Australia redirects climate research funding: blow to science or boon for innovation?

The chief executive of the country's main scientific research agency has announced deep cuts to two departments studying climate change, prompting international concern.

Mick Tsikas/Reuters/File
The sun is seen through the steam and other emissions coming from funnels of the brown coal Loy Yang Power Station in the Latrobe Valley near Melbourne in this, Dec. 15, 2008. The Australian government last week announced plans to restructure the federal Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation that includes the shuttering of climate programs and hundreds of potential layoffs.

The chief executive of Australia’s main scientific research agency has announced deep cuts to its climate change programs, prompting intense criticism from scientists around the world who say that the new focus on "innovation" and corporate cooperation is a misguided move that will severely limit understanding of how global warming will impact the Southern Hemisphere.

Larry Marshall, a former venture capitalist brought on to head the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in January 2015, announced at a Friday staff meeting that up to 350 employees would be relocated and retrained within the agency. The cuts include about 110 staff in the atmosphere and oceans division, and 120 in the land and water division.

The changes appear in line with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's National Science and Innovation Agenda, announced in December, although officials said Mr. Turnbull was not aware of the staffing changes. "Australia is falling behind when it comes to commercializing good ideas and collaborating with industry," Turnbull said, launching a focus on innovation and partnerships between research institutions and business. 

Mr. Marshall used similar language while defending the changes in a Monday statement called "Correcting the public record on changes at CSIRO." The agency must "focus where we have most need and that need is in innovation, turning inventions into benefit for society," he wrote. "No one is saying climate change is not important, but surely mitigation, health, education, sustainable industries, and prosperity of the nation are no less important."

In a staff memo sent February 3, Marshall wrote that "the question [of climate change] 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 ClimateWire. 

Hundreds of scientists around the world have protested that strategy misses the point: in order to find intelligent solutions to climate change, precise research about it is needed – research that has been carried out in the teams most impacted by CSIRO's cuts. 

"Australia is ground zero for climate change," one CSIRO scientist told ClimateWire. "In order to adapt, you need climate models that are going to tell us what you need to adapt to, where you need to adapt, and by when you need to adapt."

That data benefits Australians, but also the rest of the world, since Australia has some of the only advanced climate research stations in the Southern Hemisphere. Its carbon-dioxide (CO2) recording station at Cape Grim, for example, is one of only two in the Southern Hemisphere, and provides "some of the most important long-term records of climate that exist on the planet," according to UC San Diego CO2 scientist Ralph Keeling, who called the staff cuts "mind-boggling." CSIRO is also a leader in Southern climate models, which help predict the impact of weather and climate changes.

Marshall, the chief executive, has said that Cape Grim will continue to monitor air pollution, and that climate model data "will continue to be available to any researcher." Some scientists were skeptical, however, about the suggestion that the data could find a new home.

Andy Pitman, who directs a climate science center at the University of New South Wales, told the Guardian Australia that moving the data would be unrealistic. "I run a centre of excellence which is the the best-funded university capability in the country and we do not remotely have the capability to be the custodians for the climate modeling systems," he said. 

On Monday, the World Climate Research Programme issued a strongly-worded letter warning that "Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change."

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