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Issue #1735      June 15, 2016


CSIRO cuts – capitalist vandalism

People living on Australia’s eastern seaboard have been belted by extreme weather lately. The freak storms and bucketing rainfall raised questions in many minds about the future. How will we stay safe, secure our homes and access transport if we regularly confront weather like this? The scientific consensus is that rising temperatures will be accompanied by increasingly frequent extreme weather events.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull made this point while electioneering in flood devastated areas of Tasmania before attempting to sidestep some obvious questions about his role on the issues. “Certainly, larger and more frequent storms are one of the consequences that the climate models and climate scientists predict from global warming but you cannot attribute any particular storm to global warming, so let’s be quite clear about that. And the same scientists would agree with that.”

Turnbull earned his reputation as a more modern thinker over the question of climate change. He opposed the climate change denial consensus in the parliamentary Liberal Party and paid the price. Back as leader with the Prime Minister’s position to boot, the hollowness of his earlier commitment is on display. He is as beholden to the fossil fuel lobby as any of his predecessors. He now sells the Coalition’s “Direct Action Plan” for emissions reduction after acknowledging, as a backbencher, that it was a waste of money. And his government is standing by as CSIRO management continues to trash its reputation as an internationally respected national science agency.

The latest embarrassment was the sacking of world-leading expert on rising sea levels, Dr John Church. He was still at sea when he was called and told he was “potentially redundant” as a result of the deep cuts to CSIRO staffing. Two weeks before the call, Dr Church had discovered five reef islands of the Solomon Islands had disappeared as a result of the particularly rapid rise in sea levels in the region. “I was OK during the call but it is certainly not a nice feeling to have what you have worked for – for so many years – thrown on the scrap heap,” Dr Church told Fairfax Media.

The sea level expert is not the only victim of what has been called a period of “self-harm” at the CSIRO since the former Silicon Valley venture capitalist, Larry Marshall, took charge. He claims the CSIRO should move out of climate monitoring and modelling and into measures for adapting to climate change and mitigation. Marshall’s road forward, aside from taking the axe to 275 jobs in the agency, is not clear to the international scientific community. They are outraged. A letter signed by 2,900 scientists, including one third from the US, had this to say: “The decision to decimate a vibrant and world-leading research program shows a lack of insight, and a misunderstanding of the importance of the depth and significance of Australian contributions to global and regional climate research.”

Those things targeted for the chopping block include CSIRO’s ice research lab and key Antarctic science activities. Gone, too, is the paleo-climate science unit at CSIRO’s Aspendale site in south-eastern Melbourne. All these attacks on climate monitoring are happening as the agency’s Cape Grim site in Tasmania reports the atmosphere’s baseline carbon dioxide levels have exceeded 400 parts per million for the first time.

Nothing is safe from the huckstering new style of management, not even the iconic Parkes Observatory. There is lots of talk abut “value propositions” and “engagement models” but not much about commitment to scientific research. This is what happens when capitalist ideology is let loose on institutions. It is the same in health and education and everywhere else in the economy and society. It unleashes utterly irresponsible priorities. Profits come first, the rest of us will need to make our own arrangements, including in dealing with climate change.

The dramatic changes at the CSIRO have put the agency in the headlines as never before. And it’s not only the scientific community that is shocked. Australians have long acknowledged the public benefit of the research and innovation coming from the CSIRO. They will be receptive to the call from door-knockers from the CSIRO for voters to put the Coalition last. After all, it’s where they put climate science and public safety.

Next article – Workers’ win after nine-week strike

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