Wednesday, 23 March 2016

CSIRO Climate Science Community Forum

(L–R) Dr. Kathy McInnes, Prof. Will Steffen, Prof. Ian Chubb, Mark Dreyfus QC MP, Senator Kim Carr

On March 22nd, I attended a community forum held by the federal member for Isaacs, Mark Dreyfus QC discussing the importance of CSIRO’s climate research, particularly in light of management’s planned cuts to climate programs.

Presenting to the large assembled audience was former Chief Scientist of Australia Professor Ian Chubb, internationally-renowned climate scientist Professor Will Steffen, lead author on the IPCC Special Report on Extremes and CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric research scientist Dr. Kathy McInnes, and Labor’s shadow minister for research and innovation Senator Kim Carr.

The location was particularly appropriate for a number of reasons. Firstly, the CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric research department – one of the departments to be most directly affected by the planned job cuts – is based at the CSIRO’s Aspendale site, located within Mr. Dreyfus’s electorate. But the area is also among the lowest-lying on Port Phillip. Should the planet continue to warm, a sea level rise of 80cm would leave thousands of homes in the area susceptible to surge inundation. Unfortunately, 80cm is now at the lower end of sea level rise expectations, with 1m looking to be the more likely outcome. This is not baseless conjecture, this is based on the modelling and data generated by those at the CSIRO Aspendale site, such as Dr. McInnes.

In brief, all members of the panel are against the proposed cuts. There is a general sense of disbelief among CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric staff, as well as within the broader community. One key message repeated by many of the key speakers was that science expertise is not like tap. Once it is turned off, it cannot be turned on again, at least not within a reasonable amount of time. The inevitable brain drain instigated by these cuts is compounded by the low levels of secondary students undertaking VCE-level sciences and maths – the lowest numbers in 25 years. This is a crisis that will take a generation to resolve, assuming proper measures are put in place to reverse them. It is very unlikely a Coalition government would do this, preferring to be fixated on school chaplains and anti-bullying programmes that dare mention homosexuality.

Mr. Dreyfus spoke on the importance of science research to the future of Australia, paying special attention to CSIRO’s Marine and Atmospheric team, as the Aspendale site falls within his electorate. He also made mention of the important work CSIRO has done over the past decades across many fields, emphasising the need for scientific research to be a national good and not just driven by commercial imperatives, as the current management seems hellbent on doing. That oft-cited CSIRO invention, high-speed Wi-Fi, did not come about because a private company wanted a dot matrix printer and a floppy drive to communicate with one another. No, it came about because of "a failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle". Science cannot be directed, it can merely be funded.

Professor Chubb delivered a brief history of the CSIRO and its antecedents, placing the importance of its work in context. A key part of this context is how the research environment has changed since CSIR was first established in 1916. Back then, universities were not required to undertake research.

Although many did, university research constituted a small proportion of the research undertaken in Australia. Most was done by the CSIR and later, the CSIRO. But since the late-1940s, this has changed. Universities, to maintain the right to the name “university”, had to undertake research.

Today, a great deal of research is undertaken by universities, with the end result of CSIRO sometimes competing for the same funding as universities. While competition is not necessarily destructive, Professor Chubb argued that only CSIRO is placed to undertake long-term scientific research, with universities often limited to 3, 4 or 5 years funding. Changes to this funding can be damaging.

On an interesting note, Professor Chubb is known for his ability to work with governments of all political persuasions. Appointed by a Labor government, he remained Chief Scientist until his term expired under the current Coalition government. During the Q and A portion of the evening, Fairfax journalist Tom Arup asked Professor Chubb about his tenure as Chief Scientist overlapping with the appointment of Dr. Larry Marshall to CSIRO. Professor Chubb, ever the diplomat, was non-committal on the appointment, but did say he had spoken to Dr. Marshall about the cuts. Professor Chubb said that the details of this conversation were “best left between consenting adults”.

Senator Carr spoke about the recent Senate inquiries and the apparent problems within senior CSIRO management, including reports of Land & Water staff walking out of a meeting with Dr. Marshall, led by the division’s head, Paul Hardisty. Senator Carr said that, if elected, the opposition would instigate a review in CSIRO’s management structure. He also made reference to internal documents showing the initial number of cuts considered was substantially larger. Asked in the Q and A section when Labor will release a science policy, Senator Carr responded that it would be at some point during the “long” election campaign.

Professor Steffan gave an overview of his research career, during which he has been engaged by governments and agencies in Australia and around the world. He highlighted the fact that the science of climate change is itself rapidly changing, with new data altering modelling for future outcomes. The most complete and recent sea rise modelling was released in 2015, he said, but will be out of date within two years. CSIRO climate scientists contribute a considerable amount of this data.

Rounding out the evening, Dr. McInnes gave an overview of her research at the Aspendale site, particularly into sea level rises. The data produced by her and her team have been used by local, state, national and international bodies for various purposes, such as planning decisions. These, she argued, are very practical uses of climate data that affect us all. The provision of this data may be affected should the planned cuts go ahead.

Science is vital not only to Australia’s future, but to the world’s. The insurmountable problems of tomorrow will not be surmounted by budget surpluses, school chaplains or a star chamber-inspired industrial relations commission. They will be solved by science. The planned cuts have earned the ire of almost every climate scientist around the world and earned Australia the dubious honour of the New York Times editorialising against the proposed cuts – with an insipid defense of the cuts and Australia’s place in the scientific community by the new ambassador to the United States, Joe “Age of Entitlement” Hockey.

The panel was asked by an audience member what the ordinary person can do to oppose these cuts. Professor Chubb observed that politicians respond to the public will. He said the public must be made to care about these cuts and once they do, politicians will have no choice but to respect science. I plan on doing my part, you should too. Come along to the Rally to Save CSIRO Jobs in Melbourne on April 2nd. I’ll see you there.