Don’t like scientific discoveries? Stop science.

Wikipedia describes the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) as the federal government agency for scientific research in Australia. It has a proud tradition, not only of industrial research, but of science for the public good, and quality science for its own sake. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, the management of CSIRO plans to put a stop to that:

Australia’s national science organisation planned to stop “doing science for science sake” and would no longer do “public good” work unless it was linked to jobs and economic growth, according to internal emails between CSIRO senior managers.

The emails contradict claims that the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has remained committed to research that does not bring in revenue, and illustrate the scale of the restructure planned under new chief executive Larry Marshall.

Under Dr Marshall, CSIRO has shifted its focus to making money to pay for its work. The vision sees the iconic Australian science organisation as an “innovation catalyst”.

The emails confirm the century-old organisation was particularly focused on – in the words used in an exchange between managers in CSIRO’s oceans and atmosphere division – “eliminating all capability” of its climate change research programs.

Proposed changes include:

  • Abolishing research on global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Abolishing research on sea level rise.
  • Abolishing research in Antarctica.
  • Abolishing multi-year, multi-decadal climate modelling and analysis.
  • Reducing collection and analysis of ocean carbon levels, due to “insufficient demand”.
  • Reducing research into the management of the impact on biodiversity, due to reduced demand.

    The new Australian approach to their government “science” agency sounds like what, here in America, Republicans like Lamar Smith want to do to our National Science Foundation. When they don’t like what science discovers, make it stop! Except of course, that Lamar Smith also wants to accuse the scientists of fraud.

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  • 37 responses to “Don’t like scientific discoveries? Stop science.

    1. This is almost a “carbon copy” of what the conservatives in Canada did over a period of years. As well requiring industry partners on all research is part of the CSIRO changes. This may work in applied fields, but it is rather chilling in more pure fields or in fields in which the research results are at odds with the scientific findings (e.g., fisheries and water science in Canada).

      The nice thing is eventually the attacks on science got so bad it actually became a real issue in the campaign which defeated them recently. So much so that the very first action of the new government was to allow researchers to actually talk about their work in public again. Previously they had been not allowed to do so without clearance from the conservatives. In one egregious case a fisheries researcher was unable to address any comment about an artcle in Science that was actually the object of the cover picture.

    2. It sounds exactly like what Steven Harper’s Conservative government did in Canada. Put the inconvenient news out of sight and thus put it out of mind.
      Blew up in their face big time, though.

    3. As an Australian resident, I am deeply saddened by this turn of events. If this rather unfortunate development gathers international attention, then there might yet be a small chance.

      A short background for international readers. In 2012, a minorty government introduced an imperfect but generally functional carbon price. Opposition leader – later prime minister – Liberal* Tony Abbott launched a scare campaign on the issue, winning government in the 2013 general election.

      Tony Abbott never denied climate change whilst PM**, but implemented a number of measures that served to undermine Australia’s response to climate change including repealing the carbon price and attacking renewable energy.

      Tony Abbott was defeated in an internal leadership ballot (and thus succeeded as PM by) by Malcom Turnbull, who is no denier, but is very much beholden to the conservative wing of his party. As such, climate policy has barely altered, with no major prospect of changes.

      * The “Liberal Party” in Australia is actually the party of conservatives, more similar to the UK conservative party.

      ** Earlier comments, however, are instructive.

    4. I’ve posted the address of the document dump over at Sou’s Hot Wopper. Read and weep.

    5. The Marshall plan to turn Australian science into a slush fund for venture capitalists’ business products will, ironically, in the long run kill innovation in Australia… as well as sending the country to the bottom of the global ladder of scientific capacity from it’s previous high ranking.

      It’s corporate greed and ideological Machiavelianism gone mad, and the consequences for Australian society are profound.

    6. I am so upset I have put off reading the full Sydney Morning Herald article until tomorrow (it’s late in Sydney and I won’t sleep if I read it now). There has been more coverage of this travesty in the international press than in the Australian press. I feel gutted.

      • CSIRO management have walked it back some. They’re saying they won’t “progress” that list (entirely?).

    7. And what kind of person did Tony Abbott’s Liberal Party (a misnomer if there ever was one) pick to run CSIRO into the ground? This speaks for itself.

      Incoming Australia research chief touts water dowsing
      “The next CEO of Australia’s leading research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), is in hot water after suggesting the cash-strapped organization spend scarce research dollars investigating water divining, or dowsing.

