CSIRO cuts were ill-considered and must be reversed | Australian Greens

CSIRO cuts were ill-considered and must be reversed

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

I want to speak in particular to the third report of this select committee, which was into the cuts to CSIRO science programs, and in particular the cuts to CSIRO climate science. The Senate committee heard extensive evidence from CSIRO management, from expert scientists from around the world, and from some former CSIRO scientists about these proposed cuts to CSIRO science.

I want to put this report into context, because we are talking about climate science at a time when the world is facing a climate emergency and when dealing with our changing climate is one of the most important things that we can be doing as a nation. It is in this context that we see the proposal to cut 350 scientists from CSIRO, including 100 of the 140 climate scientists in CSIRO. This is what makes this issue so significant and so worthy of attention by the Senate.
Our committee heard evidence of, to begin with, the appalling process that was gone through with this proposal to cut 100 of those 140 climate science jobs. We heard about the lack of consultation internally and externally, the lack of involvement by the CSIRO board in the process, and the lack of understanding by the CSIRO management of what in fact they were cutting. Internally, these cuts were supposed to have taken place after a strategic review—a so-called deep dive process. But many submitters to our inquiry told us, in fact, how shallow that process was and how it did not cut to the core of what was being lost and what should be retained.
We heard about the lack of consultation externally and that the key stakeholders that were directly impacted by this decision by CSIRO to cut these 100 climate science jobs were not informed of this process until the day before it was publicly announced. The Bureau of Meteorology heard the day before that programs that they did jointly with CSIRO were going to be directly impacted. The Australian Antarctic Division and other key stakeholders that work closely with the CSIRO were not informed of this major proposal to cut the capacity of climate science.
We also heard, very seriously—and this cuts to the heart of the problems with this process—that the CSIRO board were not actively involved in this process at all; that, when they had the early proposal put to them, it did not go into the extent of the cuts that were being considered; and, in fact, that the chair of the board was not informed of the extent of the cuts that were being proposed until days before these cuts were announced. The appalling process was a real indictment of the problems with the way that these cuts were undertaken.
It was not just cuts. What was being proposed was the dismantling, essentially, of Australia's capacity to do climate science, and that climate science is world renowned. It is not surprising that, when these cuts were first announced, there was outcry from across the world, that it made the front page of The New York Times and that there were letters from thousands of scientists internationally, shocked and dismayed about the impact that this was going to have on both Australia's capacity to do climate science and the global capacity to do climate science.
Of course, once we started investigating it, the backpedalling began. At the time we began the inquiry, the figure of 100 scientists whose jobs were going to be cut dropped back to 70. I think it is one of the good outcomes of this inquiry process, and I think it is only because of this inquiry process that they have now settled on only cutting 40 of those 140 positions. But that is still 40 too many. Almost 30 per cent of CSIRO's climate science capacity is still being proposed to be cut—again, at a time when we need this capacity. So that was the process.
The other evidence that the committee heard was how the whole concept of cutting our climate science capacity was totally the wrong thing to do. It was very evident to the committee that the contention by the CEO of CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshal, as to why these cuts were occurring was that climate change was proven to be real and so the CSIRO could move to adaptation and mitigation. It was very clear, with the evidence put to the committee, that this was simplistic and naive. We learnt that climate measurement data is not static and that robust data around the rate of climate change is critical to the development of successful and cost-effective adaptation and mitigation strategies. You cannot adapt and mitigate to climate change without knowing what you are adapting to and mitigating. We heard so much evidence of why the critical science that CSIRO did was so important. The measurement and monitoring of our science were so critical, and needed to be maintained and enhanced if we were to adapt effectively to climate change and to mitigate against it.
Evidence from Professor Tony Haymet, the former chief of CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere Division, said:
…there is no use setting up a group to help us adapt to climate change if we do not know whether we have 20 years or 50 years. How long do we have before all of our ports have to raise their infrastructure a metre? How long do we have before we have to recraft all the sewers on the east coast of Australia because their outlets are too low and they are going to get flooded at an average high tide?
… … …
If we have 10 years, we are in big trouble. If we have 50 years, it is a better story … Sure, we can adapt to climate change—as long as we know what we are adapting to and how long we have to do it.
Dr Richard Matear emphasised that he viewed CSIRO's observations and modelling of our oceans and atmosphere as providing an insurance policy for Australia. He said:
We have a huge economy, a trillion-dollar economy, with multitrillion dollars worth of infrastructure, and to think that we cannot invest a little bit into the fundamental research that will help maintain and support that effort and make us a more resilient and more productive nation is ridiculous.
The other thing that very clearly came out through our committee's inquiry was that the CSIRO was moving away from public good research, the importance of maintaining that public good research and the fact that CSIRO, as our premier scientific institution, is the organisation that should continue to be tasked with doing that public good research. But the direction that was being headed in by the current CEO of CSIRO was absolutely shifting away from that emphasis on public good research. The research that was going to continue to be done at CSIRO was increasingly only going to be research that could have short-term economic benefits, not even taking into account what the long-term economic benefits to the country were going to be.
What the committee learnt was that there has been a massive hit to CSIRO's reputation and in fact to Australia's scientific reputation. So much damage has been done by the cuts that have been proposed, it is going to take a long time before people have trust in CSIRO again. It is not just a matter of saying, 'Oh well, we are only cutting 40 now; everybody else can feel okay.' There is a lack of trust now. And even the scientists that are going to be left do not have the trust that their jobs are valued and are necessarily going to be there in the future.
Where to from here? We heard the response in recent weeks of them saying, 'Everything is okay. We are now establishing a climate centre in Hobart which is guaranteeing 40 jobs in climate science.' Only 40, not good enough. From our 140 jobs, only 40 are guaranteed. Establishing a climate science centre in Hobart is a smokescreen. It is a sleight of hand to cover the fact that we are still cutting our essential climate science capability. The recommendations of our committee are quite thorough. We absolutely want a commitment. We are calling upon the government to reverse the cuts, to undertake a thorough review and to delay the implementation of the job cuts until after the election. It is very clear that CSIRO said that with an alternative government that valued climate science they would do things differently. So it is very clear that these cuts should be put on hold until after the election.
Finally, there is the issue of the CEO of CSIRO himself. I really do hope that the minister reads this report and seriously questions the ongoing renewal of his contract, which is currently up for renewal.