Bella Peacock

The CSIRO Did It

Late in June the Grim Reaper appeared in Geelong wearing the face of Tony Abbott. Followed by a precession of lab-coat adorned mourners, a coffin announcing the death of Australian science's future was grieved in the Melbourne streets.

This scene, played out by the staff and supporters of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, or CSIRO, was intended to be more than simply sardonically hilarious. The press stunt was meant to remind the Australian public of what they too are loosing with the $115 million cuts in CSIRO funding passed down in this year's Federal Government budget. A quiet achiever, the CSIRO are now raising their voice at what they perceive is a diminishing role of science on a federal level. And the fact that Abbott has appointed no Minister for Science for the first time since the science portfolio was created in 1931 only supports the CSIRO's hypothesis.

Yet it's true that the 2014 budget has invoked somewhat of a generalised national moaning choir, so are the CSIRO just a bunch of government-paid whinging nerds? What actually goes on behind the acronym we all know so well?

From Apollo 11 to diet books, the CSIRO are Australia's largest patent holder, with 3500 live patents and over 700 inventions under their lab coats

Well, a little research tells us that these folks have had their clever little fingers in pretty much every major science beaker since their formation in 1916. From Apollo 11 to diet books, and fabric softener, they are Australia's largest patent holder, with 3500 live patents and over 700 inventions under their lab coats. And here's a fun fact: the CSIRO were apparently the first organisation to start using the internet. In short, these guys are science spearheads, particle pioneers, truly at the nucleus of scientific innovation in Australia.

Looking over a list of Australian inventions, our favourite 5 letters continually prove themselves to be a catalyst for ingenuity. While they didn't bring us our national treasures the cask wine and the Hills Hoist (nor were they behind their victorious marriage resulting in the legendary 'Goon of Fortune'), they did manage to create the wifi technology that exists in billions of mobile devices today. Which, I guess, comes close.

For an isolated country, we have accomplished some of pretty neat things, beyond simply digging up minerals and shipping them to China. With a future foreshadowed by dwindling resources and increasing globalisation there is no doubt that our primary scientific research and development body will be a major player in our nation's evolution.

While the Federal Governments financial distribution choices have been questioned on many fronts, they hold steadfast in their mantra that desperate times call for desperate measures. However, the image of Abbott sitting atop $12 billion in fighter jets makes axing 700 CSIRO jobs feel very curious indeed.

The acting secretary of the CSIRO staff association, Dr. Michael Borgas, has said that these cuts mean the biggest job losses the organisation has ever seen. Furthermore, it's expected the cuts will jeopardise the external revenue the organisation brings in from working with over 2000 companies across 80 countries. It's difficult to quantify the exact money that the CSIRO has generated for the country, especially since many of the organisation's advances are beneficial in savings and research development value, not to mention ideological importance. Nevertheless, the organisation does in fact generate many millions in physical money royalties every year, and are by no means haemorrhaging precious dollars from Australia's (apparently) dire economic position.

That said, now is not the time to lament on what we are powerless to change. It's time to celebrate the cool shit this group of nerds has already done for Australia. For almost a century they have been the quiet achiever working away to make Australia a world leader in a number of scientific fields.

It's time to #thanktheCSIROfor that.

Polymer Bank Notes

As any Australian overseas will know, our durable banknotes are an infinite source of national pride, almost compensating for our shamefully drunk countrymen strewn throughout the globe. Because looking into our wallet we are reminded that while the class of our nation remains questionable, the superiority of our cash does not.

It all began in 1968 with scallywags and counterfeiting, forcing the Governor of the Reserve Bank to talk cash with the CSIRO. And it was there that money maverick Dave Solomon suggested we do away with paper, and get plastic. Minor problem: there was no commercially available film. So the CSIRO came up with their own unique polymer laminate that could be printed conventionally, throwing in a fun hologram for extra security.

Without the option of distributing the notes to the public for testing they gave them a rough-and-tumble in a drum with some artificial sweat (yep, that happened), abrasive odds, and a bit of synthetic dirt, a normal day in the life of an Australian pocket. The Reserve Bank dug it, and by 1998 Australia was the first country in the world to covert from paper-based to polymer banknotes, saving the country $20 million per annum.

Permanent Press Material

Ironing leads the list of hated chores, managing to be both tedious and difficult. So in 1957 Arthur Farnworth and his fellows at the CSIRO's Division of Textile Industry came up with SiroSet process, which permanently pleats and sets wool fabrics. A victory for housewives and manufacturing alike, it revived wool as both a fashionable and competitive material in a market dominated by synthetic fabrics.

