CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshall’s announcement to set up a national climate center in Hobart has been met with some decidedly mixed reviews, writes Andrew Freedman for Mashable.
IN AUSTRALIA, a bold, and potentially damaging experiment is playing out to see what happens when a former venture capitalist with no scientific experience takes over a top science research agency.
After facing an intense domestic and international backlash, the Australian government is scaling back a plan to make deep cuts to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the country’s premiere science research organization, and instead save a sliver of its climate research capabilities.
Those cuts, critics have argued, would have decimated its world class climate science research units.
However, the new plan, which involves setting up a new national climate center in Hobart, Tasmania, is not earning much praise either.
Larry Marshall, the CSIRO director who has previously worked as the managing director of Southern Cross Ventures, a Silicon Valley venture capital firm, is still planning to get rid of about 75 climate science-related positions as part of a restructuring aimed at turning the CSIRO into an agency geared toward conducting research that will have the potential to bring in outside money from the private sector.
In other words, he is running the science organization more like a venture capital firm, rather than an organization that funds science that provides a public good, such as climate modeling that enables individuals to make decisions on where to buy a house based on sea level rise projections.
Marshall, who took over CSIRO last year, has deemphasized science research for the public good, instead focusing on research that could have near-term commercial applications.
The CSIRO’s climate functions are the equivalent to the the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in the U.S., which monitors, researches and communicates how the Earth’s climate is changing, from the depths of the seas to the upper atmosphere and into space.
In February, word came that Marshall was pushing a plan to cut as many as 350 CSIRO jobs, including 110 out of the 140 staff members in its oceans and atmosphere division, in order to bring in a workforce that would spin off profitable ventures.
This plan sparked Parliamentary hearings that continued this week, as well as worldwide condemnation from climate scientists, who said it would damage international scientific research that is vital for understanding the rapidly warming changing world.
Marshall and other CSIRO officials argued that the changes were necessary to position Australia for a new wave of innovation-driven economic growth.
“Indeed, just like a startup, our nation needs to re-invent itself (pivot) in order to navigate a new and uncertain future,” Marshall stated in a memo to CSIRO staff on Feb. 4.
“CSIRO pioneered climate research … But we cannot rest on our laurels, that is the path to mediocrity,” he wrote.
The new plan, announced on April 25, would set up a climate research center in Hobart with 40 staff members.
“Our Strategy 2020 is focussed on collaboration, global connection, excellent science and innovation – all four of these pillars are at work in this Centre,” Marshall stated in an April 26 press release.
The center would have guaranteed funding for the next decade. However, even under the new plan, about 75 climate scientists and climate-related support staff would still lose their jobs, with notices expected to go out during the first week of May.
According to two CSIRO staff members, one of whom requested anonymity due to a lack of authorization to speak to the press, morale at the organization is low, and there is a likelihood that the months of uncertainty and unflattering media reports will contribute to a brain drain of climate researchers to other institutions abroad.
One CSIRO employee told Mashable in an email that a new climate center is “nothing different to what we already have but smaller.”
Currently there are two climate programs with more than 130 people, which will be replaced by one center with far fewer people, the employee stated.
The ability to bring in outside funding for CSIRO research will still be a criteria in judging an employee’s value, this person said, noting this is a change from before when scientists were judged by the quality of their work and the number of scientific studies they contributed to.
“My priority is not to do good quality science — it is to do ‘sexy science’ that politicians can write media sound bytes around so they will then keep funding me,” the CSIRO employee stated.
“The new staff training programs for staff are about teaching us to set up spin off companies. This is CSIRO’s metric now.”
John Church, a CSIRO senior fellow in oceanography, told Mashable via email that the new climate center will focus specifically on climate modeling, with some other climate-related activities being retained elsewhere within CSIRO, though details on that have not been revealed.
In addition to climate modeling, currently CSIRO also observes the climate, contributing to monitoring networks of Antarctica and the Pacific Ocean, for example.
It’s not clear if any of these observation networks, which are key to understanding the role the Southern Ocean plays in the setting the planet’s thermostat, will be shut down or transferred to another agency or institution.
For example, according to Paul Durack, a researcher at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and a former CSIRO scientist, no mention has been made of a ship-based observing network that CSIRO helps operate, known as GO-SHIP.
“The long story short of the new announcement is that they are continuing to progress with a significant cutback to the climate science capacity of CSIRO (and Australia),” Durack toldMashable. He called the new climate center a “rebranding” effort meant to fend off political pressure to reduce the climate program cuts.
The climate center announcement is not staving off the likelihood that some top climate researchers will leave Australia.
“…Yes morale is low,” Church said. “Some of the retained staff may leave (I know of some applying for jobs), but people like living and working in Hobart,” Church said.
According to Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, the focus of the new center could be helpful since it “effectively prioritizes some of the topics to be dealt with.”
But the New Zealand native told Mashable that 40 employees “is extremely small: not enough.”
Trenberth said it’s unclear exactly what the 40 employee minimum actually means.
“If they are all real scientists and in addition they have software engineers, and support scientists so the total staff is more like 100, plus administrative support, then this might be a positive development,” he said in an email. “I am interested to know these details though and what drops on the floor.”
Sarah Perkins-Kirkpatrick, who previously worked at CSIRO and is now at the University of New South Wales, said the biggest loss from any scientific brain drain and related layoffs will come in the form of gaps in Australians’ knowledge of how to adapt to and mitigate global climate change.
“While a decade of promised funding is encouraging, it is still certain that the quality climate research undertaken at CSIRO will be seriously compromised,” she said in a statement.
“This goes deeper than people losing their jobs – the cutting-edge climate projection tools that underpin Australian adaptation and mitigation to climate change will almost certainly suffer, meaning that all Australians will suffer too.”
Andrew Freedman is Mashable’s Science Editor. He holds a Masters in Climate and Society from Columbia University, and a Masters in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University.