NICTA-CSIRO digital merger still a funding-free zone

It is still unclear how many jobs will be lost from research body National ICT Australia (NICTA) or what funding will be made available to the new entity that has been established to absorb its work.

Minister for Industry Ian Macfarlane and Minister for Communications Malcolm Turnbull issued a joint statement late last week announcing that NICTA would merge with the CSIRO's Digital Productivity flagship to form Data61, which will be led by technology entrepreneur Adrian Turner (pictured).

A CSIRO spokesperson said the name Data61 was a reflection of Australia's international area code – 61 – and its focus on “building new technologies and businesses that revolve around, are fed on, and deal with data in all its forms”.

While the ministers hailed it as a “research powerhouse”, the merger was forced by massive cuts to government funding for NICTA and the CSIRO, which has seen over 1000 jobs lost over the last few years.

The Coalition unexpectedly announced just before the 2013 election that it would cut federal funding to NICTA, despite saying it was supportive of its work.

A spokesperson for then opposition communications spokesman Malcolm Turnbull said it was expected that NICTA would access funding through the Australian Research Council or directly from industry.

Confirmation that all funding would be cut from July 2015 led to the resignation of CEO Hugh Durrant-Whyte in November last year, with CSIRO and NICTA in negotiations over a merger for most of this year.

In healthcare, NICTA runs the Living Lab at the University of Canberra's Health Hub, which is trialling new technologies such as a handheld electronic health record at a full-service general practice super clinic.

NICTA has also spun out a number of health IT start-ups, including Saluda Medical, which has developed a closed loop neuromodulation control system for pain relief that is also being aimed at incontinence, Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy.

It also recently spun out Coviu, which has developed a WebRTC-based platform aimed at providing telehealth services for allied health practitioners and a “virtual counter” that uses WebRTC to replicate government services formerly offered face-to-face.

The CSIRO's Digital Productivity flagship includes groups such as the Australian eHealth Research Centre (AEHRC) which is jointly funded by the Queensland Department of Health, under its banner. The AEHRC is active in data analytics and health informatics as well as tele-ophthalmology and the Smarter Safer Homes platform.

CSIRO has also developed the SNAPPER and Medtex software for using terminologies like SNOMED CT and the free text entered into pathology and diagnostic imaging reports for better clinical decision support, as well as the Patient Admission Prediction Tool (PAPT) for hospital bed demand forecasting and scheduling.

Mr Turnbull said Data61 will continue to train Australia's future digital technologists through an enhanced PhD program, with more than 300 PhD students enrolled at partner universities.

Opposition communications spokesman Jason Clare said while he welcomed the announcement that NICTA had found a way to remain viable, it should never have been de-funded in the first place.

“This is a second-best solution,” Mr Clare said. “The inevitable consequence will be more jobs lost in the science sector.”

Mr Turner said his vision for Data61 was to harness the start-up culture of NICTA and multidisciplinary strength of CSIRO to deliver maximum benefit to Australia.

"So much of our understanding and interaction with the world is underpinned by digital technology and data,” Mr Turner said.

"It is a fast moving and big growth area for Australia and Australian industry, and Data61 will be well positioned to play a leading role in defining the new economic structures and opportunities that are emerging globally."

Posted in Australian eHealth

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