CSIRO chief defends cuts, promising to keep 'vital' climate capability

CSIRO executives informed a key manager of cuts of at least half his climate research staff just days before revealing the sharp reduction to the rest of the organisation, questioning in Senate estimates has revealed.

Chief executive Larry Marshall opened the two hour-long grilling from Labor and Greens senators by declaring he was "not a climate change sceptic or denier" and that CSIRO would ensure "vital" modelling and monitoring of climate change would continue.

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, grilled over large-scale staff cuts.
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall, grilled over large-scale staff cuts. Photo: Dallas Kilponen

He said the changes were necessary to improve the value and impact of the science the organisation was doing.

"The notion of customer is often a new one for scientists," said Dr Marshall, who joined CSIRO a year ago after 26 years in the US, much of it as an entrepreneur and inventor of a laser technology used in eye surgery.

During one testy moment early on, Senator Kim Carr, the shadow industry minister, rejected some of the answers offered, stating: "I know drivel when I hear it."

Under persistent questioning from Greens senator Janet Rice – whose partner is Penny Whetton, a former senior CSIRO researcher – CSIRO officials conceded that an original proposal in a "Deep Dive" document in December recommended as few as 35 jobs to be cut from the entire Oceans and Atmosphere business unit.

By late January, however, Oceans and Atmosphere head Kenneth Lee was told the number to be slashed had leapt to 100 full-time positions.


All of them were to hit just two of the five units, both of which focus on climate modelling and monitoring, Mr Lee was told, only days before the cuts were made public on February 4. 

The Land and Water division would also lose a similar number of staff, although net losses would also be diminished by new hires.

"Those numbers of 100 are very round," said one senior researcher, who had watched the live stream of the hearing and whose work may face the chop. "What was the rationale for coming up with them? We still don't know."

The cuts were "very last-minute and clearly top down", he said. 

The executives struggled to say when the board had been informed of the cuts. After consultation, Craig Roy, deputy chief executive, stated the board had learned of the plans two days before an email went out to staff. But it remains unclear how much detail they were given. 

The Bureau of Meteorology, a key partner of CSIRO in a host of programs, was told only a day before the public announcement, in part because of fear the decision would leak before staff knew, Alex Wonhas, executive director of environment, energy said.

The cuts will total 350 over two years, with the losses to be made up by hirings in new growth areas, Dr Marshall has said.

Taking in new hires, Oceans and Atmosphere faces net losses of about 65 full-time positions, executives told the Senate committee. About 50 would go from Land and Water, 40 more from manufacturing and "less than 100" from the Data 61 division.

"We are working through the specifics," Dr Wonhas said.

The cuts are the latest round of retrenchments after the Abbott government cut about $110 million from CSIRO's funding in its first budget.

Concern at home and abroad from climate scientists has zeroed in Dr Marshall's comments last week that, because the question of whether climate change was real had been "answered", CSIRO could divert resources away from modelling and monitoring to focus more on reducing greenhouse gases and adapting to the inevitable impacts of global warming.

Dr Marshall admitted that he had not visited the Aspendale facility in southeastern Melbourne that is home to many of the climate researchers who may lose their jobs.

Other information provided by the executives had to be corrected after further consultation.

For instance, they initially said the key Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS) model jointly worked on by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO was "open-sourced", allowing for wide-ranging contributions that might offer the opportunity for savings.