Estimates: Finkel, CSIRO and climate

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Senator RICE: Thank you, Dr Finkel, for your opening statement and for your support, in particular for the climate science that has been undertaken at CSIRO and for the scientists, those skilled and qualified people, that you mentioned in your report. They are the fundamental critical element of our climate science. In your statement, in the areas of climate science that you saw as being essential you have long-term data collection and the climate modelling capabilities. There is another critical piece of work that CSIRO have led in Australian climate science, which is the climate projections—the understanding of how climate is likely to change on a regional basis. Would you agree that that is also a critical element of the climate science that we need to maintain our world-leading capabilities in?

Dr Finkel: I think what you are referring to in those projections is, in a sense, what I am also referring to when I talk about the modelling capability. It is that long-term ability to project.
Senator RICE: Yes, but in the CSIRO they are two separate areas of endeavour and they are considered separately.
Dr Finkel: Right.
Senator RICE: Basically using the output to the models.
Dr Finkel: For us to fulfil our obligations internationally and to continue to be the premier climate research country in the Southern Hemisphere, we need to ensure that capacity is preserved. But there is, as I said before, very substantial capacity outside the CSIRO as well is within the CSIRO. So if the science community collaborates, as I am sure that it can and will, in a constructive fashion, my goal would be to help facilitate the continuation of our capacity. I do not think that our capacity has been undermined at this moment—we are in the planning and discussion phase.
Senator RICE: In a situation of 110 out of the 130 climate scientists employed by the CSIRO division who are planned to be lost to CSIRO, that is a big task in transitioning them.
Dr Finkel: I cannot comment about the impact within the CSIRO, but that is in the context of a much broader research community in climate science in Australia. I am not in any way undermining the significance of the CSIRO contribution, but we need to look at that as not the only contribution.
Senator RICE: That is absolutely true. You said that since Dr Larry Marshall announced the dismantling of the CSIRO climate science program, essentially, last week you have spent a lot of time talking to leaders in Australia climate research. Who have you been speaking to?
Dr Finkel: They are all one-on-one conversations so I do not think it would be appropriate for me to list them, but they are leaders of research groups at universities, some of the agencies; leaders of the national learned academies, some of the doyens of leadership in past climate research projects—quite a number of people.
Senator RICE: Have you spoken to the leaders of the climate research institutes at the universities—
Dr Finkel: Not all of them, by any means, but this means I can get through on a Sunday and on a Monday and a Tuesday and still do my other commitments.
Senator RICE: The Bureau of Meteorology and Dr Rob Vertessy?
Dr Finkel: As I said, I will not go to the names but that would not be a surprising assumption.
Senator RICE: Have you spoken to Dr Larry Marshall himself about the cuts?
Dr Finkel: Yes. As I said, I have spoken to a number of people, and I have truly been speaking to the leaders at this stage of the various climate research centres.
Senator RICE: What rationale did Dr Marshall give you for why these cuts need to be made?
Dr Finkel: I truly have nothing to add to that other than the public statements that the CSIRO has made.
Senator RICE: Did he give you a rationale—
Senator Cormann: I think Dr Finkel has given you as much as he is going to give you. He is not going to talk to you about private conversations.
Senator RICE: Did he give you a logical rationale, Dr Finkel, that you accepted?
Dr Finkel: As Senator Cormann said—
Senator RICE: It is just a yes or no answer that I require.
Senator Cormann: You are inviting Dr Finkel to talk to you about private conversations.
Senator RICE: No, it is a question with a yes or no answer.
Dr Finkel: What I am trying to indicate to you is that I am having significant conversations with the people I regard to be leaders. There are many other leaders in the community that I have not yet had a chance to speak to. Of course when I am having those conversations I am trying to get insights as to their perspectives.
Senator RICE: With the conversations that you have had with the other leaders of these institutions, what did they tell you about their capacity to take on extra research given that there will be a big hole if those 110 staff go?
Dr Finkel: It is too soon for me to summarise their positions. Their positions are obviously motivated by a number of different considerations and it is going to take me some time to form a singular opinion such as yours. I can tell you that it is my intention to get more and more understanding and, to the extent that I can, facilitate discussions.
Senator RICE: Did they say that they had the capacity to take on extra science research—
Senator Cormann: You are again asking him to talk about private conversations.
Senator RICE: I am asking a simple question, Minister.
Senator Cormann: It is not a simple question—you are asking what people in conversation have said. That is not the way it works.
CHAIR: I have been listening, and that is the third time you have tried to ask the same question. Reframe the question and ask it again. I am happy to give you the time to ask a question that Dr Finkel can answer.
Senator RICE: Do you believe that these institutes with their current resources have got the capacity to take on the climate science that you state we need to maintain?
Senator Cormann: You are asking him for an opinion, which, if you go back to the Chair's opening statement—
Senator RICE: He has been having discussions with these people.
CHAIR: Do you have a different line of questioning, Senator Rice? I am happy to give you the time if you have a different line.
Senator RICE: Dr Finkel, you have been having lots of research with all of our climate institutions. What is your assessment of their capacity to increase their level of climate research?
Dr Finkel: I am in the early stages. My assessment to date is that there is enormous capacity in this country to conduct climate science research. Without doubt, there are ramifications of the CSIRO's priority decisions and I am doing as much as I can in the time available to form a considered understanding of that capacity. I am not avoiding the question. I cannot give you a specific answer to that, even if it were appropriate for me to give you a specific answer to that.
Senator RICE: With the loss of capability at CSIRO, have you identified any areas where they feel they could take on that new capacity?
Dr Finkel: I think we are going over the same territory. I think there is capacity to do a lot. The first thing that I was concerned about was the continuity of data collection, then the continuity of modelling, and everything that follows which is important. As I said, the statement made this week by the CSIRO addresses their recognition of the need to have a transition plan that supports the continuity of data collection and discusses the importance of maintaining the model—
Senator RICE: Would that transition plan require funding to also be transitioned in order to maintain that capacity?
Dr Finkel: I cannot comment on that. I do not have an answer.
CHAIR: Dr Finkel has already said that he believes that there is a great deal of climate science capacity in this country. I understand your line of questioning, specifically about the CSIRO's capacity to do it. I have been generous with my time. I do not know that you are going to get a different answer. I know where you are going.
Senator RICE: I have two more questions.
CHAIR: We will then shut down and I will let you go. Senator RICE: People have been talking to me about the capacity of the university climate science and the Bureau of Meteorology. The Bureau of Meteorology told us at estimates on Monday that they did not have the capacity to take on extra tasks and it was going to leave a big hole if CSIRO exited from the field. I know from conversations with university scientists that they also do not have that capacity. There have also been discussions of potentially setting up a separate climate research institution. Given your expertise in those sorts of institutions, would you be able to give us some estimate of what sorts of resources would be required?
Senator Cormann: That goes well and truly beyond the role of the Chief Scientist in terms of providing evidence on his functions and the performance of his role. You are asking him to give you advice on a potential new policy proposal that is not in his sphere of responsibility. If anything, it is part of a different part of the portfolio.
Senator RICE: It certainly fits within his statement of ensuring that the long-term science continues.