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CSIRO can’t justify pro-alcohol research

Shocking revelations that Australia’s publicly-funded scientific institution, the CSIRO, is in bed with the alcohol industry have been made in the prestigious British medical journal, The Lancet, by former CSIRO scientist, Dr Saul Newman.

Alcohol kills one out of every 22 Australians, yet the CSIRO’s research agenda is staunchly pro-alcohol. 

This is completely untenable and a serious conflict of interest.

As chief executive of Australia’s only organisation working solely to reduce alcohol harm, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, I am seriously concerned that the CSIRO is strategically supporting the alcohol industry and is an active player in facilitating the production of more alcohol.

Now turned whistleblower, Dr Newman says our premier science institution has a deep-rooted culture of being pro-alcohol industry and it is remarkable that CSIRO continues to knowingly support a commodity that causes significant death and harm.

Dr Newman says in the 1960s CSIRO scientists helped introduce the wine cask to the world while senior members of staff personally developed mechanical grape harvesters, “which catapulted cheap Australian wine into global markets, and single-handedly made $2-a-bottle wine a reality”.

In 2016, the top CSIRO award was granted to a project that developed gluten-free barley. In itself a scientific triumph, which was destined to produce gluten-free cereal as part of a public health program. 

According to Dr Newman, the project was hijacked by CSIRO management and sold out to a foreign brewer to make gluten-free beer.

This example of preferential support of the alcohol industry winning out over public health goes to the heart of the CSIRO’s indefensible conflict of interest.

Surely the CSIRO should preference research that benefits the health of Australians, above supporting a well-resourced industry that is increasingly owned by global corporations.

Questioned by Dr Newman during his four-years at CSIRO, the CSIRO executive admitted that alcohol killed millions of people and that there was no safe level of drinking but, remarkably, stated that pro-alcohol research would continue at CSIRO because alcohol enjoyed a ‘social licence’ in Australia.

I agree with Dr Newman that CSIRO’s response was stupefying and it suggests that our government research institution has little regard for the immense damage caused by alcohol.

Dr Newman says the CSIRO has grappled internally with how to justify its pro-alcohol position to the public.

It cannot. 

Yet with stark audacity, the CSIRO is now in the throes of spending 18 million dollars of public money to help Wine Australia produce more alcohol.

It is unacceptable to have the CSIRO proactively supporting an industry that causes death and immense harm, especially to young Australians, with more than a million children affected in some way by the drinking of others.

Other government departments are left to deal with the fallout, at a cost of $36 billion every year. 

On the ground, this means dedicated Australians in the health and community sectors, in justice and law enforcement and our emergency services work around the clock to help people impacted by alcohol.

The CSIRO’s social licence is dubious, especially in light of the growing body of evidence about the magnitude of alcohol’s health harms.

Surely the CSIRO should preference research that benefits the health of Australians, above supporting a well-resourced industry that is increasingly owned by global corporations.

Dr Newman calculates that more than 90 per cent of Australian beer and many Australian vineyards are foreign-owned, with profits flowing directly offshore.

He says just two foreign companies own 89.7 per cent of Australian beer, while another owns 18 per cent of Australian wine.

This is not in the public interest. 

The CSIRO must be held to account, and it must introduce a stronger ‘public interest’ test for its research decision-making.

Dr Newman’s criticisms of CSIRO are another glaring example of the failure of the Australian government to establish desperately needed preventive health programs.

Michael Thorn

Michael was was Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) from January 2011 until November 2019


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