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There's Never Been A Worse Time To Be A Climate Scientist

The way we wax and wane on science and innovation is deeply frustrating.

12/08/2016 12:53 PM AEST | Updated August 15, 2016 02:56
Richard I'Anson
After announcing major cuts to the CSIRO in the 2014 budget, the government has executed something of a funding about-face.

In March this year, the Australian Government's funding cuts to the CSIRO were the subject of an unprecedented savaging in an editorial in the venerable New York Times.

The piece highlighted the Turnbull Government's "deplorable misunderstanding of the importance of basic research", said the cuts made "no sense" and even questioned whether the changes were "in the best interests of Australia, the Southern Hemisphere or the earth."

Perhaps it was the bad global press, or the open letter from 3,000 concerned scientists from around the world -- either way, the penny appears to have dropped and the Government has executed something of a policy and funding about-face.

Greg Hunt, who used to be in charge of the environment and is now in charge of Industry, Innovation and Science, has issued a ministerial directive to his CSIRO executives that they "put the focus back on climate science".

In the space of just a few months, climate science has gone from surplus to requirements, to being "critical" and a "bedrock function of the CSIRO."

This can't be seen as anything but an admission that the previous strategy, to prioritise commercial science over research, was flawed. Providing $3.7 million a year for research and salaries for 15 new climate science jobs is a concession that, as the New York Times warned, Australia was turning its back on climate science.

Critically, the 'new' money doesn't go anywhere near to replacing the funding and jobs already cut.

Former Treasurer Joe Hockey's infamous 2014 budget outlined a $110 million cut over four years. In response to this economic reality, the CSIRO's CEO, Larry Marshall, wrote to staff in April confirming there'd be 275 job losses across the organisation, with about 75 jobs to be cut from the Oceans and Atmosphere division.

It is these cuts in this Hockey budget which the new minister is working to overcome. Interestingly, the response to the New York Times editorial was left to Joe Hockey, as Ambassador to the US. Not surprisingly, he provided reassurances that the CSIRO was "making a strong contribution" and would "continue to lead the way", which read more like a defence of a personal legacy than an acceptance of the difficulties he'd imposed on the CSIRO.

Hunt's change of strategy represents that acceptance. But a ministerial directive is one thing -- bureaucrats delivering in such a constrained environment is quite another.

The challenge for CSIRO management is significant. After making the controversial cuts as required by the government, the government has now changed its mind. Are they going to bring back scientists who've already been let go? And how will they find the money? As Newton's third law says, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. If cuts to climate research are now unacceptable, where in the CSIRO budget are they acceptable?

Questions also remain about the degree to which we are stepping away from the required new emphasis on commercial outcomes. If pure science is once again a good idea in climate research, is it a good idea for other disciplines too?

Of course, arguably the CSIRO's greatest discovery, Wi-Fi, came from pure research in radio astronomy. Patented in the 1990s, it has generated hundreds of millions in royalties.

The way we wax and wane on science and innovation is deeply frustrating. On the one hand, innovation is the golden ticket to a prosperous future. On the other, expensive research is viewed as merely discretionary and is inevitably the first casualty of a tough budget.

It's a dichotomy which must be nothing short of maddening for our scientists who believe the "ideas boom" rhetoric while contending with funding cuts and job losses.

Minister Hunt has advised of his intention to revise the CSIRO's Statement of Expectations. Any revision must deliver clarity and consistency of purpose for one our most important national institutions.

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