Australian science agency faces heat

A rally in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference in December. Australia's national science agency has been widely condemned after it revealed plans to make drastic cuts to research into climate change mo
A rally in front of the Sydney Harbour Bridge ahead of the 2015 Paris Climate Change Conference in December. Australia's national science agency has been widely condemned after it revealed plans to make drastic cuts to research into climate change monitoring - a move that experts warned could affect the quality of global weather predictions.PHOTO: REUTERS

Scientists at home and abroad blast plans for drastic cuts in monitoring climate change

Australia's national science agency has been widely condemned after it revealed plans to make drastic cuts to research into climate change monitoring - a move that experts warned could affect the quality of global weather predictions. 

The World Climate Research Programme criticised the move by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), saying it had "sent shock waves into the international climate research community".

It said Australia was particularly vulnerable to climate change and that modelling of weather patterns was crucial for predicting heatwaves and drought, and for making "climate-smart investment, infrastructure and policy decisions".

"These cuts will sever vital linkages with Australian colleagues and to essential Southern Hemisphere data sources, linkages that connect Australia to Britain, the US, New Zealand, Japan, China and beyond," the world body said on Monday.

"Australia will find itself isolated from the community of nations and researchers devoting serious attention to climate change."

Last week, CSIRO revealed plans to cut up to 350 jobs over the next two years, targeting areas that observe and model climate change including from the oceans and atmosphere, and Antarctica modelling divisions. The agency, which receives government funding but operates independently, apparently made the decision alone, saying other areas would be boosted and there would be no net loss of staff.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, a strong advocate of combating climate change, was reportedly unaware of the cuts and was said to be "blindsided". The CSIRO move would seem to be at odds with Mr Turnbull's recent commitment to supporting innovation and research and development. 

Last December, he reinstated much of the A$110 million (S$109 million) in cuts to the agency's budget which were made by former prime minister Tony Abbott, considered a climate change sceptic.

In comments last week that drew angry denunciations from scientists, CSIRO head Larry Marshall claimed the agency needed to move away from examining whether the climate was changing because "that question has been answered".

"The next question now is what do we do about it?" he told The Sydney Morning Herald. "The people that were so brilliant at measuring and modelling (climate change), they might not be the right people to figure out how to adapt to it."

Dr Marshall is due to give testimony about the cuts at a much-anticipated parliamentary committee hearing today . 

Climate scientist Andy Pitman from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science at the University of New South Wales said the claim was "among the most ill-informed statements I have ever heard from a senior executive".

"(We need to look) not simply at global warming, but at how it will manifest in terms of heatwaves, wind, cyclones, drought, hail, floods. We need to know this at a level of detail that is useful to governments, businesses, urban planners, engineers, and individual people," Professor Pitman wrote on The Conversation website.

The cuts were also condemned in a letter, reportedly signed by more than 600 scientists worldwide, which said the changes will mean that "billions of dollars of public investment on long-term infrastructure will be based on guesswork rather than on strategic and informed science-driven policy".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2016, with the headline 'Australian science agency faces heat'. Print Edition | Subscribe