CSIRO dismantles 'integrated' climate science group as pressure mounts on Larry Marshall
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CSIRO dismantles 'integrated' climate science group as pressure mounts on Larry Marshall

CSIRO's deep cuts to its science programs have come under fresh criticism with the head of a global network of monitoring stations warning Australia will lose key researchers that will dent the country's ability to manage future climate change.

Almost all the staff at CSIRO's Yarralumla, ACT site researching how vegetation is responding to rising temperatures and shifting rainfall patterns – information that feeds into the world's main climate models – have been told their jobs are "surplus to needs", senior scientists say.

The latest revelations about the impacts of the jobs cuts first announced in February come as more questions are raised about the suitability of Larry Marshall to head the agency.

Fairfax Media reported on Friday Dr Marshall was chosen as CEO despite questions over his record as a scientist and Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

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Under fire: Dr Larry Marshall, Chief Executive of CSIRO.

Under fire: Dr Larry Marshall, Chief Executive of CSIRO. Credit:James Brickwood

Greens science spokesman Adam Bandt called on CSIRO's board to reject the Turnbull government's endorsement of a three-year contract extension for Dr Marshall when it meets on June 23-24.

"The appointment of Larry Marshall was a failed experiment by Tony Abbott. It turns out you can't run a long-standing public institution like a Silicon Valley start-up," Mr Bandt said.

"It is vital that other political parties signal their intentions before the CSIRO Board meets in June to potentially consider what happens with the expired contract, he said.

Kim Carr, Labor's shadow science spokesman, said the current mess at CSIRO in which world-leading staff and programs were axed was the result of "ill-considered and rash decisions".

Changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures won't just affect ecosystems but also Australia's agriculture, experts say.

Changing rainfall patterns and rising temperatures won't just affect ecosystems but also Australia's agriculture, experts say.Credit:Jessica Shapiro

"Given we are in an election period, Labor has called on the Liberals to halt the job cuts," Senator Carr said, adding that the ALP has committed to a review of CSIRO if it wins the July 2 election.

Fairfax Media sought comment from Science Minister Christopher Pyne.

At Yarralumla, as many as 13 of the 14 staff in Micrometeorology and complex system science will go, insiders say.

Research at risk includes those behind the Australian National Outlook report that assessed how the economy will be affected by global warming.

Dr Marshall hailed the work, going on ABC's 7.30 on the day the cuts were announced: "It was published in Nature. I think it's one of the first times detailed modelling of predicting the future for a country has actually been published as a scientific paper and it was really highly regarded because we use science to try and predict how to get a better future for Australia."

Also at risk is the Ozflux research team – part of the global Fluxnet group of about 500 stations. Scientists have been told their work is no longer needed and a only single technician may remain.

Dennis Baldocchi, the coordinator of Fluxnet based in Berkeley, California, said the closure of the research "would cause a significant hole".

"It's easy to collect numbers – you've got to make sure you can interpret them," Dr Baldocchi said. "The whole field owes a lot to Australia."

CSIRO runs one of the key "flux" stations in Australia, based at Tumbarumba in southern NSW. The tower constantly monitors how carbon-dioxide, water and energy move between the forests and the atmosphere. (See the 30 flux sites in Australia, New Zealand below.)

"We're not sexy like curing cancer, but we study the breathing of the biosphere," Dr Baldocchi said.

"Losing Tumbarumba would mean losing an important piece of the puzzle," one senior researcher said. "[It] is also one of the only two towers that have a long time series – greater than15 years."

"This is very valuable when we look at, for instance, variability and extremes, which are both changing under a changing climate and which we both don't understand well," the scientist said.

Australia's highly variable climate also means small changes in evaporation, plant die-back or drought can have big impacts on both eco-systems and agriculture.

CSIRO did not comment on the Yarralumla cuts other than to say talks were ongoing. "All of the talks and negotiations at present have the same goal of ensuring the excellent science and the long-term future of CSIRO is maintained," a spokesman said.

Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.

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