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Economics Legislation Committee
Australian Institute of Marine Science

Australian Institute of Marine Science


CHAIR: I welcome the officers from AIMS, who are with us via teleconference.

Senator WATERS: Last time, you talked to me about the National Sea Simulator program. You then also mentioned that you had had to deprioritise some of what you called 'strategic research' in favour of research for the oil and gas industry. You mentioned that one example of something you had had to deprioritise was your work on the natural and anthropogenic pressures on fish physiology and behaviour in that National Sea Simulator. Were there any other examples of work—perhaps work that was ecologically focused—that you have had to deprioritise in favour of research for the oil and gas industry?

Mr Gunn : We have crossed wires a little there. The work for the oil and gas industry does not involve the National Sea Simulator. In answer to your question, there are no specific projects we have deprioritised other than the one I gave you previously.

Senator WATERS: No others—that is good to hear. Has the funding stream from offshore oil and gas been impacted—the work you are being funded by them to do—given the oil price crash?

Mr Gunn : I think that right across that sector there is pressure on expenditure. As usual, we are working pretty hard to make sure our work is relevant. At the moment we are still in negotiation on a number of projects. I am hoping it will not have too much impact on the research we do.

Senator WATERS: Have you been able to maintain the flow of work you anticipated from that sector so far?

Mr Gunn : Yes, we are very heavily engaged with a number of the major players on the North West Shelf and in the Browse Basin oil and gas sector.

Senator WATERS: Could you please take it on notice to give me as much information as you can about the scope of those projects and where they are at—how far advanced they are?

Mr Gunn : We can certainly do that, but I will make a quick comment. We do work with a range of companies. The broad focus is providing environmental baselines before they go and do any of their exploratory or production drilling. The type of work we have been doing in association with industry has been running for well over 20 years now. I think it was last week that Woodside Energy won the APPEA environment award for the type of work we do with them.

Senator WATERS: Did you say there was an APPEA environment award?

Mr Gunn : Yes, an APPEA environment award.

Senator WATERS: That is a bit of a contradiction in terms.

CHAIR: That is a comment.

Senator WATERS: I will leave that. I am sorry—I did not realise they had the audacity to give out environment awards. Pardon me for interrupting. Please continue.

Mr Gunn : I was finished. I was just noting that Woodside had won the award—for the third time, I think—and cited in that award was the work they do with agencies such as AIMS, CSIRO and universities in Western Australia.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. I will look forward to some more detail on the projects you have either underway or in the pipeline—to the best of your ability. On staffing matters, my recollection is that you managed to hold onto all of your staff after last year's budget. Have there been any redundancies since we last spoke or that you are anticipating as a result of this most recent budget?

Mr Gunn : None that are related to funding.

Senator WATERS: There do seem to be some cuts that are increasing. Please correct me if I am wrong, but there seems to be an additional $100,000 cut on top of last year and I believe the cuts are projected to go to about an extra $300,000 by 2016-17. Can you tell me first of all if I am accurate on those figures? Secondly, how will you cope with those cuts? What changes will you have to make to factor those in?

Mr Gunn : I will leave my general manager to answer the first question.

Mr Mead : I am not aware of any specific cuts other than changes to the appropriation funding indexation rate going forward. Those fluctuate up and down depending on CPI forecasts. I would have to take on notice whether your numbers are exactly correct.

Senator WATERS: Would indexation normally lead to that level of funding alteration?

Mr Mead : Yes, noting that that is sitting on top of a $38 million appropriation—so a small percentage change will make that size of variation.

Senator WATERS: How are you going to factor those cuts into your work flow?

Mr Gunn : The practice of all science agencies—all agencies—when they are faced with a cut is to look for savings within efficiencies. Efficiencies are driven hard by those types of cuts. We go through our usual process of looking at ways we could make sure that our science is maintained while becoming more efficient in the back-end of the business.

Ms Beauchamp : Just to clarify, when you do look at the budget papers, the revenue from government absolutely increases over the forward estimates. I just wanted to put that on the record—on page 85.

Senator WATERS: Thank you. I will check on my figures and put on notice how we can explain that discrepancy. I am not sure how long you have been in Portugal, Mr Gunn, and thank you for phoning in from there. A couple of weeks ago—on Tuesday, 12 May—there was a front-page story in Queensland's The Courier-Mailthat referred to some work of AIMS. My understanding is that the author of the report has since had some concerns about the fact that her work was misrepresented. I am not sure if you are familiar with this or if either Mr Souter or Mr Mead are. Could you share whether or not you thought that coverage was a fair reflection of your work or, if not, what parts were not?

Mr Gunn : I think you are correct. There was a report in The Courier-Mail. It is one of a series of articles they wrote, on the Great Barrier Reef, leading up to the UNESCO decision. The report was on the basis of quite an informal chat between Dr Britta Schaffelke, from AIMS, and a journalist from Newscorp., Brian Williams. He wrote an article. We were forced to have some commentary on that. Britta Schaffelke went into media the following day, basically trying to clarify the situation. I thought it might be worth reading a letter back from the journalist, Mr Williams, to my scientist, Britta Schaffelke.

Senator WATERS: Yes please; thank you.

CHAIR: I would be very pleased to have you do that.

Mr Gunn : It says:

Dear Britta,

I accept responsibility for the quality of my story. I wanted you to know that I did not write the headline or the material that appeared on the front page. I am sorry that you were upset about it. I did not write that the reef had recovered or that corals and seagrasses were blooming. My copy read that there were likely to be slight improvements.

In fact, that is pretty much as we had discussed with him. It is a case of a journalist and a scientist having a factual conversation ending up in something that was less than factual on the front page of a newspaper.

Senator WATERS: Would you mind tabling that letter for us, Mr Gunn, so that we can have a bit of a closer look at that? Thank you. I appreciate that you have taken the chance to clarify that.

CHAIR: We thank you very much for having phoned in from all over world, and we look forward to catching up with you, again, in October. I am sure if senators have any questions they would like to ask they will put them on notice for you.

Proceedings suspended from 18:48 to 19:31