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Select Committee into the Scrutiny of Government Budget Measures

CHURCH, Dr John Alexander, Private capacity

MATEAR, Dr Richard James, Private capacity


CHAIR: I now welcome Dr John Church and Dr Richard Matear. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses in giving evidence to Senate committees has been provided to you. Do you have any comments on the capacity in which you appear?

Dr Church : I am a CSIRO fellow, but I am appearing here in my personal capacity.

Dr Matear : I am a senior scientist at CSIRO, but I am appearing in my personal capacity.

CHAIR: I now invite you to make short opening statements, and, at the conclusion of your remarks, I will invite members of the committee to ask questions.

Dr Church : I want to go directly to a number of the questions that members have asked previous witnesses and, hopefully, provide some quick answers. The world and Australia have agreed that climate change is a major issue, a pressing issue, that each nation must respond to in both mitigation and adaptation. Successful and cost-effective mitigation and adaptation require ongoing and, indeed, strengthened climate science. This is specifically recognised in the Paris agreement, in their call for strengthening scientific knowledge on climate. The Paris agreement also recognises that developed nations have a role in assisting developing nations by providing advice on climate science. If there is a need, what are the issues that are critical to climate science, critical to the world and critical to Australia?

Firstly, it is understanding how Australia's climate and that of our neighbours will change in the future. How might Australia's drought-flood cycle change? What will happen to the Murray Darling basin area? What will it mean for food and water supply in Australia? What about our coastal development? What about implications for infrastructure and our iconic sandy beaches, and what are the impacts on the insurance industry? As recognised about a week ago in Australia's defence white paper, what are the defence and security implications?

Secondly, are there important critical thresholds that will have long-lasting impacts well after this century? What about severe damage to the Great Barrier Reef, for example, and—my own area—sea level rise? Are we going to see multimeter sea level rise through collapse of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets? What about other ecosystems?

Thirdly, Australia is severely impacted by extreme events—cyclones, storm surges, heatwaves, droughts and floods. How will these extreme events change? What would it mean for things like bushfires, human health, food and water supply, coastal infrastructure and our sandy beaches?

You have asked several times about attribution. We know anthropogenic activities are changing the world's climate. That does not mean attribution is done. Attribution requires continued tracking and identification of the causes of ongoing change. We have just had a decade of a slower rate of warming. If we are to meet the targets set in Paris, we cannot afford to relax during this period in the mistaken belief that maybe climate change is not happening or is not having as big an effect. We need to continue to attribute and continue to track climate.

What are the appropriate adaptation pathways? How do we reduce vulnerability? How do we minimise costs and maximise opportunities? What might we need to do on greenhouse gas extraction from the atmosphere or other geo-engineering effects if our mitigation attempts fall short? The idea that climate science is done and that we can dispense with it as we move on to mitigation and adaptation is incorrect, naive and misleading. Rather, agreement reached in Paris has indicated climate science is more important than ever and it is critical to cost-effective mitigation and adaptation. The proposed cuts in CSIRO would break commitments made in Paris just last December, only a few months ago.

Under the Science and Industry Research Act 1949, CSIRO is charged with doing research to assist Australian industry but also to contribute to the achievement of national objectives or the performance of national and international responsibilities. These functions, and also the CSIRO science strategy, clearly include research on major issues facing Australia, such as climate change, and other public-good research. Indeed, taxpayer support for CSIRO is built on its ability to independently address major issues facing Australian communities and to undertake public-good research. I and my colleagues welcome a stronger focus on climate mitigation and sincerely hope that CSIRO increases investment in that area.

We also welcome an increased focus on adaptation to that part of climate change that we will not be able to avoid. However, both of these foci require continued climate science research. The proposed cuts in Oceans and Atmosphere and also in Land and Water will result in the loss of key elements of research that underpin both mitigation and adaptation. Australia, as the leading nation in the Southern Hemisphere and as part of the international community, must continue to observe the climate system, improve understanding and models of the climate system, and project future climate change and assess its implications for Australia and our neighbours. All of these components are synergistic. You cannot extract one of those components without damaging other components. The proposed cuts would directly undercut these efforts and would detrimentally impact adaptation to climate change in Australia and our neighbours.

However, we cannot continue all elements of CSIRO research under the cuts proposed, so it is unclear to me how we can maintain all the contracts. If the current round of cuts to climate science in Oceans and Atmosphere and related work in Land and Water proceed, meeting Australia's climate science needs will require appropriate transfer of capability, additional capacity and some alternative structural arrangements. This would need to be done with care and would require considerable consultation with partner organisations and the broad science community.

CHAIR: Thank you, Dr Church. Dr Matear?

Dr Matear : I echo the sentiments John has already articulated. I would like to use this as an opportunity to talk a bit about the science that has been done by Oceans and Atmosphere, and in particular I would like to broaden the discussion a little bit. We have this fixation on climate science, but climate science feeds into a lot of other science being done with Oceans and Atmosphere. I would like to use this as an opportunity to talk about just three examples of how I think the climate science is feeding into this area of work.

Example 1 is carbon. As John articulated, we have a carbon problem: it is the fact that CO2 levels are rising dramatically in the atmosphere and we are reacting to that. The commitment we made at COP21 was to dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions. That is a commitment the existing government has made, and if you look at the expertise in Australia in the carbon space it resides in CSIRO. We are the experts in modelling land and ocean carbon. We are the experts in observing ocean and atmosphere carbon. This expertise will be really vital for us to go forward and meet our objective from COP21. We have the skills to look at different pathways for how to reduce our CO2 emissions, a challenging task given the fact that we wish to reduce our emissions, grow our economy, increase our agricultural production, use land more effectively for carbon storage and do all that in a world where we have limited water resources and a changing energy requirement. That is a huge challenge. The expertise that CSIRO possesses will be fundamental for tackling that problem. On the observational side, observing the carbon content in the atmosphere will be fundamental for assessing how we are doing, for verifying how other countries are going at their commitments. