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CSIRO still needs to focus on preventing the impact of climate change, such as drought, in Australia. CSIRO/Atmospheric Research, CC BY

CSIRO needs to tackle the impact of climate change following its jobs shake-up

Given recent history, Australia’s scientists are right to be wary when the government casts its eye over the structure and budget of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).

After all, we saw significant cuts under the Abbott government, with over AU$100 million stripped in 2014 resulting in hundreds of redundancies. The union estimated a 20% hit to CSIRO’s workforce.

In that light, the reaction to CSIRO CEO Larry Marshall’s announcement this week of a restructuring of 350 staff in a “Netflix style revamp” is not unexpected. That’s a reference to the online video-on-demand streaming company’s philosophy of: “Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.”

While it appears that overall job numbers will remain static – or may even increase – it is concerning that right in the bulls-eye are areas responsible for key climate monitoring and modelling.

As Marshall argued:

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?

Andy Pitman, Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at UNSW, described the changes as “jaw-droppingly shocking”. The Academy of Science president Andrew Holmes argued that:

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.

Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, of the Climate Change Research Centre at UNSW, said the CSIRO’s climate research was “pioneering and of a global standard” and she described the changes as “nothing short of appalling”.

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 […] Research in any field does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered.

The impact of climate change

These arguments are important. Australia has a critical need to understand not only how climate change is occurring, but how it will affect Australia. Our ability to understand a range of facets of climate change is critical for our ability deal with the urgent mitigation and adaptation challenges necessary to avoid dangerous warming.

Australia, we have to remember, is particularly vulnerable. Any loss in our national capacity to understand this issue is deeply problematic.

Perhaps the best insurance in limiting climate impacts is understanding the risks. The CSIRO restructure has us walking into the unknown blindfolded, relying on other research institutions to pull up the slack.

Yet we have to ask – how much climate research capacity does Australia need? If your answer is always “more”, then that doesn’t make grounds for serious discussion.

Over the past decade we’ve seen strong growth in Australian Research Council funding of climate related Fields of Research (FOR) (see figure, below).

ARC funding of climate related fields. Will Grant, Author provided

Is this enough to take up the slack? We just don’t know.

Similarly, it’s important to ask whether CSIRO’s “strategic alignment” will see a cut in its overall climate change research capacity. Will cuts in monitoring translate directly into jobs in mitigation?

CSIRO plays a key national role in coordination that universities may not be able to replace. It’s also important to recognise that it can take many years to build up scientific capacity – it may seem like a great guide for agile management in our years of innovation, but the Netflix model may just not work in some sectors.

But Perkins-Kirkpatrick’s comments bring us to an important point. Yes, it is certainly true – and right – that research in any field “does not and cannot stop after an apparent question has been answered”.

Yet we must always ask if it is necessarily the case that such answers are best provided by direct government intervention as seen in CSIRO.

Curiosity driven research plays a key role throughout our scientific and innovation landscape. But just as much, there is a crucial role for guided research, with goals set by national environmental, economic and social aspirations.

No denial on climate change

CSIRO’s job is to answer a range of government guided questions, and to assist with solutions for the future. Marshall has stressed a pivot from measuring and monitoring climate change, to “figuring out what to do about it [and] how to mitigate it”. This is not, it should be stressed, a denial of climate change.

While the restructure was being announced, ANU’s new Vice Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt was delivering his first major address to the assembled ANU community. His conclusion rings true here.

Our motto ‘First, to learn the nature of things’ has guided us well over our first 70 years.

But, […] we can build on it over the next 70. Yes, first, to learn the nature of things. But second, to teach what we have learned, and third, to use what we have learned for the greater benefit of all.

When it comes down to it, I want a CSIRO that follows a similar dictum – quite frankly, I’m more interested in climate change stopped than climate change understood.

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