Scientists Fight Proposal to Gut Leading Climate Research Center in Australia

Melanie Fitzpatrick, , UCS | February 10, 2016, 4:27 pm EST
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Remember Paris? It was only a few months ago that governments from around the world agreed to pull together to address climate change, one of the greatest challenges of our time. This week, you wouldn’t guess that here in Australia.

While the smoke from devastating wildfires in four separate states still lifts, the Australian government has announced plans to axe several hundred positions at a world-class government research organization. According to management at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), because the science is settled there is no need for ongoing monitoring or basic research.

CSIRO, long a global leader on climate change research, is seeing its climate scientist positions slashed and its science focus redirected by new leadership. Photo: CSIRO

CSIRO, long a global leader on climate change research, is seeing its climate scientist positions slashed and its science focus redirected by new leadership. Photo: CSIRO

Netflix model of management

Many of the positions slated to go are in marine and atmospheric sciences. Over the next two years, more than 350 research positions at CSIRO will be replaced with jobs in more innovative fields. If this proposal goes ahead it could wipe out the majority of Australia’s climate science expertise which has been built up over decades.

The chief executive of CSIRO, Larry Marshall. has a background as an entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. Last week, Marshall claimed he had been guided by Netflix-style policies for nimble technology startups and decided it was time to focus on the solutions to our warming climate.

It’s gratifying that he acknowledges we are well and truly past any climate denial here, but gutting our flagship climate body is short-sighted, may be in breach of our obligations under the international treaty, and is simply absurd.

Navigating the future requires a safety net

When I consider climate change, I equate our situation with being on the Titanic in dangerous waters. Climate change is an urgent global problem, requiring concerted effort to avert catastrophe.

With many others, I want to ready the lifeboats and do all we can to make them seaworthy. Climate research is part of a global fleet of lifeboats at our disposal. Those lifeboats are crucial to our future survival.

Many of the people who face these job cuts are based in the island state of Tasmania, and some of them are my good friends. These dedicated and smart people add to our growing knowledge of how climate is changing and how we as a society can mitigate and adapt to the immense challenge facing us.

Increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires is one of the key climate risks that Australia faces, and that climate research like CSIRO’s helps us to understand. Photo: Toni Fish/Flickr

Increasing frequency and intensity of wildfires is one of the key climate risks that Australia faces, and that climate research like CSIRO’s helps us to understand. Photo: Toni Fish/Flickr

Australian expertise crucial to global climate research

As a country, Australia has often been able to punch way above its weight in global climate circles. For example, in the list of 274 authors from the last IPCC report in 2014, one in seven is from Australia. That’s an amazing statistic, given the small size of our population—of those 40-odd authors from Australia, eight are based at the CSIRO.

As Scientific American pointed out this week, CSIRO runs the Southern Hemisphere’s most comprehensive Earth monitoring and modelling programs. In addition, Australia is the driest nation on Earth and is experiencing some of the worst impacts of climate change.

The climate science community has not been silent

Climate scientists protest CSIRO cuts on February 8, 2016. Photo: Takver

Climate scientists protest CSIRO cuts on February 8, 2016. Photo: Takver

At a scientific conference in the city of Melbourne this week, participants were uncharacteristically vocal, staging a protest and wearing blue armbands to signal their opposition to the announcement. Many who would normally work through less visible channels were openly talking with reporters and radio hosts, as well as appearing in front of TV cameras.

Emails have been flooding inboxes around the globe with requests to sign a letter of protest. Last weekend, in a matter of days, over 600 signatures were collected from climate scientists in more than two-dozen countries.

The letter, organized by Paul Durack at Lawrence Livermore, states that “The decision to decimate a vibrant and world-leading research program shows a lack of insight, and a misunderstanding of the importance of the depth and significance of Australian contributions to global and regional climate research.”

If you work in climate research and you’d like to sign the letter while time lasts, you can find it here.

As we come out of the warmest year on record globally, the Australian continent faces longer and more severe fire seasons, prolonged drought and water stress, as well as rapid ocean warming and rising sea levels. It’s painfully clear that we will need all the expertise we can muster to navigate this ship.

Let’s hope we can convince Australian decision makers to put away the hatchet and leave CSIRO intact. I don’t want to shuffle the deck chairs on the Titanic. I’d prefer to ready the lifeboats for when we might need them.

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  • Eli Rabett

    The only way to win this is to get Turnbull to sack Marshall. Sorry folks.