The unfortunate manner in which the latest phase of restructuring of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has played out has raised questions about Australia’s scientific capability and our ability to meet international responsibilities.
Faced with a budget cut of A$115 million, some 275 staff have apparently been identified for redundancy (though the final number may be as high as 317). Many of them are scientists contributing to long-term sea, air and climate science programs. The restructure is geared towards focusing CSIRO’s attention on the question, as framed by chief executive Larry Marshall, of “how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with?”
In 1979, the great scientist Carl Sagan wrote:
We live in an extraordinary age. These are times of stunning changes in social organisation, economic wellbeing, moral and ethical precepts, philosophical and religious perspectives, and human self-knowledge … Had we been born fifty years later, the answers would, I think, already have been in.
Australian scientists do indeed live in extraordinary times, but not necessarily for the best of the reasons. We may be living through a remarkable period of discovery, but recent events are a timely reminder that we must all work harder to manage the precious resources available to science if we’re not to threaten decades of investment and hard work.
The most public of all staff to be earmarked (so far) for redundancy is Dr John Church. He is arguably the world’s leading expert on global sea level rise, a role that is more important than ever for adapting to the effects of climate change. It’s a decision so extraordinary it was even reported in The New York Times.
The facilities at risk from CSIRO cuts are used by research teams around the world.
The Tasmanian Cape Grim atmospheric station is crucial for monitoring greenhouse gas levels in the southern hemisphere. Only last week it confirmed CO₂ concentrations now exceed 400 parts per million, likely the last location on the planet to do so.
And just last month, CSIRO staff (of which Dr Church was a senior author) led a Nature Climate Change article showing anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases have dominated global sea level rise since 1970. This is crucial work for understanding the source(s) of sea level rise. Such work can inform major infrastructure projects such as Brisbane Airport’s new runway, which is being constructed four metres above minimum required standards to accommodate future coastal flooding.
A wider problem
The funding gap CSIRO faces is a story common to many in the scientific community. Some sectors in the 2016 budget continue to enjoy some funding increases, such as the A$200 million for Antarctic science and A$100 million for Geoscience Australia.
But others have experienced cuts, most notably the Australian Research Council. The ARC has received a further 10% cut on the back of a succession of cuts over recent years.
Putting aside the effect on staff morale and the observation that government science spending has a strong multiplier effect on economic growth, the shortfall of funding in some quarters has immediate implications for how we best co-ordinate our efforts as a community.
Targeted, industry-focused projects are an essential part of a thriving scientific culture in Australia. But the threatened erosion of public science and the loss of capacity in areas of expertise CSIRO has taken decades to build represent a loss to all.
While the recent focus has been on climate science, there are salutary lessons from events of recent months if we are to minimise the impact on this research field and others in the future.
Where to from here?
Like any sector, science needs stability. The cuts have to stop and ideally reverse. If we keep trimming budgets, there will come a point where whatever capacity we have will only be a token effort.
The recent announcement that a CSIRO climate change centre will be established with 40 staff in Hobart is most welcome, but details are sketchy. A major concern regarding all these decisions are how these cuts and developments align with the efforts of the rest of the community.
If a realignment of priorities in an institution is to take place, we need to make sure that these decisions are made with wider consultation and as much lead-in time as possible so the scientific community can make the best of a bad situation.
Recently, the Australian Academy of Science announced a welcome, urgent review of national climate science capability. (If you’re part of the community, submissions must be made by June 5, so hurry.)
Announcing cuts that have implications for others without discussion doesn’t help science, it only stifles findings. I hope the CSIRO climate change science centre has been developed in consultation with others and the 40 staff identified are the number truly required.
We need to make sure everyone is talking to one another. Only last week, the CSIRO released its Australia 2030 report, modelling various scenarios for Australia’s future. One scenario is called “weathering the storm”, in which geopolitical instability increases, driven by climate change and regional conflicts.
Faced with this situation, CSIRO suggests that “the energy market relies on tried and tested energy sources such as coal rather than further developing the potential of renewables”.
To suggest under future climate change we should continue to exploit fossil fuels is a remarkable statement from a national scientific body.
We may be half-way to the great leaps in knowledge Sagan prophetically described by 2030, but our understanding of the planet and how we mitigate and adapt to change has to be better co-ordinated as a community. We need to do a lot better.