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Cuts to CSIRO's mineral exploration research defy government priorities

By David Denham - posted Friday, 12 September 2003

In July this year CSIRO's Exploration and Mining Division's funding was cut by about ten per cent (along with all other Divisions not associated with the new Flagship Programs) essentially to strengthen the Flagships. This cut was made even though the Prime Minister listed Developing Deep Earth Resources as a National Research Priority earlier this year. So we have a situation where the government has identified geoscience research as being crucial to our future prosperity at the same time as the new directions for CSIRO, through the Flagships Programs have not included exploration research in the core activities.

The words from the priorities document are very clear:

Developing deep earth resources
Smart high-technology exploration methodologies, including imaging and mapping the deep earth and ocean floors, and novel efficient ways of commodity extraction and processing (examples include minerals, oil and gas).


Many of Australia's known mineral assets may be nearly exhausted within the next decade. New land-based deposits are believed to be buried deeper in the crust and the deep marine areas surrounding Australia are also largely unexplored. New technologies, such as remote sensing, indicate scientists are on the brink of being able to "see" inside the earth and identify deeply buried deposits.

These matters were recognised in 2000 by CSIRO with the establishment of the "Glass Earth" project to undertake cutting-edge research to better understand and manage our mineral resources. The key research problem is how to "see through" the surficial cover, which extends over 60 per cent of the Australian continent and hides many prospective mineral resources. New technologies need to be developed to assist in this task and we need a better understanding of the formation of ore deposits so that we know where best to look. The financial cuts imposed this year will clearly have a major impact on CSIRO's capacity to deliver significant outputs in this project.

Mineral resources are essential in maintaining Australia's wealth. The mineral resources sector accounted for $43.7 billion in exports during 2001/02 (29 per cent of Australia's merchandise exports) and contributed ~$4 billion in taxation payments. However, in recent years there has been a decline in the exploration activity, needed to find new resources when old mines become uneconomic.

The Australian government recognised that successful exploration is the lifeblood of the industry, and the Minister for Industry, Tourism and Resources, Ian Macfarlane, initiated a Mineral Exploration Action Agenda (MEAA) to address the issue in 2002. He also asked the Standing Committee on Industry and Resources of the House of Representatives to conduct an inquiry into resources exploration impediments. This committee is scheduled to report later this month.

The MEAA Strategic Leaders Group (SLG), led by Peter Lalor of Sons of Gwalia, found that along with access to land, finance, and geoscience information, there was a critical need for Australia to maintain a world-class skills base, appropriate research and development facilities and a top quality education system (pdf, 245kb). I am sure that the House of Representatives Committee will come up with similar recommendations.

It is clear that CSIRO must have the flexibility to change priorities as different national issues emerge, but when it has cut the budget in its exploration research program, at the same time as the government has identified this as a national priority one has to wonder about the prioritisation processes within CSIRO. The cut is even more surprising because the government provided an additional $20 million in the 2003/04 Budget specifically for the Flagship Programs.


Apart from the issue of research capacity, it is worthwhile briefly examining the other three issues identified by the SLG as being crucial to sustain a prosperous minerals exploration industry:

Land access is essential for resource exploration, even though remote sensing techniques can be applied from aircraft or satellites to probe the Earth. The Native Title Act 1993 recognised Indigenous rights to land and land use, but the current processes implemented in some States are complex, unwieldy and costly. As stated in the SLG's report: "The-decision-making processes are considered to be neither timely nor transparent. Continuing uncertainty over legal interpretations, combined with attempts in some jurisdictions to navigate through or around the process have created an enormous backlog of applications for exploration licences."

For example, on an Australia-wide basis, the ratio of exploration-title applications pending, to those granted increased from about 1:1 in 1992 to close to 6:1 in 2001, when about 5800 applications were still in the pending queue.

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About the Author

Dr David Denham AM is President of the Australian Geoscience Council.

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