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Editorial

CSIRO has given the Prime Minister an opportunity to lead on climate policy lead

In 2011, Malcolm Turnbull had a stern message for his Liberal colleagues: "If Margaret Thatcher took climate change seriously and believed that we should take action to reduce global greenhouse emissions, then taking action and supporting and accepting the science can hardly be the mark of incipient Bolshevism."

The context back then was a little different. Mr Turnbull was a shadow minister, not the Prime Minister, and his loss of the party leadership to Tony Abbott – largely over the contended matter of global warming – remained fresh in the public memory.

Antarctic research is among areas of climate science that is expected to be hit by the CSIRO cuts.
Antarctic research is among areas of climate science that is expected to be hit by the CSIRO cuts. Photo: Nicholas Golledge

Yet, today, Mr Turnbull still seems confined by this party squabble. He presents himself as a leader who differs significantly from Mr Abbott, in style at least (notably imperial honours) but also on some matters of substance (public transport and counterterrorism). However, on the issues that most marked Mr Abbott's prime ministership – the "scrap the tax" slogan on carbon pricing, and "stop the boats" approach to asylum seekers – Mr Turnbull has mooted no changes, no doubt to quell any discontent within his party's conservative wing.

Yet climate change is no quibbling matter. Nor is it possible to argue compellingly that the Liberals' climate policy is evidence-based. On one hand, the government accepts publicly there is a genuine risk of runaway climate change and that the consequences could be catastrophic. Yet is also persists with the fiction that "direct action" – payments to encourage polluters to pollute less – is an efficient way to cut harmful emissions, against almost all expert advice.

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We know from Mr Turnbull's first, short-lived stint as Liberal leader that he supports strong action to mitigate climate change, such as by pricing reducing emissions and thereby reducing them. This should be beyond politics, but it isn't. For the moment at least, the Prime Minister lacks the ability to forge a party consensus.

What he can do in the meantime, however, is ensure Australia remains ready to act cleverly on climate change when he has garnered the political support to do so. The restructure of CSIRO, announced this week by chief executive Larry Marshall, would gut that organisation's renowned climate research capacity. It also presents Mr Turnbull with the opportunity to intervene and, by doing so, demonstrate some long-absent leadership in climate policy.

Dr Marshall's plan involves, in part, removing funding from some research areas to bolster others that appear to support industry needs more directly. Worryingly, some of the areas he has targeted are globally contested – such as big-data analysis and environmental services to sell to developing countries – and do not necessarily play to Australia's comparative advantages.

The problem with this entrepreneurial-like approach to funding research is that picking winners in science is almost impossible. Indeed, the CSIRO's biggest commercial success, Wi-Fi, was an incidental innovation developed during radioastronomy research. Such is the history of science: great discoveries are often born from unrelated, pure research. Governments may demand that research organisations focus more on applied sciences that help businesses, but what is more likely to improve research productivity is certainty over time – allowing scientists to carry out their work and indulge their curiosity, without worrying constantly about their next restructure or grant.

Mr Turnbull says he wants an "ideas boom" and an innovation-driven economy. He could start by providing the government's scientific research organisation with a little more room to breathe.