Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

The Wonderful World of CSIRO

By Alex Reisner

To lose one outstanding researcher, Dr Clark, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness, but to lose THREE?

January 2006 -- Fred Prata is declared redundant to the requirements of CSIRO's Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research by then divisional chief Dr Greg Ayers. At the time The Age's Jo Chandler wrote: "he was told his project was finished... [and] like six others since being snapped up by institutions in the US, Europe and elsewhere in Australia — he had no shortage of offers. "The group in Norway offered me a position to do the research I want to do with the European Space Commission."

Dr Prata went on to say: "The area I work in — remote sensing, or Earth observation — everywhere in the world is seen as a very important component of climate monitoring. Measuring sea surface temperatures [see Trevor McDougall below], looking at the state of vegetation, looking at how clouds interact with the climate. I have 20 years of experience doing that. There are now maybe two or three other people in CSIRO who have that capability. It's not enough. If CSIRO management are not able to get budgets, get money, convince government of the importance of this work, then they have failed."

And what was the technology Dr Prata was working on? According to Jo Chandler "Dr Prata's baby has some pretty useful capabilities. By detecting volcanic ash in the atmosphere, it can stop planes falling out of the sky. By sniffing out other atmospheric nasties like sarin gas, it offers a defence against chemical attack. In both instances, it could save many lives."

The then deputy CSIRO, chief Ron Sandland, as an apologia: "With 2000 PhDs and 4000 graduates, there's always going to be quite a bit of intellectual ferment, and that's good. What we ask (is) how can we achieve the maximum benefit for the Australian community with the dollars the Government has decided to invest in us?"

And Dr Sandland went on to explain that currently (2006) the division was in the process of generational change. However, Dr Ayers' predecessor, and Dr Prata's former boss, Dr Graeme Pearman didn't buy it: "In 2006, we find ourselves with a CSIRO that is bankrupt. The organisation is running effectively at a loss every year. Getting rid of older, more expensive, albeit successful scientists is a way of solving that problem. The division was a clear international leader in what we call atmospheric composition, in remote sensing and climate modelling. Don't we want to be leaders in some of these areas? Then we need to make the investment."

While Dr Ayers' explained that generational change was requires to make way for "stars of tomorrow".

But six days after Ms Chandler's article was published The Age published the following letter as a rebuttal to Drs Sandland and Ayers:

CSIRO is in crisis
...I worked with industry, on pure and applied research, on contracted projects with tight deadlines, fixed budgets and specific deliverables, and recently on a highly commercial project. The work was challenging and rewarding, and quite suitable for CSIRO's talented scientists.
However, they are no longer trusted in CSIRO. Now there are communicators for getting the right message out, business development managers to interface with clients and line managers to ensure that one does not step over the line.

I was sidelined - effectively gagged - from my project's commercial aspects because the science did not concur with the commercial outcome needed. Removing researchers from the commercial chain is an error and suggests that CSIRO does not trust its most valuable resource: its scientists. CSIRO is in crisis.

Dr Fred Prata, former CSIRO senior principal research scientist, Mount Eliza

On the 8th of December 2011 the Mail reported: "Yesterday a group of scientists working for the Norwegian Institute of Air Research unveiled their newest tool to keep flight paths open. The Airborne Volcanic Object Imaging Detector (Avoid, for short) was unveiled in Sicily, Italy, with a test flight over Mt Etna, the active volcano which casts its shadow over the Mediterranean island. Designed by British scientist Dr Fred Prata, the system uses heat detecting cameras, combined with satellite data and atmospheric modelling, to tell pilots where an ash cloud is and where it could be heading. It makes it possible for pilots to detect an ash cloud ahead at altitudes between 5,000 and 50,000ft.
"The research, which has been funded by easyJet, the budget airline, has been inspired as a response to the chaos caused by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull last year."

And in a statement to the Daily Express Dr Prata said: "Here we have equipment which allows us to fly around ash clouds," while speaking to the Daily Telegraph, he said that installing Avoid onto just 100 commercial aircraft would provide enough information to enable European flights to continue in the event of an eruption.
Testing with commercial airliners is expected to begin next year.