The one hitch was that the pleat potion stunk, big time. It was so stinky that it in fact that it compelled a particularly sensitive group of factory workers to do a sneaky switcheroo. Fed up with foul odours, they took it upon themselves to replace the active ingredient with a more pleasant smelling liquid. However this cheeky trick was quickly found out when Arthur was besieged with complaints about crumpled pants. After inspecting the factory he told the wayward wiff-whimps to pull their trousers up, ultimately saving his, and the CSIRO's reputation.

On a side note, this invention is possibly the source of Tony's apparent disdain for the CSIRO, as it liberated Australian women from the ironing board, where it seems he prefers them to be located.

Solar Hot Water Systems

Like the internet, the CSIRO got onto alternative energy sources before they were cool. Granted, no one really wants to thank the CSIRO for this one when their warm watery bliss turns to ice after two minutes in the shower. Nevertheless, we must appreciate that this system also serves the double purpose of mischievously enforcing water restrictions in residential homes.

Now, while we all love our golden soil, the 1950's government was concerned about its lack of oil. This lead CSIRO investment in areas deemed the most significant for Australian resources, needs and climate. Fortunately, we are a sunburnt country, so along with being world leaders in melanoma, we also became world leaders in solar heating systems. CSIRO's development of flat plate solar heating panels created a booming solar-heating export industry, raking millions into Australia every year.

While reduced power bills and greenhouse gases can't properly be appreciated until one has fully recovered from the shock of a cold shower, this invention obliges Australian patriotism of the deepest kind: forcing us to transcend our individual woes (and none are heavier than that of a cold shower) to consider of the good of our country.

Aeroguard

Because flies on the Queen are an unthinkable evil.

It was 1963 and Queen Elizabeth II was making the voyage to Australia. English was practiced, silvers were polished and thongs were shelved. Trying to assert that Australia was more than a convict ridden down-under dessert we put on our best airs. The only problem was that our airs were swarming with flies.

To begin this story we must first rewind a few years to when Doug Waterhouse was recruited by the (then) CSIR to carry out pioneering research into sheep blowflies. However fighting on the Western Front enlisted his attention, and he was directed to find ways to protect allied troops from malaria transmitting mosquitoes. He succeeded, and while hailed as a hero by troops, his achievement went wholly unnoticed until Royalty came to visit. Which brings us back to the Queen, who, in a national reputation emergency was liberally sprayed with Waterhouse's formula before heading out for a spot of golf.

Her mysterious imperviousness to the eternal annoyance of flies caught the eye of Mr. Mortein, who promptly called Waterhouse about his repellent formula, which he gave freely over. Apparently that was the done thing with winning products in those days.

Gene Silencing

This is a gnarly science one, but it is still applicable to us common folk, promise. For most of us genome mapping never progressed past the Punnett Squares of high school biology. However, fortunately for the future of science, Peter Waterhouse lead a group of CSIRO scientists deep down the DNA rabbit hole in 1997, and essentially learnt how to get in and tell naughty genes to shut their coded destruction up. It's all in the title really.

What does that mean? Basically by switching off a targeted gene scientists are able to figure out the exact code function of the gene, and with many millions of gibberish codes in there this is a major breakthrough.

Now here's where it gets applicable to non-science backgrounds: while this process was discovered by the CSIRO for plant research, it is now widely used for cancer treatment development, protecting against viral and infectious diseases, as well as developing new targeted pharmaceutical drugs. This discovery has opened the door to translating genetics, and while you and I might not understand the language, we can certainly decipher the benefits to healthcare.

Extended Wear Contact Lenses

It's the '90's. You're a little drunk and with a cute girl. Thanks to your trusty contact lenses you've overcome the repressive stereotypes and schoolyard taunts are only innerechoes now. Life is looking good, she's taking you home, and you're stoked... until it comes time for bed.

It's now that you find yourself in a dark, unknown bathroom fingering your eyeballs, desperately trying to remove your plastic seeing-eye sleeve before sleep sets in. Once you've finally managed to poke the plastic out of your eye you're rendered double blind, which, while advantageous in the morning, is pretty inconvenient.

Optical companies could no longer turn a blind eye to customers need for pass-out proof contact lenses. CIBA Vision begins a collaboration with other optical bodies from the USA and Switzerland, as well as our very own CSIRO and University of New South Wales. Lead by CSIRO's Gordon Meijs and Hans Griesser, these guys did some nifty stuff with plastic, ultimately resulting in lenses safe for 30 day and night wear, as well as the popular O2OPTIX™ lenses for more flexible use.


by Bella Peacock