CSIRO cuts to Australian climate science need a coordinated national response
15 Feb 2016|


The recent unexpected announcement of significant cuts to fundamental climate science research in Australia has provoked responses both nationally and internationally.

Although the announcement was made a fortnight ago in an email from the CEO of the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), the full ramifications of the announcement are currently difficult to quantify. CSIRO hasn’t yet publicly stated which parts of its climate science programs will be cut, and which staff will either leave the organisation or be redeployed.

In the policy vacuum that naturally followed the announcement, apparently made without whole-of-government consultation, the door is open for all manner of special pleading. It’s important in this context to consider the national interest ramifications of CSIRO’s announcement and, from that perspective, develop a considered, coordinated national response.

Measuring the drivers of the climate over long time scales is essential to understanding the path and trajectory of climate change. Australia’s national efforts in those areas are recognised internationally. Australian climate scientists, in CSIRO and elsewhere, have been influential in shaping international understanding of the global climate and providing the building blocks of national and international responses to climate change. It’s one of the few areas in international science where Australia can genuinely claim to ‘punch above our weight’.

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, has pointed out the importance of ‘measuring and modelling’ our region’s climate:

‘Our most immediate national concern must be to ensure that long-term data collections will be funded and staffed… The climate modelling capabilities developed by the CSIRO (must) continue to be made available for scientists to use and refine.’

CSIRO’s contribution to Australia’s national efforts in climate modelling appears slated for closure. The development of the ACCESS climate model for understanding the Australian climate relies on a joint partnership between the CSIRO and the  Bureau of Meteorology (BoM) through the Collaboration for Australian Weather and Climate Research. ACCESS is the only climate model developed specifically for the southern hemisphere and has greatly improved the capabilities of our national weather bureau: ACCESS has provided ‘a significant improvement in accuracy over the Bureau’s old weather model suite’, according to the BoM website.

It’s essential that a country like Australia, which stretches from the monsoonal tropics to the Antarctic—and is surrounded by three oceans—has the capacity to build, develop and run complex climate models. These can’t be just ‘bought off the shelf’: they need to be refined and ‘ground-truthed’ to reflect the diversity of Australia’s landscape and oceans. Food security, disaster management, urban planning and all forms of economic activity ultimately rely not only on the nation’s ability to provide a weather forecast now, but also our ability to understand the future and how it will change.

Australia has the third largest maritime jurisdiction in the world and we live in a region where people rely on the health and prosperity borne of the Pacific and Indian Oceans. That we understand our oceans is fundamental. Losing our ability to participate in large-scale ocean science and observation will ultimately erode Australia’s ability to shape the future and influence regional affairs.

The importance of science as a tool of soft diplomacy in our region shouldn’t be underestimated; it was certainly a key component of Australia’s bid for a seat at the UN Security Council. Diminishing our capacity to participate in science reduces our capacity to influence others. It’s a gap will be readily filled by others like China which is already investing heavily in marine research and oceanography.

The ramifications of CSIRO’s announcement need to be assessed across Government. At the very least, the Portfolios of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence, Science, Environment and Agriculture should work together to determine a whole-of-government response to the announced changes to Australia’s climate capabilities. Whatever the proposed solution, it requires a close connection to government, where national interests are key to research efforts and outputs.

Now is not the time to reduce Australia’s capabilities and undermine our outstanding reputation in such a fundamental area of research.