On Christmas Eve 2011 The Canberra Times' Rosslyn Beeby broke the story that "oceanographer Trevor McDougall, has been made redundant by the CSIRO's Division of Marine and Atmospheric Research. It drew a stinging letter of rebuke from top international scientists". The letter accused CSIRO of ''relinquishing its responsibility'' to global climate science and is ''taking definitive steps towards mediocrity'' by abandoning ''high-impact research''. It was sent to top CSIRO administration, members of the CSIRO board, the Australian Academy of Science -- Dr McDougall being a Fellow of the Academy -- and Australia's Chief Scientist. So far there have been no public acknowledgements of the letter.

Dr McDougall is the winner of this year's Prince Albert I Medal, an award given once every two years. It was awarded to Dr McDougall: "For his outstanding work on (1) important and fundamental problems of ocean fluid dynamics over the full range of ocean scales, and (2) the thermodynamic properties of seawater". The committee in making the award noted: "To faithfully represent the ocean in climate models, it is necessary to incorporate elements of ocean thermodynamics as described by McDougall’s work... [His] recent work strengthens even further the brilliant and unique contributions Trevor McDougall has made to oceanic science. He is a most worthy recipient of the Prince Albert I Medal."

CSIRO Staff Association president Michael Borgas told Ms Beeby that the redundancy of such an internationally regarded scientist sent a message that science ''is not a secure career in this country''. It suggested successful scientists were not valued or rewarded, and ''success has become an occupational hazard at CSIRO''.

The chief of CSIRO's marine and atmospheric research division may have changed in the six years since Fred Prata was declared redundant, he is now Bruce Mapstone, but the environment seems familiar. Dr Mapstone said the agency supported and valued Dr McDougall's work. ''We are very pleased that Trevor will retain a link with the CSIRO as an honorary fellow and continue to work with his colleagues... CSIRO works in areas of science that answer the big contemporary questions for Australia and the world. Our science mission means making decisions about areas to grow and areas to reduce so we remain focused on addressing those issues that ultimately result in the greatest national benefit.''

Since Ms Beeby wrote her account, TFW has received an email from a UK reader noting that a second letter carrying over 150 signatures has been sent and which included the newly appointed Minister for Research Senator Chris Evans as a recipient.


English environmental economist Clive Spash says he was head hunted and then employed by CSIRO's Division of Ecosystems Sciences, whose raison d'être is: "We apply multidisciplinary science to the sustainability of Australia's agriculture and forestry, built environments, biodiversity, communities, and industries."

Below is Professor Spash's summary of the events which led to his resignation at the end of November 2009.

At the beginning of 2009 Clive Spash wrote a paper, The Brave New World of Carbon Trading, that was critical of carbon emissions trading schemes and argued redesign would not address the concerns raised. He was employed at the time by the Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Research Organization (CSIRO), which endeavoured to prevent the paper from being published even in his capacity as a private citizen. The paper had been both internally and internationally peer reviewed, and was accepted for publication by New Political Economy, when CSIRO management first decided to prevent publication. After several months the issue became public and was the subject of debate in the Australian Senate. The CSIRO was forced to release the paper but first attempted to subject the work to serious alterations, to which Clive was asked to assent without making any changes. He felt that he could not agree. The journal New Political Economy also wrote to Senator Carr stating the changes made were so substantive that the paper was no longer equivalent to that which they had accepted for publication earlier that year. After six months attempting to seek due process there remained no internal recognition within management of any failure on their part or any breach of acceptable scientific practice. Despite considerable support from his colleagues Clive felt that he could no longer work within an organisation being run with such an approach to management and where arbitrary judgment over political sensitivities are employed to alter or ban research findings. He resigned his position. op-ed of November 27, 2009 -- A Case of CSIRO Bullying Bodes Ill for the Future of the Organisation -- may be of interest; it reproduces a two-page letter from CSIRO Chief Executive, Megan Clark to the then Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr.

To listen to Senator Kim Carr when asked on November 5, 2009 about CSIRO's apparent self-censorship in an attempt at gagging a researcher see

To listen to a short assessment of "Censorship at CSIRO" see

Following quickly upon his resignation from CSIRO Dr Spash took up a position at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences (UMB), as Professor II, Governance and Climate Change.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell:
To lose one outstanding researcher, Dr Clark, may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness, but to lose three?