Environment

Climate science to be gutted as CSIRO swings jobs axe

Fears that some of Australia's most important climate research institutions will be gutted under a Turnbull government have been realised with deep job cuts for scientists.

Fairfax Media has learnt that as many as 110 positions in the Oceans and Atmosphere division will go, with a similarly sharp reduction in the Land and Water division.

CSIRO Australian National Outlook 2015

The Australian National Outlook Seeks to provide a better understanding of Australia’s physical economy.

Total job cuts would be about 350 staff over two years, the CSIRO confirmed in an email to staff, with the Data61 and Manufacturing divisions also hit.

The cuts were flagged in November, just a week before the Paris climate summit began, with key divisions told to prepare lists of job cuts or to find new ways to raise revenue.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a visit to CSIRO in December.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull during a visit to CSIRO in December. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

"Climate will be all gone, basically," one senior scientist said before the announcement. 

In the email sent out to staff on Thursday morning, CSIRO's chief executive Larry Marshall indicated that, since climate change had been established, further work in the area would be a reduced priority. 

"CSIRO pioneered climate research, the same way we saved the cotton and wool industries for our nation," Dr Marshall said. "But we cannot rest on our laurels as that is the path to mediocrity.

"Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change," he said.

Fears of job cuts in CSIRO's key climate research division have been realised.
Fears of job cuts in CSIRO's key climate research division have been realised. Photo: CSIRO

"That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?"

Australia, with its already variable climate, has seen average temperatures rise about 1 degree over the past century. Heatwaves are also increasing in intensity and frequency, as are the number of high fire danger days, according to research by the CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology.

Understanding how bushfires and other perils will change with global warming will be undermined by the cuts, scientists say.
Understanding how bushfires and other perils will change with global warming will be undermined by the cuts, scientists say. Photo: NASA

Scientists last year expressed bemusement when told that revenue needed to be sought in all parts of the organisation. One researcher wondered then how basic research such as tracking the changes of salinity levels between Indonesia and Fremantle - one gauge used to track circulation and other ocean shifts - might be used to generate income.

Dr Marshall indicated some people might be able to find new skills for priority areas. 

It's a catastrophic reduction in our capacity to assess present and future climate change

Andy Pitman, UNSW

"Our people are innovative and many can reinvent themselves to learn these new areas," he said. "We will need new people with new skills to help us navigate this new future."

Arm's length?

The cuts were not the Turnbull government's doing, but were "an operational decision of the CSIRO", a spokesman for Science Minister Christopher Pyne said.

"After an extensive review, the management of the CSIRO have stated the need to reorganise the organisation to better fulfil its mission as outlined in its strategic plan."

While the government may be trying to distance itself from the CSIRO move against its climate division, one of the Coalition's most outspoken climate-change deniers, Dennis Jensen took to Twitter to support the move:

Opposition leader Bill Shorten said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull should "hang his head in shame".

"The only people cheering this decision from Malcolm Turnbull will be the far-right of the Liberal Party who are calling the shots," Mr Shorten said.

"Malcolm Turnbull is happy to use the CSIRO for a photo-op but his cuts are vandalising a great Australian institution," he said.

"Under the Liberals Australia's pollution levels are going up, and Malcolm Turnbull's answer is to sack the experts who are working to cut pollution and find the innovations in renewable energy that will help create the jobs of the future in Australia," he said.

A senior scientist also questioned the government's claim that the CSIRO was acting independently. "Our biggest customer is the government - they have to approve all this," the scientist said.

Data gathering hit

The overall cuts come from a staff of 4832 full-time positions, a CSIRO spokesman said.

"Hopefully the net result will be stable in about two years [as new staff are recruited for the CSIRO priority areas]," he said.

It is understood just 30 staff will be left in the Oceans and Atmosphere unit and they will not be working on climate issues related to basic data gathering.

"This staggering attack on climate science is an act of political vandalism, pure and simple, and if the government doesn't back down on this it's ordinary Australians who will ultimately pay the price," Nadine Flood, national secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, said.. 

Remaining climate staff will focus on mitigation - cutting greenhouse gas emissions - and adaptation to warming impacts rather than gathering basic science.

'Shock and horror'

Another senior scientist, aware of the planned announcement, said staff would be shocked by the news that basic climate science, including much of the monitoring of changes in the southern hemisphere, would be slashed.

"There'll be disappointment, anger," he said, adding that Australia's counterparts would also respond "with shock and horror".

Doubts also remain over the CSIRO's ongoing role as co-ordinator of the new National Environmental Science Program, which falls under Environment Minister Greg Hunt's office.

Some 16 full-time staff from CSIRO will be assigned to the program, which was set up to house remaining climate science and other environmental science divisions that had suffered deep cuts during the Abbott government.

It is understood IMOS - the Integrated Marine Observing System - will be maintained with "some remnants" of climate work remaining in Hobart, one scientist said.

The scientist said the cuts to climate research were part of a pattern of environmental science cutbacks across many fields in Australia.

'Jaw-dropping'

Andy Pitman, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of NSW, said the scale of the cuts was "jaw-droppingly shocking". 

"It's a catastrophic reduction in our capacity to assess present and future climate change," Professor Pitman said. "It will leave us vulnerable to future climate change and unable to take advantage of any positives that result."

The impact will extend not just to the science being conducted in and around Australia but also to the ability of the country to retain and attract scientists, he said. 

"They will focus on North American and European problems [when they go], not Australia's," Professor Pitman said.

That sentiment was one being shared on social media:

The cuts had "the potential to devastate climate science in Australia", Todd Lane, president of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society, said.

"Not only does CSIRO play a key role in climate monitoring, it underpins all of the climate modelling activity in Australia," Associate Professor Lane said.

"If that is cut significantly, it will set us back at least a decade and will undermine our ability to predict future climate risk."

'Innovation imposter'

Adam Bandt, the Greens science and research spokesperson, said Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was "an innovation imposter" if he allowed the cuts at CSIRO to go ahead.

"In Paris, the Prime Minister said research and innovation are key to dealing with global warming, yet here at home the Liberal government's cuts to the CSIRO mean that hundreds of climate scientists could be getting the axe," Mr Bandt said.

"The Coalition's denialist dinosaurs continue to run the Turnbull government, just as they did under Tony Abbott," he said.

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