Wine Australia are fine with our proposed response as well.
Nothing to see here!
In a sign of at least some self-awareness and recognition that Dr Newman’s criticisms aren’t a great look for the CSIRO’s reputation, the FOI papers reveal internal Wine Australia concerns that the Guardian may enquire into the appropriateness of CSIRO Board Member Dr Michele Allan also sitting on the Board of Wine Australia.
Wine Australia’s Corporate Affairs Manager Anita Poddar wrote to her Director Michele Allan on 17 April to forewarn of the risk of the Guardian pursuing the matter.
…Saul Newman put out a tweet a few weeks ago suggesting that there was something inappropriate about Wine Australia funding the CSIRO as you were on both boards. …now that the Guardian has followed up there is a risk that Saul may repeat the sentiment in The Guardian and we thought the probability great enough that it was best to forewarn you.
Another sign that the CSIRO might recognise the need to improve the optics, if nothing else, email correspondence from CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall to CSIRO Director of Corporate Affairs Tanya Bowes speaks of the need to reframe the conversation to “leveraging external $ to fund better health outcomes”.
It’s all about the money
A central thesis of Dr Newman’s concerns is that for the CSIRO and its partner, it has become all about the money. Success is measured in terms of economic benefits.
Wine Australia’s originally draft media response speaks at great length to the economic value of its CSIRO partnership. And common to the media statements (Docs 12, 24) of both the CSIRO and Wine Australia, is the complete absence of any mention of the public good.
Just as concerning as the CSIRO and Wine Australia’s dismissiveness of Dr Newman’s allegations and FARE’s concerns, are the friends they call upon to defend their position.
NZ academic Dr Eric Crampton is a good friend of the alcohol industry, and is often cited and wheeled out to refute evidence whenever research doesn’t play in the alcohol industry’s favour.
Wine Australia’s Corporate Affairs Manager Anita Poddar cites Crampton’s criticism of the data that speaks to the scale of alcohol harm in Australia in order to dismiss it, saying, and let’s just say some of the numbers…are pretty dubious.
That’s perhaps not so surprising. Prior to her role at Wine Australia, Poddar was entrenched with Accolade Wines for six years, and most recently as Head of Global External Affairs until May 2016. As such, one imagines she can sing from the alcohol industry playbook chapter and verse.
Shoot the messenger
As additional media enquiries trickled in off the back of the Guardian story, there is more insight into CSIRO’s media management strategy and level of apathy regarding the allegations, with comment that it is not a story.
Perhaps just as concerning, comments by CSIRO Communication Manager Helen Beringen who, in the finest tradition of responding to whistleblowers, seems to think shooting the messenger might be the best course of action.
On Friday 19 April, she emailed her CSIRO Corporate Affairs colleagues, …further to Dr Newman’s allegations in today’s Guardian, would he be in breach of his contract by sharing CSIRO emails…something for next week perhaps?.