CSIRO to create new climate research center amid cuts

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan | 04/26/2016 08:41 AM EDT

Australia will establish a new national climate change research center that will be funded for 10 years and will employ 40 scientists.

Australia will establish a new national climate change research center that will be funded for 10 years and will employ 40 scientists.

The announcement follows a decision in February that 350 positions, most of them in basic science and climate change research, will be eliminated at the nation’s federal science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation(CSIRO) (ClimateWire, Feb. 8).

That triggered international outrage and hearings in the Australian Parliament about the commitment of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to climate change. Turnbull’s administration and CSIRO’s management have made statements that prioritize science that can be easily commercialized.


The new climate center will be based at Hobart and will focus on climate measurements and modeling, said Larry Marshall, chief executive at CSIRO.

The agency is responsible for a number of key climate monitoring programs, including tracking carbon dioxide levels at Cape Grim since the 1970s. CSIRO scientists have also taken a number of ocean measurements and have built a climate model that has a focus on the Southern Hemisphere.

"The announcement today is a culmination of the ongoing consultation and feedback we’ve had from our staff and stakeholders, and this new center is a reflection of the strong collaboration and support right across our system and the global community," Marshall said.

The science center would report directly to an independent National Climate Science Advisory Committee set up under the science minister. CSIRO’s flagship science programs, including the Cape Grim measurements, its climate modeling efforts and ocean measurements, will remain intact, Marshall said.

‘Like a bandage on a gaping wound’

With the new center, the net job loss for climate scientists stands at 275. Seventy positions will be cut from the Land and Water division and 75 from the Oceans and Atmosphere division.

CSIRO scientists greeted the announcement with pessimism, calling it a bandage on a gaping wound.

John Church, an oceanographer at CSIRO and a world-renowned expert on sea-level rise, said that he welcomes the decadal comment and the placement of the center under a national committee.

But the center would employ only 40 people, which would not be enough to deliver meaningful results, he said.

"Without knowing all of the details, I doubt that it will undo the reputation damage," he said. "Morale will remain low, at least until more details are available."

There were once 140 scientists working at CSIRO’s climate change program, which has been incrementally defunded over the years. The reinstatement of 40 positions would be insufficient to fill the gap, said Steven Sherwood, director of the University of New South Wales’ Climate Change Research Centre.

Sherwood compared Australia’s efforts with those of the United Kingdom, where the Met Office has developed one of the foremost climate models and employs 200 scientists. The Met Office has provided $6 of economic benefit for the United Kingdom for every $1 spent on research.

"So, from a broad perspective, we appear to be downsizing an activity that was probably already underfunded even from a purely economic perspective," Sherwood said.

The loss of scientists who study land and water will affect Australia’s monitoring capacity, said Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, a fellow at the University of New South Wales’ Climate Change Research Centre.

"There is no possible way that CSIRO can retain its core climate research and monitoring capacity with only 40 staff," she said. "These numbers are also very similar to those originally announced; it’s just now under a different label."

Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University, said scientists have to keep in mind that the net jobs lost far outstrip the ones created.

"Is this decision a face-saver after a disastrous mistake, or does it represent a renewed commitment to understanding climate science? Under current CSIRO leadership, it is sensible to remain skeptical," he said.