Overlooked in the furor around CSIRO’s cuts to its climate science capability is that in June, many other Australian climate change researchers will walk away from their work, with little prospect of returning.
They will be the short-term contract casualties of the same funding drought that is affecting CSIRO. Once researchers have walked - into other contracts, or to a more supportive research environment overseas - the assessment of scientists who spoke to Fairfax is that damage to the country’s climate change research capability will be deep, and difficult to repair within a favourable political cycle. If it can be repaired at all.
Experienced scientists at the interface of climate change and agricultural research spoke to Fairfax on a condition on anonymity.
They pointed out that all climate science in Australia is collaborative. No person, or even research group, can pull together all the knowledge needed to address the interlocked questions raised by climate change.
That makes Australia’s climate research capability something of a house of cards. CSIRO holds many cards at the bottom of the stack.
Collapsing capability in CSIRO will affect other research efforts. One of the non-CSIRO researchers contacted by Fairfax is waiting on results from analysis being done within CSIRO, but which she has just been told may now never arrive.
Loss of capability in CSIRO is just part of the story. Funds for climate change research dried up under the Coalition government, so that in June, with the expiry of short-term research contracts awarded under Labor, there will be another mass movement away from climate science by “soft money” researchers in DPIs and universities.
The only remaining source of funds is the rural research and development corporations. But one senior scientist acknowledged the improbability of landholders wanting to fund research into methane-producing rumen microbes, when the same money might be spent on improved pastures.
(However, work on agricultural adaptation is insulated, to some degree, by being largely funded by the RDCs and not government).
The toll being exacted on climate change research by short-term political whim won’t easily be repaired. Any successive government that decides to rally climate science capability will have to lure back experience from overseas, wait for those on short-term contracts to be available again, or train it from scratch - if the trainers can be found.
What will be lost? No-one, least of all government, seems to have done the sums.
If we lose our growing capacity to understand ocean-atmosphere physics in the Southern Hemisphere, one scientist commented, then who else in the hemisphere picks up the task on our behalf?
Others raised different questions. Who else is interested in developing Australia-specific feedstuffs to support higher productivity growth in cattle and sheep, while lowering methane emissions?
Who else wants to refine the predictive capability of climate models so that they can project future climates in, say, the Wimmera, instead of a broad-brush prediction for all of Victoria?
Australia has already tasted the truth of the forecast that it will be one of the countries worst affected by the increased weather variability under climate change.
Those overseeing the funding that will shape our capacity to deal with shifting climate patterns say that our science capability is in good shape.
Those actually doing the science have said, at volume, that it is not in good shape.
The truth of the matter will be decided in an uncertain future.
Who owns CSIRO?
Professor Snow Barlow, the retired University of Melbourne agricultural scientist and viticulturist, argues that the national investment in CSIRO demands a public-good return.
“CSIRO is a national research organisation that taxpayers pour about a billion dollars into each year,” said Prof. Barlow.
“It’s our money; we’ve got a right to expect that some fundamental knowledge about the country we live in to come back to us. It doesn’t matter whether we can sell that or not.”
“If we develop modelling of climate change at the fine scales that are helpful to farmers - well clearly, that’s not going to be saleable. It’s our land, our farmers. CSIRO is not some Silicon Valley venture capital operation.”
Good climate science cuts two ways in agriculture. It minimises losses in bad years, perhaps by helping farmers to decide not to make an up-front investment in a crop that may not yield. And it can help them maximise their investment in good years.
It can also influence larger agribusiness decisions. Prof. Barlow was involved in Brown Brothers decision, after reviewing climate change forecasts for southern Australia, to develop vineyards in Tasmania. Another large agribusiness is currently involved in a similar review, Prof. Barlow said.