Larry Marshall and the marketing of CSIRO

The Trump administration is defunding climate science. Is that to be our model for CSIRO?

Larry Marshall speaking to an American Chamber of Commerce gathering in Sydney, 28 April 2016. PHOTO AmCham

Larry Marshall speaking to an American Chamber of Commerce gathering in Sydney, 28 April 2017. PHOTO AmCham

Most government cockups happen when politics interferes with good administration, resulting in stupid decisions. Conspiracy, which requires careful thought, is rarely present.

This, I think, explains much about the sacking of CSIRO climate scientists a year ago, ending the long and exceptional CSIRO career of John Church, recognised as a global leader in sea level science.

But it doesn’t explain all of it, and a couple of revelations last week indicate an agenda – call it a conspiracy if you like – that wants our principal science agency to focus on making a profit.

Internal CSIRO emails ahead of the sackings, posted on ABC Radio National’s website last week, revealed a top management keen to ensure that in the review of Australian emissions targets for the 2015 Paris climate meeting, Church and other scientists did not voice their expert views.

CSIRO declined to put in its own official submission – a clear failure to meet its obligations – but its management did finally agree that scientific staff who were members of the Australian Academy of Science could contribute to a submission by that body.

Guided by John Church and other non-CSIRO scientists, the Academy recommended an Australian 2030 emissions target of 30 to 40 per cent below 2000 levels – 50 to 100 per cent stronger than the target the government finally settled on.

The second revelation came in a letter by Tasmanian public health academic Kathryn Barnsley published in the Sunday Tasmanian on April 30, which drew attention to a speech by CSIRO chief executive Larry Marshall to the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) a few days earlier.

Barnsley’s main concerns were that AmCham was tarnished by its close association with the umbrella US Chamber of Commerce, well-known for its support of big tobacco and opposition to carbon emissions control, and that the head of CSIRO should have nothing to do with it.

I have another question. Why is Marshall, who is opening a new CSIRO office in the US, putting so much effort into spruiking CSIRO to US business while ignoring the far larger climate and environment issues confronting Australia and the world?

The drawn-out terminations of Church and other climate scientists, which got global attention in scientific and mainstream media a year ago, was an appalling misstep by both Marshall and the CSIRO board. Yet the Turnbull government behaved as if nothing had happened.

Months later, science minister Greg Hunt said that climate science would be a core activity of CSIRO, for which it would hire more researchers, and reached agreement with the board to pursue “pure public good science as a foundation stone for our national benefit”. But it was unconvincing.

Marshall and the CSIRO board clearly followed the dictum of successive governments that science must cost less, which has now come down to transforming what has been a world-leading science agency into a compliant, money-making tool of government.

Larry Marshall’s scientific credentials are overshadowed by his career as a US-based venture capitalist. The latter is what persuaded then-prime minister Tony Abbott, back in 2013, that Marshall was the man for the vacant top job at CSIRO.

Science is best able to attract patrons when it serves practical needs. Study of Earth’s physical and living systems is not obviously practical, while it also often brings bad news – not a good fit with business and politics. It’s the first to lose in funding wars.

Governments must be able to see beyond that. Science is first and foremost about knowledge, not money – something that Marshall, his board and the government have failed, or refused, to see.

The big, pressing questions that affect all of us, now and for the foreseeable future, need the best thinking our country can muster. Good science needs freedom to move, and that cannot happen when money is the determining factor in choosing which science is to be done.

In the United States we are seeing the systematic defunding of climate and environmental science because it doesn’t fit the Trump administration’s business model. Is that the model Marshall and his patrons have in mind for CSIRO?

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