      “I’ve seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy, and I’ve no idea how they do it,” Larry Marshall told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) in a recent radio interview. “When I see that, as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘Is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’ … I’ve always wondered whether there is something in the electromagnetic field, or gravitational anomaly,” continued Marshall, who takes up his position in January.”

      • “Is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?”

        Oh yes, Australia could just make a new instrument based on proton magnetic resonance, an already established technique…

        • I wouldn’t go *that* far (because that would mean I would not be able anymore to tease my colleagues :] – joke aside, there were quite spectacular results on ice sheets, but there are still problems on volcanic soils. Not mentioning all the batteries you have to bring with you)
          But it’s always quite … entertaining to see a water company rely more on dowsing than resistivity/EM/PMR methods developed for several decades. Even more when the dowsing “technique” indicates water flow levels far higher than what the geology allows :]

          CSIRO boss should, I do not know, talk with BGS. A folly, I admit.

    8. Dan Andrews

      As earlier commenters noted this is what our former conservative govt did under Harper. Blue Sky Research was limited to only research that could be brought to market in five years, which isn’t exactly what BSR was all about. I don’t need to mention to the crowd here how short-sighted this was e.g. The practical application of many things wasn’t realized till far longer than five years.

      As one leading newspaper editorial pointed out many of the inventions which our society relies upon would not have been funded under the Harper rules; and limiting science to that which can be marketed in five years is essentially using up your “seed corn” and not planting any seed for the next generation.

      One of my prouder moments is protesting against this and other science issues with a couple of friends and thousands of colleagues, and I can’t describe the thrill of seeing that govt go down in a resounding defeat…for the first time I ever I stayed glued to the computer to watch the votes come in.

    9. Colorado Bob

      This reminds me of the research into electromagnetic radiation. They had no reason to do it in a dollar and cents term, but radio came along and it paid off rather well.

    10. Part of every effort to make money is an evaluation of the risk. Any engineered structure (public infrastructure or industrial production facility requires a “basis of engineering”. Climate is very much a part of the basis of engineering, and climate change. It is a known risk to all all activities.

      ExxonMobil may have lied about climate change to the public, but they required their engineers to pay close attention to climate change when in design and when planning operations.

      Monitoring climate change is like national security and the most cost effective approach is to do it at the national and international level. Folks who actually make money know this. Prior to the first IPCC report, Steve Bechtel Jr. expected the weekly briefing book to include status on climate change. Even after the IPCC reports were issued we were expected to include and annotate IPCC work product. Steve knew how to make money.

      My mother was famous in her part of Kansas for being a good dowser. However, I was not brought up to believe in it. When I was working on a friend of the family’s farm one summer, it became very apparent that I had inherited the knack for dowsing. It was not something I could let rest.

      Some experimentation convinced me that it is a matter of a very stable gait, that allows one to detect subtle changes in grade that are not apparent to the eye. The change of grade causes an involuntary change in the way the hands are held, which is amplified by the dowsing rods. By pacing an area with dowsing rods, one can find old stream beds, and in particular, old buffalo wallows, even when they have been plowed for years and years. Old buffalo wallows often hold perched aquifers. Finding water with dowsing rods in region with shoulder high grass or clover does seem magical, and much of the plains did have shoulder high grass (seasonally) when the first settlers arrived.

      Anybody with a transit can find that change of grade once the land has been mowed, plowed, or grazed.

    11. Some sections of the worlds population are reversing into the Middle Ages

      Where ignorance is activity celebrated as a path to enlightenment!!

    12. CSIRO is a jewel of international science, statistics, and mathematics.

      Guess Australia really *does* want China to dominate in all fields.

      • Soon to be term will be: Was.

        Canadian science mostly survived–albeit with significant losses including whole libraries and observing stations–and is being reconstructed to some degree. It will be a long process. But there is at least some optimism Australia can turn around as well.

    13. Looks like the article no longer links to the e-mail from Andy Schiller. I found the link in my browser history and archived it. For future reference:

    14. A newspaper article will try and make a story by dropping context.

      Apparently the email in question was a possible scenario raised as part of brainstorming exercise rather than a recommendation or plan.

      Mind you the actual plan arrived at is bad enough and the fact that such a scenario is within range of consideration is pretty scary.

      • Sheridan Mayo

        The scenario was the preferred of 3 scenarios after the managers of the Ocean and Atmos diviision were directed by the CSIRO executive team to lose 110 people (65 more than originally planned) and that the extra 65 should largely come from climate science.

