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Issue #1719      February 17, 2016

CSIRO cuts furore

Corporate greed crushing science

The fallout from the announcement of staff cuts at the CSIRO has not abated since agency head Larry Marshall’s notorious email landed in Malcolm Turnbull’s inbox. Scientists gathered in Melbourne for the conference of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society wore blue tape arm bands in protest and issued a strongly worded statement calling on the federal government to reverse the cuts at the world-renowned science organisation (see “CSIRO Climate Research Cuts”). Hardest hit by the job losses will be the Ocean and Atmosphere division that carries out vital research on climate change (see “Climate – Mad attempt to reverse the course of history” in last week’s Guardian).

So far, the government is backing Marshall, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and his swipe at climate science. This underscores the ‘business as usual’ nature of the Turnbull government despite the PM’s media-hyped differences with his predecessor on the issue. The CSIRO chief claims that the time has come to move on from research on climate change to the sorts of products that could deal with it. Or so the story goes. Marshall’s statement that the strength of the warnings coming from the scientific community “sounds more like religion than science” would be music to the ears of the pro-coal federal government and makes his own position clear.

Religion and science

Marshall’s statements about the cuts and his “vision” for the country and the CSIRO are pure corporate speak. “Just like a start-up, our nation needs to re-invent itself in order to navigate a new and uncertain future. Our nation needs us to create the science to enable the innovation for this profound reinvention,” he said.

The CSIRO chief takes his inspiration from the former chief talent officer of video-streaming transnational, Netfilx. A document from Patty McCord said that “Netflix leaders hire, develop and cut smartly, so we have stars in every position.” Marshall is taking a very Netflix-like attitude to CSIRO staff claiming that “It will be up to them if they stay and go.” NBN chief and former chair of the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, Ziggy Zwitkowksy has come out in support of Marshall and CSIRO chairman and former Telstra CEO, David Thodey.

In recent decades the almost religiously held belief that corporate methods should be applied to government services and institutions has been imposed on the Australian community. The accumulated funding cuts, privatisation and commercialisation of the CSIRO have taken a heavy toll on the organisation. Its ability to contribute to the world class research and innovations for application in industry and agriculture has been undermined, not enhanced. At the same time, the government is taking its babble about innovation and the “nimble” economy to the next level.

“Exciting time”

Right on cue for the lead up to the federal election, the Turnbull government has announced its National Innovation and Science Agenda. “Welcome to the ideas boom”, the full page ads declared last week. TV ads are being broadcast. More than one commentator complained that the $28 million being spent to convince people “there’s never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.” would have been much better spent on the CSIRO and other research spending.

The campaign claims the government will make it “easier for innovative businesses to find investors and access funding” and “for people to take a risk and give their ideas a go” and so on. The opportunism is plain. Time will tell just how much “innovation” will flow from the “agenda”, but history doesn’t tell a pretty tale about these sorts of schemes with their pots of money for grants. People wanting to take up the challenge for innovation in renewable energy, for instance, had the funding rug unceremoniously ripped out from beneath them. In the meantime, the world is being denied research on which our response to climate change is based.

Scientists alarmed

Like his conservative counterparts around the world, Turnbull is hoping people believe the climate emergency was ‘fixed’ at the recent COP21 Paris climate talks. Unfortunately, the problems are still with us and evolving. Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel, learnt of the axe-wielding at the CSIRO through the media. The head of the Bureau of Meteorology, Rob Vertessy, whose organisation collaborates on modelling and other programs with the CSIRO, found out the day before the announcement. Such is the respect for science.

Dr Finkel spoke his mind at a recent meeting of the Senate estimates committee. “There is no question that Australia needs a continuous and highly effective commitment on climate science, both to meet our national needs and to fulfil our international commitments.”

Flying blind about changes to the climate increases the risks for everybody, including industrial agricultural and financial interests. Unfortunately, short term profits, primarily those of the climate disrupting coal industry, are being put ahead of far more basic needs. Corporate interests are crushing science. They should never have been let near policy relating to the environment, education and science. The results are in. Capitalism has plundered the planet and threatens to make it uninhabitable. Its acolytes should not be directing the research that could help direct us away from the threats coming from climate change.

Next article – Editorial – Challenge to asylum seeker policy

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