Seeking to Adapt, Australia Jettisons Climate Research

Last week, the head of Australia's national scientific agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation or CSIRO, dropped a bombshell on the global scientific community. In a letter to his staff and later interviews, CSIRO Chief Executive Dr. Larry Marshall stated that because it is now clear that the climate is definitely changing—thanks in part to the successful efforts of CSIRO researchers—climate research is no longer needed. The burning question now, he argued, is how society can best adapt to a new reality. But the change in focus will come at a price. "[W]ith finite resources, we must pick and choose what to prioritize," he wrote.

Thus, he announced, he would make room for growth by lopping off the very division he was praising, culling 110 of the 140 climate-related scientific research positions in CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere section. As many observers have noted, these cuts will effectively eliminate Australia's climate observation and prediction capabilities, since these long-term efforts, directed toward societal benefit rather than profit, are dependent upon sustained federal support.

The response from the global scientific community to this abrupt abandonment of climate research has been one of shock, outrage, and bewilderment. More than two thousand ocean and climate researchers (myself included)—representing a substantial fraction of the global expertise in these areas—have signed an open letter, entitled "Australia's climate research is far from done", emphasizing the critical importance of this work for Australia, as well as for the rest of the world, to be able to accurately predict and adapt to climate change.

A common thread in these responses is the crucial question: How do you expect to be able to adapt, if you don't know what to adapt to? It is like the National Institute of Health saying it is time to stop studying diseases and start curing them; the understanding and the cure are two facets of the same process. Thus, the logic that climate change is settled, and therefore, climate scientists are no longer needed, is fundamentally flawed.

To understand this situation better, I spoke with two CSIRO climate scientists. Dr. John Church is one of the world's leading experts in global sea level rise. Dr. David Frey, whose name has been changed, spoke with me on the condition of anonymity.

Climate science is settled?

Dr. Marshall's claim that CSIRO researchers have been "incredibly successful" in "proving the existence of climate change" suggests that scientists have been occupied with repeatedly testing the single hypothesis that climate change is happening, and coming up with an affirmative answer, over and over again. This reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what climate scientists actually do.

That the climate is changing has been considered a well-establish fact by the scientific community for close to two decades now. Scientists at CSIRO and elsewhere have been busy not simply answering a yes/no question, but studying the processes that make up the climate system, including the causes of regional variability. Such understanding is absolutely essential for prediction and mitigation.

The two CSIRO researchers I spoke to gave numerous examples to illustrate this point, as did many of the responses from external scientists. Here is one, from David Frey: "Northwest Australia might be a good place for us move our agriculture," in the face of a changing climate, "but if you don't know whether it's going to be wetter or drier, it doesn't make sense to spend the many millions of dollars you would need to make this change." In other words, you can't adapt to what you don't understand.

Has the director based his assessment of the value of the climate research at CSIRO on communication with the affected scientists? The scientists I interviewed said the level of communication prior to last week had been zero. "We don't have any contact with him," said David Frey, before adding, "If he had talked to any of us, there is no way he would have said that climate change is all figured out."

The human cost

Beyond this apparent misunderstanding about what climate research actually entails, Dr. Marshall's decision reveals a misunderstanding of something even more fundamental: people. Who wants to work for an institute that has a reputation for mass firings of successful researchers?

Needless to say, the scientists in the affected divisions are far from inspired. "Shocked. Devastated. Appalled," is how John Church describes the reaction. "We all went into this field not because we would make a lot of money, but because a lot of us care about what we do, and we want to make a difference for the world," says David Frey. "So when you spend your life to build up your expertise in this area, and someone tells you it's not important anymore, it's very hard to take."

In his letter last week, Larry Marshall wrote that CSIRO's educational programs have been particularly successful in inspiring children. "[W]hen we inspire a child, the payback is exponential and delivers for decades." But his recent decisions are likely to have the opposite effect.

After this experience, "I can no longer go in front of a classroom and tell students what a great job I have," says David Frey. "I would not advise students to go into science if they want to stay in Australia." John Church concurs. When asked what messages are being sent to the next generation, he responded: "World quality science is not valued in Australia. Do not trust CSIRO. If you are interested in a science career, go elsewhere."

Part of a plan?

Rather than an isolated event, the recent announcement is seen as the terminal end of a long slide, with repeated rounds of budget cuts and layoffs in recent years. Funding for public-good science has been harder and harder to find, researchers told me, with increasing pressure to find projects that would be funded by an industry backer. Fundamental climate research just doesn't fall into that category. While it is of great benefit to society as a whole, it is simply not profitable to industry in the short term.

In Larry Marshall's view, climate change is one aspect of a profoundly uncertain future. Adaptation is necessary for survival, and he sees his organization as leading the way by first transforming itself into a profit-generating enterprise, drawing from his extensive experience in private industry. "[W]e cannot rest on our laurels as that is the path to mediocrity," he wrote, arguing that re-invention is necessary "in order to navigate a new and uncertain future."

In a revealing interview last year, he made clear that his strategy requires an initial investment from CSIRO in order to attract venture capital funds, leading to research that would benefit both the public and investors. But where will such funds come from? The CSIRO scientists I spoke with speculated that the real motivation behind cutting their jobs is to free up the cash that will enable these new initiatives.

Thus, rather than a naive act of an ill-informed director, this recent announcement may be something else entirely: from a leader whose stated priorities are innovation and profitability, and determined to adapt his organization to leaner times, the intentional sacrifice of a division that does not contribute to those goals.

Yet few decisions are irreversible. Faced with such an international outcry, one might hope that a wise leader would reassess his strategy, thereby demonstrating himself the very adaptability that he hopes to inspire in others, and leading by example.