        The climate scientists used to earn external money for CSIRO by doing work for various govt agencies/initiatives on contract. Many such agencies and initiatives relating to climate were cut by Tony Abbott’s Govt so that the external funds dried up and the division were instructed to cut climate science as no longer had a clear future revenue stream.

        The fact that this expertise took decades to build up,that Australia will clearly need it into the future didn’t enter into the considerations. This made the front page of the Melbourne Age this morning so it is getting coverage and may well become an issue in the upcoming election (probably in July).

    15. So what precisely is a “brainstorming exercise” if unconnected with any planning ideas?

    16. Sheridan Mayo

    17. Michael Hauber

      As an armchair weather nut, I get the impression that the multi day and multi month forecasting modelling efforts in Australia are not as good as the international competitors. POAMMA and ACCESS don’t have the resources, and are not generating the results that EC and GFS are. To me it would make sense to cut funding in these areas if the funding can be spent better elsewhere, and if those affected are compassionately given the right support to transition into other career options. Which they probably aren’t, given that something said earlier which gave me the impression that the director thinks that because he can find a new job easily enough (as a manager with many skills easily transferable, and high people skills to make job seeking easier ) then the climate scientists should be able to as well (with many technical skills not easily transferable who do not always have high people skills to be good at job seeking).

      One area that CSIRO do world leading research in is ENSO. I haven’t been able to find out whether ENSO will be included or excluded in these cuts, and if the ENSO researchers in CSIRO are cut and cannot transfer and continue their world leading research with another institution this could be a real loss for climate science world as a whole.

    18. CSIRO invented wiFi, but not because they were trying to make money, it was part of their astronomy program.

      • This isn’t unique to Australia or even to conservatives. There have been several attempts to ensure that research serves some pre-defined social good, economic growth, etc. For some reason, politicians of any predilection seem unable to understand that if you fund scientists to learn about the world, the solutions to technical problems they come up with often have applications far beyond their point of conception.

    19. @ John Brooks

      I did not know that, thank you

      from wiki
      “The Australian radio-astronomer Dr John O’Sullivan with his colleagues Dr Terrence Percival AM, Mr Graham Daniels, Mr Diet Ostry, Mr John Deane[4] developed a key patent used in Wi-Fi as a by-product of a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) research project, “a failed experiment to detect exploding mini black holes the size of an atomic particle”.[5] In 1992 and 1996, CSIRO obtained patents[6] for a method later used in Wi-Fi to “unsmear” the signal.[7]

    20. As far as I can figure it, it’s industry’s job to do research with immediate potential for profitable applications. The whole point of having government fund more basic research is that it’s known, historically, to pay off in broad ways, but no one looking to make a dollar today will make the investment, since the results aren’t anticipatable or directly applicable to currently profitable activities. And sometimes it pays off in ways that never make a direct profit– it can warn us of risks and hazards that can’t be turned into profit centres, but can justify important changes in government policy… There’s something worth paying taxes for!

    21. Chris O'Neill

      Proposed changes include:

      Abolishing research on global greenhouse gas emissions.
      Abolishing research on sea level rise.

      i.e. abolishing measurements of global warming causes and effects resulting in us not knowing official measurements of the issue. Clearly the plan is to be able to say “What global warming effects? We don’t know any.”

    22. Chris O'Neill

      It’s lucky that surface thermometers are run by the Bureau of Meteorology, otherwise we’d lose them too.

    23. Mulga Mumblebrain

      Why do we allow these monsters to actively drive us all to extinction?

    24. Focusing on short term obviously means that the system is easier to politicize. An example is the Texas “Emerging Technology Fund”, which Gov. Rick Perry used to reward individuals that made political contributions.

      Plenty of companies and organizations can commercialize basic research; essentially no private firm provides it.

    25. First, they reduced recurrent funding in laboratories to fund call for projects, because, you know, projects are good – of course.
      Then they slashed gradually call for projects in non-applied science because, you know, tax payers are demanding “concrete” results for the money spent.
      Now they are currently forcing laboratories to pair with private companies to “bolster” R&D because, you know, private companies are more agile/know better/TINA.
      In the meantime, private companies get massive tax cuts over “R&D”, leading to massive fraud. Money in R&D tax cuts is more than 6 times the amount in public call for research projects. The success rate fell below 10% – you have to write more than 10 projects if you want to get one.

      This happens right now in France. And, unfortunately, fellow colleagues from other countries could have sworn it happens in their own country …