Science angrily meets parliament again

This week, I’m off to Science Meets Parliament (SmP) for the third time. It is a fantastic opportunity for Australian scientists of various career levels to gain an understanding of engaging with the political process and to meet politicians.

Each time I have experience a not unsurprising mix of good and bad. The good is meeting rock star professionals in a variety of fields, including in science, communication, policy making and politics. The bad is sitting through Question Time and not being able to rush off for a shower afterwards.

I attended my first year at SmP back in 2014 when I was a postdoc at the University of Melbourne. It was an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed, to the extent that I nominated later that year for the executive committee of the organising body. But it also left me mildly revolted. While I had genuine and interesting interactions with various representatives, the usual displays of arrogance in both the Science and Parliament were hard to stomach.

The following year, SmP began defiantly with many pats on backs. These were awarded for successfully rescuing Australia’s National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) from political ransom. Just before SmP, funding for NCRIS facilities and staff were being held hostage in complex negotiations between parties and houses in the Australian parliament. SmP commenced just as funding was guaranteed in the short term and facilities could be salvaged. There was a big sigh of relief. It was an exciting time for scientists to be meeting parliament.

This year I have SmP deja vu. In recent weeks, Australia has gleefully opened its arms to international ridicule. Larry Marshall, the CEO of CSIRO (Australia’s Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation), proudly sent an all staff email in his characteristic venture capitalist-speak announcing wide sweeping changes to research priorities and staffing.

For a start, research into climate science was on the way out. That question had been answered. While Australia had traditionally excelled at climate research, we wouldn’t want to utilise that investment in human capital. According to Marshall, that way lies mediocrity.

Later interrogation during Senate estimates revealed that Marshall hadn’t anticipated that the changes would be of interest to CSIRO’s key partners, that he hadn’t consulted staff and key stakeholders, that he was unaware of CSIRO’s climate model license agreements and that he was surprised by international condemnation for this proposed shake up/down.

Australian and international scientists scorned his decisions, saying the idea of a single, answerable scientific question is ludicrous. Furthermore, such a reduction in staffing would comprise Australia’s ability to conduct climate research and would negate our international earth system monitoring obligations.

Climate scientists will never be a politician’s BFF. At this week’s Science Meets Parliament, I’ll be quite happy to take it all in awkwardly from the corner while shunned by elected representatives of the major parties. Nonetheless, returning to SmP under similar circumstances to last year – major research capabilities being threatened, jobs on the line, wasted human capital – is incredibly frustrating.

Attempts to raise awareness of vulnerabilities in Australia’s capacity to conduct climate research have been only modestly successful. While some of Marshall’s decisions look like they will be reviewed, such campaigns seem to be largely viewed as self-serving both by the general public and by parts of the wider academic community.

Some have suggested that scientists are not well placed to make decisions about how much research is enough and what research that should be. Others have suggested climate science gets enough dollars from alternative funding streams, such as the Australian Research Council.

These ideas may have merit, but they are certainly hard to evaluate superficially. Marshall’s lack of understanding of his organisation, its goals and values, and place within Australian and international climate science endeavours is a clear signal he has not attempted to explore how and what should be researched in any meaningful way.

It may be the case that Australia and our regional are not well served by supporting an internationally reputable group of climate scientists with world-class scientific modelling tools. And perhaps the value of climate science to Australia is not evaluated best by climate scientists themselves. However, climate scientists are saying that the cuts at CSIRO will compromise our capability to conduct any substantive climate research in the future. Such decisions of merit, value and return must explicitly take in account if this is what we want.

The decisions must also consider Australia’s unique place as the “single poster country showing the adverse effects of climate change”. In this weekend’s New York Times, Kevin Trenberth from the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research pointed out that Australia has “… a big desert, wildfires, drought, extreme risks — and what are you going to do about it? If you don’t collect the data, you won’t know how to deal with the problem.”

Australia is also arguably uniquely placed both economically and geographically to be a global leader in science, and particularly in climate science. Australian climate scientists are saying that we have international and regional responsibilities that cannot be reconciled with cuts at CSIRO that weaken our capacity to lead. These protestations should not be lightly ignored.






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