Climate Change News

Chilly Reception for New Australian Climate Science Center

After unveiling major planned cuts to climate science early this year, Australia's main science agency proposes a center to coordinate remaining projects. Many decry the proposal as an empty gesture.


The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) has created a new climate science division, a move many scientists said wouldn’t fully undo the damage of previously announced research cuts. As Australia’s premiere scientific agency, CSIRO sparked controversy months ago by revealing plans for a shift in its research focus away from basic climate science toward climate change response strategies.

The announcement of the new research unit, CSIRO leaders said, served in part as a response to widespread criticism from scientists—including some in house—over the proposed shift in focus. Critics had argued that CSIRO’s previously disclosed plans to cut roughly half of its 140 climate science staffers would imperil the agency’s ability to carry out the basic climate modeling and measurement projects that it had hoped to keep.

But CSIRO leaders say the new Climate Science Centre—staffed by 40, overseen by an independent advisory board, and armed with a decadelong commitment from the agency—will help coordinate and preserve those modeling and measurement projects. And agency officials said they planned to cut 25 to 30 fewer climate science staff across CSIRO than before.

Long-Simmering Controversy

Still, many Australian scientists are unmoved, saying the center’s meager staffing level renders it a mostly toothless face-saving effort. “While the retention of some of CSIRO’s climate science capabilities is welcome, the level announced is analogous to trying to put a sticking plaster over a gaping wound,” sustainability researcher Dave Griggs of Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, said in a 26 April statement.

The controversy traces back to February, when CSIRO told staff of its proposed cuts, likely followed by new hires in other areas. CSIRO leaders, wanting to shift focus toward climate change mitigation and adaptation, argued that Australia needed economically innovative research to stay globally competitive. Scientists and scientific organizations across the world called the plans a blow to Australia’s scientific reputation and argued against the research shift because scientists still have much to learn about the climate system.

Now, with the proposed new division, scientists are expressing some relief. And Liberal Party Senator Richard Colbeck, who already supported CSIRO’s research refocusing, lauded the creation of the center and the advisory board, which he said would advise Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition government. However, scientists still worry that CSIRO will struggle to keep its promise of maintaining key basic climate research projects, among them the Cape Grim greenhouse gas monitoring station and the Argo ocean floats.

New Center Too Small?

In statements compiled by the Australian Science Media Centre, many climate scientists said the center needs more than 40 staffers. Similar centers in other countries have several times more, according to Matthew England, a climate researcher at the University of New South Wales based in the Sydney area.

Australian Senator Peter Whish-Wilson of the Australian Greens party cited these scientists’ statements in noting his own skepticism of the plan. “Clearly the reaction…was that the number is too low and that this was more or less reshuffling the deck chairs,” he said on 27 April at a live webcast Australian Senate budget panel hearing.

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall responded that recent research budget cuts have forced tough choices at the agency. “Any chief executive would always want more money to do more,” he said at the hearing.

Marshall added that CSIRO created the center with feedback from staffers as well as external scientists and universities. Having a body to oversee key agency climate projects and giving it an advisory board will help coordinate the research and promote external collaboration, he said.

Steven Sherwood, a climate researcher at the University of New South Wales, looked favorably on the prospect of more coordination and the advisory board, even as he criticized its staffing level. “Both of these would be positive developments, but the small size of the new centre would limit what it could achieve for Australia,” he said in a statement.

—Puneet Kollipara, Freelance Writer; email: [email protected]

Citation: Kollipara, P. (2016), Chilly reception for new Australian climate science center, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO051785. Published on 3 May 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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