Australian Climate Science Cut. But Don’t Worry..
February 24, 2016
In the US congress, powerful Republican leaders with ties to the fossil fuel industry are threatening the crown jewels of American Earth science, NOAA and NASA, with cuts, subpoenas and harrassment. The threats are real, and even if not followed through, have a chilling effect on the scientific endeavor.
In Australia, those threats have become a reality. But don’t worry – for those impacted by climate change, budget cutters have a solution. Read on.
A NOTABLE centenary happens next month. On March 16, 1916, a young Australian nation took its first tentative steps into funded scientific research when prime minister Billy Hughes set up the Advisory Council of Science and Industry.
It was a modest affair. The council set up committees of experts who, while able to employ paid assistants, were expected to work without pay. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work. Various governments experimented with different structures before settling on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, now known by its acronym.
CSIRO is fundamental to our national identity and underlies much of our prosperity. Employing over 4500 people throughout Australia, its research interests include agronomy, forestry, mining and manufacturing, health and nutrition, digital technology, space physics and natural ecosystems.
It studies Earth’s structure and dynamics: the big systems that determine climate and provide energy to power our lives. The division most concerned with these matters is run from CSIRO’s complex on Hobart’s waterfront.
CSIRO’s diversity of research interests gives huge scope for brainstorming key questions. No other national science agency, anywhere, can match that in-house diversity — one reason why CSIRO attracts so much talent from around the world. It’s truly a national treasure.
CSIRO was early out of the blocks in putting resources into climate research, led for a decade by atmospheric scientist Graeme Pearman. Its modelling and analysis — the best then and now for the Southern Hemisphere — gave it a global reputation.
That’s why the global scientific community was so shocked by this month’s announcement that climate research was to be cut in favour of making money from technology. The size of that shock can be measured in a single document. Five days after the announcement, a remarkable letter was sent from the US to PM Malcolm Turnbull, the CSIRO board and others spelling out the damaging consequences of downsizing this “vibrant and world-leading research program”. The letter was signed by 2676 climate scientists, including 922 from the US, 391 from the UK, 200 from Germany and 159 from France.
The letter said continuing CSIRO’s multi-decadal study of Southern Hemisphere climate was critical to the success of global mitigation while also helping Australia address unresolved questions like food production, extreme events, tropical disease and Southern Ocean dynamics.
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall has said the time for analysing climate change has passed and its task now is to work out what to do to mitigate. Different problem, different skills. But the two can’t be separated. To work out what to do we have to know how climate is changing globally, regionally and locally, and that includes translating global data to give us a stronger, more precise picture of our situation. The need continues indefinitely. Same problem, same skills.
A crucial worldwide ocean monitoring network was already under threat before CSIRO revealed plans to restructure, and changes at Australia’s science agency could push it over the edge.
Researchers have warned that if just one key nation withdraws from Argo, an international project which monitors ocean temperature and salinity using thousands of autonomous floats, the impact on the program will be “profound”.
In a commentary published in the journal Nature Climate Change, the researchers say Argo is threatened by stop-start funding and a “critical dependence” on each of the 34 participating countries. Australia is a major partner, responsible for about one-quarter of the monitoring in the Southern and Indian oceans.
The paper was written three months before CSIRO ignited a storm by announcing its “strategic realignment”. Up to 350 jobs could go as CSIRO reduces environmental monitoring efforts to focus on research into mitigation. They include up to 100 positions in CSIRO’s Oceans and Atmosphere division, which runs Australia’s Argo fleet.
CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall has committed to continuing CSIRO’s contribution to the program. But the paper’s lead author, Paul Durack, said it was impractical to maintain monitoring while slashing staff.
“These are complex operations that require considerable knowledge and training, and ongoing investment to ensure the quality of the remotely generated data,” Dr Durack said.
“Six months later when CSIRO asks who is looking at this data, it will be answered with deafening silence, and these monitoring programs will get the chop.”
Dr Durack, a research scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, worked with CSIRO for eight years. The paper is also authored by researchers at Caltech’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Hamburg.
The team says Argo has helped spark a “boom” in ocean research. “(It) has led to considerable progress in understanding the 71 per cent of Earth’s surface that is ocean.”
But, with more than 100 jobs in Hobart, Melbourne and Canberra to be scrapped, Dr (John) Church, one of the CSIRO’S most renowned researchers, has stepped up his fight against the policy and placed his job is on the line.
“It’s clear in his [Dr Marshall’s] summary of statements that he is unaware of the research we actually do,” Church said of his boss.
“We actually need to continue to observe and understand and project future change, and compare the observations and projections if we are going to mitigate in a cost-effective way.”
Dr Church, a globally recognised expert on sea-level rise, leads a team responsible for demonstrating how oceans are warming and glaciers are melting.
He is a past recipient of the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research and a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) team that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
He argued Australia would not be able to respond to climate change if it did not measure the changes.
“How will Australia’s rainfall change? How will Australia’s drought-flood cycle change? This has really important implications for water supply, for food supply,” he argued.
The new CEO of CSIRO, Larry Marshall, makes the case that the time for research is over, climate change is a fact, and now we have to focus on mitigation and adaptation.
So, as farmers in Australia and elsewhere run out of water due to increasing climate-induced droughts and heat waves, he has a solution…
The next CEO of Australia’s leading research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is in hot water after suggesting the cash-strapped organization spend scarce research dollars investigating water divining, or dowsing.
“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy, and I’ve no idea how they do it,” Larry Marshall told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in a recent radio interview. “When I see that, as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘Is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’ … I’ve always wondered whether there is something in the electromagnetic field, or gravitational anomaly,” continued Marshall, who takes up his position in January.
CSIRO scientists are keeping their heads down in the wake of a 5.45% (AU$111.4 million) budget cut that will see up to 420 jobs eliminated by June 2015, along with the closure of eight research facilities. But some experts outside the agency have been quick to decry the interest in dowsing expressed by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a doctorate in physics. “I’m appalled,” says John Williams, a founding member of Australia’s leading group of water experts, the independent Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, who is based in Canberra. A more serious concern, says Williams, former chief of CSIRO Land and Water, is the need to persuade Marshall to shift his focus from water extraction to conservation. “We know where the water is. The trouble is there isn’t much of it, and we don’t know how it’s replenished,” he says. Tim Mendham, executive officer of Australian Skeptics Inc., adds that it’s a “letdown” that anyone with scientific training would use “vague concepts” like electromagnetic and gravitational effects to explain an unproven phenomenon like dowsing.
Marshall is sticking to his guns. “I definitely need media training, but check this out,” he wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider, flagging a 2014 CSIRO document titled “Quantum Gravity Sensor,” which states that “the largest detectable sources of changing gravitational anomalies are bodies of water and ice.” Marshall told ABC that he’s going to seek further advice from his more “levelheaded” CSIRO staff, but added that although dowsing is “a little out there,” it’s the agency’s job to “push the envelope.”