Federal Politics


CSIRO cuts: from climate denial to climate outsourcing

If the Abbott era was about climate change denial it seems that with the Turnbull zeitgeist it is all about climate change outsourcing.

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At first blush, it sounds like a joke. The head of the CSIRO, Larry Marshall, said in a letter to staff on Thursday that the government's science agency's job had been "to prove climate change".

"That question has been answered," he told staff. 

CSIRO's RV Investigator on one of its research voyages.
CSIRO's RV Investigator on one of its research voyages. Photo: Pete Harmsen

"CSIRO pioneered climate research, the same way we saved the cotton and wool industries for our nation." So it's time to move on.

Continuing to do climate research would be akin to resting "on our laurels" and would be the "path to mediocrity".


Presumably the ongoing work of deepening our understanding of climate change can be outsourced to ... someone else.

That means there is no problem losing about 200 staff from the CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere, and Land and Water divisions. The science is settled, right?

No thought bubble: Deploying weather balloons from RV Investigator.
No thought bubble: Deploying weather balloons from RV Investigator.  Photo: Stewart Wilde

These cuts go against the very grain of scientific endeavour. The idea that our understanding of a highly complex planetary system could be finalised is akin to abandoning astronomy in 1512 because Copernicus got it right.

Professor Andrew Holmes is president of the Australian Academy of Science. On Thursday he spoke out against the cuts.

The cuts were announced in an email from CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall.
The cuts were announced in an email from CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall.  Photo: Supplied

"Our climate and environmental scientists are some of the best in the world. We wouldn't stop supporting our elite Olympic athletes just as they're winning gold medals. Nor should we pull the rug out from under our elite scientists."

Professor Holmes has called on the government to quickly make arrangements to "continue a comprehensive national program of climate research".

"Without a nationally co-ordinated effort, our diminished research capacity will mean Australia lacks the local knowledge necessary to adapt to a changing climate," he said on Thursday.

It what can only be called a stream of consciousness email, Dr Marshall addressed staff more like a business leader than the head of a scientific institution, which was presumably his point.

"Just like a startup, our nation needs to re-invent itself (pivot) in order to navigate a new and uncertain future. Our nation needs us to create the science to enable the innovation for this profound reinvention."

No need to further understand climate change, the priority is to measure it through the "application of environmental big data sets" and mitigate outcomes.

The cuts to climate research are about pivoting to a national "profound reinvention" then.

Instead of deepening research into climate change, Dr Marshall flagged other priorities: to "transmute commodity mineral sands into unique titanium ink for 3D printing"; turning "coal into a cleaner form of diesel fuel"; "making mining more profitable and sustainable"; "breed new strains of food"; et cetera.

The Sydney-born physicist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur returned to Australia after 25 years to take up the role of CSIRO head in 2014. At the time, Dr Marshall's appointment was hailed by Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane as important for "the commercialisation of products and ideas ... [to ensure the] CSIRO rightfully claims its place at the centre of Australian industry policy".

While the job cuts were flagged last year, for them to cut so deeply in climate research is a signal that this drive to commercialisation is a priority ahead of deepening our understanding of fundamental scientific questions facing us as a nation, and as a planet.