Forecasting Larry Marshall

Perhaps we should not be surprised. Perhaps the CSIRO has no need for climate scientists anyway.

If the government signs to emission reduction targets it has no chance of meeting, why would it need scientists to remind them this was the case? If the government honestly believes direct action is a credible environmental policy, what could actual expertise do to help?

It looks, now, as though the CSIRO will restructure. In the next two years, 350 jobs will be cut from various divisions, including its oceans and atmosphere, and land and water teams.

“CSIRO pioneered climate research, the same way we saved the cotton and wool industries for our nation. But we cannot rest on our laurels as that is the path to mediocrity,” the organisation’s chief executive, Larry Marshall, wrote in a message to staff on Thursday. “Our climate models are among the best in the world and our measurements honed those models to prove global climate change. That question has been answered, and the new question is what do we do about it, and how can we find solutions for the climate we will be living with.”

The CSIRO has lost 1400 staff in the past two years, following huge cuts to funding. Marshall said the restructure would not change the headcount, it would just change the heads.

“With finite resources, we must pick and choose where to prioritise. This means as we focus on new areas we must stop other areas,” he wrote. “Our people are innovative and many can reinvent themselves to learn these new areas. We will need new people with new skills to help us navigate this new future.”

Marshall later said: “It’s inevitable that people who are gifted at measuring and modelling climate may not be the same people who are gifted at figuring out what to do about how to mitigate it. Some of the climate scientists will be able to make that transition and some won’t.”

Christopher Pyne as science minister, a job that did not exist 13 months ago, said it was an “operational decision of the CSIRO” that recognised “the need to reorganise the organisation to better fulfil its mission”.

Marshall conceives of the CSIRO as a business. The former venture capitalist boasts in his email of the companies he led through three recessions. His is the jittery cant of “start-ups” and “pivots”.

He talks about mitigation, but his real interest is commercialisation. The government has forced this, turning its peak science body into a whorehouse of business investment. In his letter to staff, Marshall says “commodities are the bedrock of our nation”. He dreams of turning “coal into a cleaner form of diesel fuel to reinvigorate a $43 billion industry” and of technology to “improve yield and prevent waste, making mining more profitable”.

These aims are not themselves wicked. But they must not come at the expense of excellence or expertise. The fact the science of climate change has been “answered” does not mean it can be neglected. This is the question the CSIRO now faces: can it function as a business while maintaining its obligations to scientific endeavour?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 6, 2016 as "Forecasting Larry Marshall".

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