CSIRO is poised to slash climate research jobs – experts react

Academics react to the news that dozens of climate research positions at Australian research agency CSIRO are to be axed as part of wider job cuts.

CSIRO is set to cut dozens of jobs from its climate research units, as part of a wider series of job losses.

In a message to staff, chief executive Larry Marshall said that the question of human-induced climate change has largely been answered, and outlined a list of new priorities for the agency, including health, technology, and “big data” research fields such as radioastronomy.

“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?” he said.

A reported 110 jobs could be lost in climate research, among a total of 350 job losses from CSIRO’s staff of 4,832 full-time positions.

Below, experts react to the news.

Neville Nicholls, Professor Emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University

For 30 years Australia has punched above its weight in international climate policy negotiations because the rest of the world recognised that our government was provided with high-quality, unbiased climate science by the Bureau of Meteorology and (especially) CSIRO. The crippling of CSIRO climate research means that from henceforth the world will view our future governments as captive to either left-wing activists or right-wing ideologues, unconstrained by science.

This decision cedes our place at the big table with the adults discussing what to do about climate change. From today we join the minnows on the little table on the veranda, waiting to be told what we will have to do by the grown-up countries that still have access to high-quality climate science.

Kevin Walsh, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne

The proposed cuts to climate science expertise at CSIRO are disturbing, at a time when climate change is becoming more important to Australia and to the world, not less important. It is very naïve to expect that climate science expertise can be substantially reduced in Australia and then expect that reduction to have no effect on our ability to understand and adapt to the potential impacts of climate change in this country.

Nor will our friends in the Northern Hemisphere pick up the slack for us: they have climate problems of their own. Australia’s unusual climate has always demanded that we pay particular attention to developing and nurturing our own expertise in climate science, a decades-long effort that now may be abandoned.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, DECRA Research Fellow, Climate Change Research Centre, The University of New South Wales

The latest round of job cuts from CSIRO is nothing short of appalling. The climate research work conducted by CSIRO has been pioneering and of global standard. While we know that the climate is changing because of human activity, we have not simply “answered” that question after the Paris agreement - many more questions remain.

Like other scientific fields – such as biology, chemistry and medicine – continual research is required to continually improve our methods, understanding and knowledge. Research in any field does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered.

In terms of climate science, much more research needs to be done on furthering our understanding of these changes, monitoring the climate as it does change, and making our climate and weather models more efficient and improving their capabilities. Much of this work was undertaken by CSIRO, and so now a big hole will be left.

If we want to properly safeguard our country from climate change, we require ongoing fundamental climate research – we cannot create innovative and effective solutions towards climate change without it.

Andrew Holmes, President, Australian Academy of Science

Our climate and environmental scientists are some of the best in the world. We wouldn’t stop supporting our elite Olympic athletes just as they’re winning gold medals. Nor should we pull the rug out from under our elite scientists.

Australia is internationally recognised for its expertise and unique position in climate and environmental research. Realistically, there are no other countries in the Southern Hemisphere that are able to do what we do. We have a singular contribution to make towards global and regional climate knowledge, and with this role comes a great responsibility to the global community.

Ian Lowe, Emeritus Professor of Science, Technology and Society, Griffith University

It is always disappointing when science is cut back, especially when we need to be more innovative to overcome the economic problem of falling commodity prices. It is particularly bad when the cuts are in such areas as Oceans & Atmosphere, Land & Water and Manufacturing, as these are critical to our chances of a sustainable future.

More worrying than the cuts is the language used by the new chief executive. There won’t be scientists sacked, there will be “reductions in headcount”! 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.

Clive Hamilton, Professor of Public Ethics, Charles Sturt University

CSIRO climate scientists are world-class and are researching the most decisive factor that will influence the future of the world. To slash their numbers at a time when the urgency of understanding and responding to climate change has never been greater suggests that the government does not want to hear the facts.

Nerilie Abram, Associate Professor, Australian National University

The notion that somehow the question of global climate change has been answered is ludicrous. Yes, it is now absolutely certain that the greenhouse gases we have added to the atmosphere are causing Earth’s climate to warm, but that big-picture knowledge does not allow us to predict and prepare for the many ways in which climate changes are going to impact on the safety and prosperity of Australia in the future. To not invest in understanding this enormous problem will cripple this country’s ability to effectively respond to the many challenges facing us as the Earth’s climate continues to warm.

Climate models, including Australia’s ACCESS model developed by CSIRO researchers, have undoubtedly played an important role in proving the physical theory that greenhouse gases are causing Earth’s climate to warm. But one aspect where models consistently show we still have much to learn about exactly how the pieces of the climate jigsaw puzzle fit together is in their ability to accurately represent the Southern Hemisphere. Gutting Australia’s capabilities in climate science will severely hinder momentum in solving this and many other unanswered questions that will directly impact Australia’s future prosperity and security.

Steve Sherwood, ARC Laureate Fellow and Director, Climate Change Research Centre, University of New South Wales

Larry Marshall surely has a point about rejuvenating organisations and solving new challenges, but I worry about his statement that there is no further need after the Paris climate summit to understand climate change since we now know it is real. Effective action requires detailed understanding. 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.

Comments compiled with the Australian Science Media Centre.

The Conversation

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick is research fellow, UNSW Australia; Clive Hamilton is professor of public ethics, Centre For Applied Philosophy & Public Ethics (CAPPE); Ian Lowe is emeritus professor, School of Science, Griffith University; Kevin Walsh is reader, School of Earth Sciences, University of Melbourne; Neville Nicholls is professor emeritus, School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University, and Steve Sherwood is director, Climate Change Research Centre, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. 

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