Climate change

Larry Marshall

CSIRO

Embattled Australian agency head defends climate research cuts

The simmering controversy over the scientific direction and staffing of Australia’s premier research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Organization (CSIRO), heated up this week with the release of internal documents suggesting that CSIRO’s management disdains “public good” research. Separately, an employee association claimed that up to 450 jobs at the agency could be lost—100 more than announced previously. Today, CSIRO’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, sought to allay fears of job losses while defending the agency’s new priorities.

Speaking at a Senate budget hearing, Marshall said he was surprised by the “extremely negative” response to his February announcement of plans to “realign and restore our business growth” and cut jobs. He said he did not “anticipate the magnitude and level of misrepresentation” of the plans by news media, which he blamed for distressing staff and triggering an avalanche of criticism. More than 3000 climate scientists from around the world condemned the change in direction in an open letter to the federal government.

Earlier this week, the Senate panel released 700 pages of internal CSIRO documents related to the new strategy. Particularly revealing were those discussing the oceans and atmosphere division, which employs most CSIRO climate scientists. Although acknowledging that the agency’s climate scientists are internationally respected, “Nature papers alone don’t cut it,” division deputy director Andreas Schiller wrote in a 21 November 2015 email to agency leaders. “Public good is not good enough, [it] needs to be linked to jobs and growth,” he added. In a later email he suggested CSIRO make a “clean cut” and eliminate 120 staff engaged in “public good/government-funded climate research.”

At today’s hearing, Marshall said the agency was not forsaking public good science. But he stated that the agency must prioritize its spending and although he could not talk about specific research areas, “this process [could see] 175 people go over two financial years” in the oceans and atmosphere unit. Also at the hearing, CSIRO Chief Financial Officer Hazel Bennett said, “my current belief is that 75 of those would pertain to climate.” Marshall said new jobs would be created in areas deemed more strategic, among them carbon capture and storage, emission reduction measures, and photovoltaics.

Marshall did not comment on claims made earlier in the week by the CSIRO Staff Association that up to 450 jobs could be lost. The association wrote to Australia’s science minister, Christopher Pyne, calling on him to halt the cuts and begin an independent inquiry into CSIRO’s management. A spokesperson for Pyne told ScienceInsider that CSIRO’s management and board of directors are responsible for “operations, including staffing, and setting the CSIRO’s priorities.” The spokesperson added that CSIRO “will continue to employ more than 300 scientists working on climate adaptation and mitigation research.”