Archive for May, 2016

Article describing CSIRO “Self Harm”

Posted on May 26, 2016. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The following article published in The Age newspaper supports the long held believe by many current and former CSIRO employees that the fastest way out of the organisation is to be recognised by the awarding of a CSIRO Medal or in the presentation of Awards from a body of peers.

One may be lead to opine that in such circumstances the CSIRO executive, who are demonstrably adverse to any difference of scientific opinion from within, may feel threatened by the high international regard held for such employees which severely limits CSIRO’s ability to control such employees and therefore the best course of action is to dispense with such an employee forthwith.

We have seen examples of this happen many times before by the CSIRO who is desperate (one might even say to a phobic level)  to control the scientific opinions expressed by its employees who may express an independent professional scientific opinion that is inconvenient, and one may even dare to so contravening of the “fearless and independent” scientific advice offered by CSIRO to the Australian public.


The bizarre self-harm that suggests CSIRO has lost its way

May 22, 2016

The treatment of John Church should prompt questions for the Turnbull government.

CSIRO’s plans to shed 275 staff will impact upon our understanding of how climate change is going to affect Australia, explains Fairfax’s Peter Hannam.

CSIRO’s decision to sack the global expert on sea level rise – while he was working at sea, three weeks from shore – is a bizarre form of self-harm that suggests the national science agency has lost its bearings.

Assuming the federal election campaign at some point considers the future of science in this country, the treatment of John Church should prompt questions for the Turnbull government.

Two weeks ago, Church was the co-author of a new peer-reviewed study that found five reef islands in the Solomon Islands have disappeared due to the combination of sea-level rise and high-powered waves.

This is significant not just of itself, but because of what it points to: the area is considered a sea rise hot-spot, with the level increasing up to three times faster than the global average. The study gives an insight into what the future might look like.

A couple of weeks earlier, Church was co-author of a letter published by the internationally respected Nature group that sets out the evidence that humans have been the dominant force in the accelerating increase in sea level since 1970.

I mention these two pieces of research not because of their particular importance, but because they are just the most recently available examples of Church’s work, which stretches back to the late 1970s when he was hired by the national science agency after completing a PhD in physics.
CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall.

CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall. Photo: Daniel Munoz

In science, peer-reviewed papers carry the weight of gold bars. Church’s research – using tidal gauges and satellite data to calculate the pace at which the sea is rising across the globe, and the extent to which different factors are contributing to it – has yielded more than 150.

His CV includes the Eureka Prize for Scientific Research and CSIRO’s Medal for Research Achievement. He has twice been a coordinating lead author of chapters in the era-defining reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

After first being reported by Fairfax Media’s Peter Hannam, his sacking was picked up by the New York Times. Its report quoted NASA scientist Joshua Willis describing Church as one of the world’s top 10 climate scientists. He summarised: “It is sad and embarrassing for the Australian government.”

Scientists who spoke with Fairfax Media backed this up. They noted Church is conservative and meticulous in his work and public statements. He has often warned against inflated estimates of what can be projected with confidence across this century. He is also a leader, widely praised for his quiet guidance of younger scientists.

To state the obvious, this is not expertise you should give away lightly.

Since CSIRO’s plan to axe 275 scientists was announced, Church has been among those who have spoken out forcefully against the cuts to climate programs in particular, arguing they breach Australia’s commitment to escalate research as part of the climate deal reached in Paris in December.

Some within CSIRO believe it is likely Church was targeted due to his outspokenness. But it is not clear whether this is the case as CSIRO has signalled it is moving away from investigating global sea level rise.

It is making this cut despite sea level rise being a developing area of science that is clearly in Australia’s interest to understand thoroughly.

On average, seas have risen more than 20 centimetres since the late 19th century. The most conservative estimates project a further increase of between 30 centimetres and a metre by the end of this century, depending on greenhouse gas emissions.

This is already having real-world ramifications for coastal planning and existing waterfront infrastructure worth billions. You might think a better understanding of the problem would be helpful to plan properly.

This is also not an argument against CSIRO making changes. It should pivot to focus on areas of science that it believes are most in the national interest. If that includes throwing resources into commercially focused innovation, so be it.

What makes little sense is abandoning areas in which you have world-leading expertise, and where more information is unarguably needed.

Of course, Church’s case is just one high-profile example. It is understood 70 scientists in CSIRO’s oceans and atmosphere division alone have been approached about a possible redundancy.

It comes as the agency has been scrambling in the face of significant pressure from the scientific community, here and overseas. Chief executive Larry Marshall’s response was to spurn an offer by the Bureau of Meteorology to take over some CSIRO climate measurement and modelling, and instead promise to keep a smaller team at a new climate science centre in Hobart, employing 40 scientists.

It sounds good in a press release, but no details are available about how the centre will operate – they are still being nutted out. CSIRO’s partner agencies are privately concerned they are being excluded. They believe that to be truly effective the centre should be a national collaboration, bringing in expertise from all agencies and universities. At this stage there is no sign that will happen.

Meanwhile, CSIRO’s international reputation is being damaged. A recent Senate inquiry heard suggestions scientists overseas are concerned, and in some cases are crossing it off their list of potential employers.

To date, the government has ducked questions about the CSIRO cuts, citing its role as an independent statutory agency. In truth, the CSIRO act gives the science minister the power to direct the organisation if they choose.

At some point, government ministers should answer the question: do you support the discarding of world-leading scientific expertise that is taking place on your watch?

Adam Morton is on Facebook and Twitter

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