CSIRO scientists to learn their fate after more deep cuts to climate programs

Some of Australia's leading climate scientists will learn on Friday whether they still have a job when CSIRO managers provide details of savage cuts to their units.

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

Larry Marshall, the new CSIRO chief executive, told staff by email on Thursday that 350 jobs would go over the next two years, with climate scientists in the Ocean and Atmosphere, and Land and Water units bearing the brunt of the cuts. Data and Manufacturing were also hit.

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

Food bowl challenges aplenty with climate change, scientists say.
Food bowl challenges aplenty with climate change, scientists say. Photo: Mandy Stoddart

The question of climate change "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?", he said.

Fairfax Media understands about 110 of the 140 positions in the Ocean and Atmosphere unit will be culled with a similar number to go from the Land and Water unit. The sustainable cities program, for instance, will probably lose 35 of its 50 staff.


While CSIRO staff were reluctant to speak out in public against the cuts – coming just months after Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull used the CSIRO as a backdrop to his innovation policy launch – other scientists were scathing.

"This is a disastrous move that will decimate ocean and climate sciences in Australia," Matthew England, an El Nino and climate researcher at the University of NSW. "There seems to be no appreciation of how much this science underpins our nation's interests – from agriculture, fisheries and water management through to infrastructure, planning and finance.

"What a backward step in this supposed decade of innovation," Professor England said.

One senior researcher who requested anonymity said it was ridiculous to assert basic climate science was done and the focus could now shift solely to curbing greenhouse gas emissions and finding ways to adjust to the warming and other changes that are coming.

"Yes, climate change has been proved to be real, but the Greenland ice sheet, the Antarctic ice sheet, ocean acidification, deep ocean warming, and biodiversity changes – are not all at all well understood," the scientist said.

Other scientists warned that Australia's participation in international research would now be undermined. Australia's long-standing expertise in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica, for instance, had given the nation's scientists reciprocal access to research done elsewhere, such as in the Pacific.

Graeme Pearman, who headed climate science at CSIRO from 1992-2002 and authored almost 200 scientific papers on the world's carbon budget, said the move was "arrogant and ill-informed".

What a backward step in this supposed decade of innovation

Matt England, UNSW

"Tell me how our climate-modelling skill-base, as truly excellent and world-competitive as it is, is still unable to tell us whether the Murray Darling Basin, the 'food bowl of Australia', is going to get wetter or drier as the planet warms?," Dr Pearman said.

"Only someone who confuses climate and weather would fail to appreciate that the past investment in climate science is a platform for the real and future needs, not something that is ready for economic exploitation alone," he said.

A spokesman for Industry Minister Christopher Pyne said the CSIRO was an independent agency and the cuts were made "after an extensive review...to better fulfil its mission as outlined in its strategic plan".

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

"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.

Adam Bandt, the Greens science and research spokesperson, said Mr Turnbull was "an innovation imposter" if he allowed the cuts at CSIRO to proceed.

"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.

New chief scientist Alan Finkel declined to comment.