Dr Larry Marshall

The climate science teams of the CSIRO are expected to be decimated, following news that up to 350 jobs could be cut across the organisation.

While the federal government has been spruiking the benefits of renewable energy and technological innovation, its previous budget cuts, which have not been reversed, have left the CSIRO chasing savings.

Chief executive Dr Larry Marshall today (Thursday) indicated that climate science would be a major area where savings would be achieved. In an email sent to staff this morning, Dr Marshall said that with finite resources, the body had to “pick and choose where to prioritise”.

“This means as we focus on new areas we must stop other areas,” he said.

“CSIRO pioneered climate research, the same way we saved the cotton and wool industries for our nation. But we cannot rest on our laurels as that is the path to mediocrity. Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question 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?”

According to Dr Marshall, there could be 175 jobs go each year over the next two years, however these would be replaced by new jobs in different areas.

“Normally a business has to cut to grow; the cuts enable investment in the new direction,” he said.

New areas to be investigated included transmuting commodity mineral sands into titanium ink for 3D printing; turning coal into a cleaner form of diesel fuel; making mining more profitable and sustainable; synthetic biology; food and agricultural product research; big data; sensor technology and health technology.

The news has been met with shock from the science community.

Professor Penny Sackett, former Australian Chief Scientist and adjunct professor at the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, said she was stunned that CSIRO management no longer thought measuring and understanding climate change was important, innovative or impactful.

“Paris did not determine whether or not climate change is happening; scientists who generate and study big data did,” she said. “The big question now, which underlies all climate adaptation work, is ‘How is the climate changing?’ That answer will once again be determined by those scientists who gather climate data and model it.”

The Climate Council’s Professor Will Steffen labelled the news as disturbing.

“We absolutely need to know more about the basic operation of the climate system – how it is changing and how best can we respond to the climate change challenge,” he said.

“CSIRO is Australia’s premier research organisation in terms of fundamental climate science, and has built a well-deserved international reputation for world-class science that has contributed much to global understanding of climate change. It takes decades of hard work by dedicated scientists to build up such a reputation. It can be destroyed overnight by senseless actions by those in power. Very regrettably, this seems to be happening.”

Professor Steven Sherwood from UNSW’s Climate Change Research Centre said while Dr Marshall had a point regarding the need to solve new challenges, the statement that there was no future need for climate modelling was incorrect.

“Effective action requires detailed understanding,” he said. “For example, Marshall speaks of contributing to the proposed agricultural development of the Northern Territory, but we don’t know for how much longer this region will still support agriculture or even human habitation as the Earth keeps warming, nor how much drying (if any) Australia’s existing agricultural regions will experience. The groups that would help provide answers are the ones he says we don’t need any more.”

Australian Conservation Foundation president Professor Ian Lowe said the language used by Dr Marshall, a former venture capital, was troubling.

“There won’t be scientists sacked, there will be ‘reductions in headcount’,” he said. “And these aren’t research areas, they are ‘business units’, headed not by top scientists but ‘business leaders’. The cuts are ‘something that we must do to renew our business’, according to the CEO. The language reveals that the government is trying to sabotage our public science body and turn it into a consulting business.”

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