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Dowsing for water.

Dowsing for water.

Monika Wisniewska/iStockphoto

Incoming Australia research chief touts water dowsing

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The next CEO of Australia’s leading research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is in hot water after suggesting the cash-strapped organization spend scarce research dollars investigating water divining, or dowsing.

“I’ve seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy, and I’ve no idea how they do it,” Larry Marshall told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in a recent radio interview. “When I see that, as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘Is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’ … I’ve always wondered whether there is something in the electromagnetic field, or gravitational anomaly,” continued Marshall, who takes up his position in January.

CSIRO scientists are keeping their heads down in the wake of a 5.45% (AU$111.4 million) budget cut that will see up to 420 jobs eliminated by June 2015, along with the closure of eight research facilities. But some experts outside the agency have been quick to decry the interest in dowsing expressed by a Silicon Valley venture capitalist with a doctorate in physics. “I’m appalled,” says John Williams, a founding member of Australia’s leading group of water experts, the independent Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists, who is based in Canberra. A more serious concern, says Williams, former chief of CSIRO Land and Water, is the need to persuade Marshall to shift his focus from water extraction to conservation. “We know where the water is. The trouble is there isn’t much of it, and we don’t know how it’s replenished,” he says. Tim Mendham, executive officer of Australian Skeptics Inc., adds that it’s a “letdown” that anyone with scientific training would use “vague concepts” like electromagnetic and gravitational effects to explain an unproven phenomenon like dowsing.

Marshall is sticking to his guns. “I definitely need media training, but check this out,” he wrote in an e-mail to ScienceInsider, flagging a 2014 CSIRO document titled “Quantum Gravity Sensor,” which states that “the largest detectable sources of changing gravitational anomalies are bodies of water and ice.” Marshall told ABC that he’s going to seek further advice from his more “levelheaded” CSIRO staff, but added that although dowsing is “a little out there,” it’s the agency’s job to “push the envelope.”