Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

CSIRO Weathers a New Storm

By Guy Nolch

CSIRO’s climate scientists are used to being gagged and bound, but now they have also been thrown overboard.

The summer just ended has been torrid for many scientists. While some were sweating through the task of writing grant proposals to fund their research programs, an ill wind was blowing for CSIRO’s climate scientists.

Dr Larry Marshall took over the helm of CSIRO in January 2015 after a career as a technology entrepreneur in which, according to his staff profile, he “founded six successful United States companies in biotechnology, photonics, telecommunications and semiconductors”. These start-ups must seem like nimble speedboats compared with the Titanic-sized CSIRO, which has been slowly steered away from its weighty history of public service by corporate captains charting more profitable waters.

Marshall justified the staffing cuts in its land, water, oceans and atmosphere divisions by saying that the question of climate science had been answered. Now, he reasoned, CSIRO’s capacity needed to be redeployed to develop ways to adapt to climate change.

But this treats climate as one homogenous entity. It ignores regional climate differences and the fact that climate is changing, and with it extreme climate-related events. Watch out for that iceberg!

Australia is a land of drought and flooding rains. We sit largely isolated at the bottom of the planet surrounded by tropical, temperate and polar oceans. The climate is changing differently within our continent, let alone compared with the rest of the world.

We can’t adequately plan for climate mitigation without continuously monitoring our regional climate and modelling the climate events we will need to mitigate against. Why outsource this expertise when there is still so much we need to know about how this sunburnt country, the oceans that surround it and the atmosphere above affect regional and even global climate? Who will be left to give evidence-based advice to counter the vested business interests that so influence our political leaders?

The Federal government has a long history of climate denial, with climate scientists famously gagged from public comment during the previous decade. Indeed the blatant climate denial dogma of the Abbott government still hangs in Canberra’s air.

A spokesman for Science Minister Christopher Pyne passed off the current tempest as “an operational decision of the CSIRO”. That’s not good enough. As Science Minister, Pyne shouldn’t be spectating. CSIRO is a core component of his responsibilities.

Among the primary roles recognised in CSIRO’s Charter is to “further the interests of the Australian community”. Who could argue the central importance to the nation of Australia’s land, water, oceans, atmosphere and climate?

The Science Minister and CSIRO’s Board set Marshall’s course. They need to steer this in the Australian community’s interest.

Guy Nolch is Editor/Publisher of Australasian Science.