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CSIRO's Ideology Is Questionable

By Graeme Pearman

The decision to dismantle CSIRO's climate research underlines a shift in priorities from support of broad societal needs towards a focus on wealth generation.

CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall has decided to reduce his investment in climate research on the basis, notwithstanding the quality of the research, that the time has come to focus Australia's strategies on adapting to climate change. The assumption is that sufficient is known about how global warming will impact regional and local climate-related events so as to enable the confident development and deployment of adaptive efforts in anticipation of those threats.

The reality is that our sound foundation of climate knowledge can only lead to a sound and active role in adaptation if those strategies are linked directly to improved regional projections of the impacts of both climate and sea level. This is where the very leading-edge of the climate science is. Today is very much the wrong time to cease efforts to improve understanding of regional climate change, particularly with regard to linkages with other disciplines and operators dealing with the adaptation options.

It is the prerogative of a CEO to make decisions about the investments within an organisation. However, it is reasonable to ask about the degree to which any CEO, in the private or public sectors, is responsible to more inclusive oversight by a suitably qualified board or set of advisors, and whether this has been the case with CSIRO.

It also brings into question the extent to which the CSIRO Board is constituted to represent the broad demands for research by the Australian community, and who (with what competencies) should have overriding authority to establish the composition of the Board in the first place?

These current questions for CSIRO highlight a broader issue. The past two decades have seen a trend in Australia away from science in support of broad societal needs towards a focus on wealth generation. This is evident within CSIRO but also emerging in universities.

The question here is, to what extent has the oversight of science been influenced by this embedded ideology and, without belittling the need for a healthy economy and the role of science in this, should we be engaging in an inclusive intellectual debate on the value and risks associated with this trend?

It should be asked whether, in the “public interest”, the CSIRO portfolio should be allowed to be so biased and exclusive of key issues of national interest. Or, at the very least, how far should this trend be allowed to go before someone calls, “Enough is enough!”

Graeme Pearman is Adjunct Senior Research Fellow at Monash University and former Chief of CSIRO Atmospheric Research.