Today’s announcement of a new CSIRO Climate Science Centre to be based in Hobart has been greeted with a degree of scepticism and disappointment by many leading researchers.
The centre will focus on climate modelling and projects for Australia and operate as part of CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division. It will have a staff of 40 full time scientists, CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall said, and guaranteed research funding for 10 years for existing projects including the ice and air libraries, ARGO float program, Cape Grim and the RV Investigator.
Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science Christopher Pyne said the centre’s research would help guide decision making around land-use, where and how infrastructure is built and the viability of new technologies and approaches to carbon abatement.
Secretary of the CSIRO Staff Association Sam Popovski told The Fifth Estate that there was no new funding for climate science.
The Climate Science Centre and the guaranteed funding for the next decade for some projects was simply a “repackaging of some of the capability” from within the organisation, he said.
The commitment of 40 staff was insufficient to achieve the objective of proper climate science modelling and observations, Mr Popovski said.
He said the staff had been advised this week of a revised redundancy plan, that instead of scrapping 100 jobs in the Oceans and Atmospheres division and recruiting 30 staff, the organisation now plans to shed 75 jobs and recruit for 15 positions – meaning only 10 jobs in total will be saved compared with the previous proposal.
“The staff are completely disillusioned with the leadership of the organisation,” Mr Popovski said.
“[The leadership] doesn’t value climate science research and environmental research.”
Mr Popovski said CSIRO staff were cynical about the level of political interference currently occurring in the organisation.
He said one staff member commented to him that you wouldn’t start a committee for important science [like the new National Climate Science Advisory Committee] by sacking 75 of the staff that actually do the work.
“It seems more than a coincidence that the area in CSIRO being targeted [for cuts] is one where certain members of the government are averse to it,” Mr Popovski said.
He said that while staff support a national approach to climate change science, as represented by the committee, at the moment it is hard for staff to understand how it could be effective given jobs are “being cut off to the bone”.
Staff are calling for the proposal for redundancies to be withdrawn, Mr Popovski said.
Leader of the CSIRO sea level team Dr John Church said that while the 10-year commitment was positive, 40 staff was “way below the capability” the organisation previously had.
“Although a step forward from losing essentially all staff, it will be very difficult for such a small group to be able to deliver meaningful results across the broad range of activities Australia [and the world] requires,” Dr Church said.
“So I do not think it is enough and it still means significant loss of staff – maybe of order 60. But I do not know the details and maybe it is a base to build from.
“Without knowing all of the details, I doubt that it will undo the reputation damage. Morale will remain low, at least until more details are available.”
ARC DECRA fellow at the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, Dr Sarah Perkins-Kilpatrick, labelled the announcement “meagre”.
“Only 40 climate scientists will be retained in this centre, with up to 275 jobs across CSIRO, including 70 from Land & Water and 75 from Oceans & Atmosphere, to still be cut,” she said.
“There is no possible way that CSIRO can retain its core climate research and monitoring capacity with only 40 staff, especially when key collaborators from Land & Water will be lost.
“These numbers are also very similar to those originally announced; it’s just now under a different label.”
Dr Perkins-Kilpatrick said that while a decade of promised funding was encouraging, it was “still certain that the quality climate research undertaken at CSIRO will be seriously compromised”.
She said it goes deeper than simply people losing jobs.
“The cutting-edge climate projection tools that underpin Australian adaptation and mitigation to climate change will almost certainly suffer, meaning that all Australians will suffer too.
“In the last three months CSIRO’s national and international reputation has been undermined, with little chance it will recover anytime soon.”
CSIRO also announced the formation of an independent National Climate Science Advisory Committee, with the support of the Office of the Chief Scientist and Mr Pyne. Environment Minister Greg Hunt will also be involved in its establishment.
The Committee will have representation from CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology and other experts from Australia and overseas and report a ministerial level to inform the future direction of Australia’s climate science capability and research priorities.
Mr Pyne said the committee would work across the research sector to provide advice on a “nationally aligned and integrated approach to climate science”.