The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Australia is group of laboratories, each specialising in a particular scientific field of research.
I worked for the CSIRO for four years until January 2004 in the division of Health Sciences and Nutrition. It was a great experience, having been given a chance to learn numerous assays and work in different areas within the laboratory. I also had the pleasure of working with a supportive and interesting team of technicians and scientists. I am proud to have worked for the CSIRO who gave me the opportunity to prove that although I had a degree but a lack of experience, I could be quite the competent lab technician when given the chance.
How it all began
The CSIRO began as the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in the 1920s, an off-shoot of the Commonwealth Institute of Scientific Industry set up to re-establish scientific research after World War 1. The original industry floundered due to lack of funds and purpose, and originally a national research body wasn't welcomed by the state governments who believed the agriculture departments and universities were adequate. However, it was realised with the increasing problems in agriculture that large scale scientific research was required. With the cooperation of scientists, businessmen and politicians, the Science and Industry Research Act was passed in 1926. This legislation, along with ties to and funding from the Empire Marketing Board, saw the real birth of the CSIR.
Initially the CSIR's main purpose was to work with or promote Australian primary and secondary industries. Since it was run by scientists, not bureaucrats, it gained political independence and this scientific freedom attracted many leading European scientists to Australia. Early research was focused on plant and animal pests and diseases, fuel investigations, food investigations, and forest products investigations. During the 1930s and 1940s, however, the focus rested on agriculture and forest product utilisation. CSIR Divisions, acting as business units, were set up with each specialising in a particular area, and a few lending their expertise during World War 2.
After the war the global scientific community’s unity had crumbled, especially due to the abuse of nuclear physics for which there was great potential for its uses for 'good', rather than 'evil'. Political pressure forced the Australian government to separate military research from civil research after CSIR’s chairman at the time, David Rivett, urged scientists to continue the free exchange of scientific knowledge that occurred before the war. Paranoia and ignorance resulted in assumptions made from Rivett’s speech that the CSIR would not keep military work secure and after an assessment the CSIR was restructured. The Defence, Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) took over all military research, and civil research was transferred to CSIRO, which was formed from the CSIR on 19 May 1949. The CSIRO had freedom in scientific research without the problems of national security. More Divisions were set up across the country, covering a vast number of areas of research and enabling work with primary, secondary and tertiary industries.
What it is today
Today the CSIRO has become one of the world's largest scientific organisations with the most diversity, providing more opportunities both nationally and globally. Research and Development is carried out in seven industry sectors (Agribusiness; Energy and Transport; Environment and Natural Resources; Health; Information, Communication and Services; Manufacturing; and Mineral Resources), covering areas such as:
CSIRO is heavily involved with industry (both in Australia and overseas), universities, and science agencies. Research within CSIRO has resulted in the development of more than 50 spin-off companies over the past 10 years. CSIRO is also greatly committed to education, with Science Education Centres set up in each capital city, providing the opportunity for school kids to approach science in a fun, hands-on environment. Additionally, the Double Helix Science Club is open to school-aged kids from 10 years old with a growing interest in science. Membership includes a copy of The Helix magazine each quarter which is full of information on general science and experiments to perform at home, as well as opportunities to help out at science days. Each division also welcomes high-schoolers to undertake work experience, and university-level honours and post-graduate programs are generally offered every year.
Currently 16 Divisions, established by scientific discipline, are committed to each of these areas, but each Division is not mutually exclusive from the others. Found in over 65 sites across Australia, these Divisions employ over 6500 scientific, technical and support staff.
The number of significant achievements CSIRO holds currently stands at 328. Perhaps one of the more well known events, thanks to the movie The Dish, is the use of the Parkes radio telescope to broadcast the Apollo 11 moon landing to the world. Wool research has resulted in the production of SportwoolTM which absorbs moisture and maintains the athlete’s body heat before and after exercise. It is now worn by the Manchester United Football Team and other sports teams and companies are quickly following suit and utilising this product. CSIRO's research into influenza using protein crystallography saw the development of the world's first drug for the "flu", and CSIRO mathematicians have played a major role in the development of a non-invasive device to detect changes in cervix cells; replacing the need for scrapings during a PAP smear.
Where it will be tomorrow
The CSIRO continues to grow and expand its research to build new industries, set world-class standards and to maintain a competitive edge over other world leading research bodies. With the initiative of Flagships, the CSIRO has established new partnerships and long-term goals to see Australia leading the way in healthcare, energy production, water usage, and information and communication technology.
For more information check out:
Brad Collis (2001) Fields of Discovery, Allen & Unwin.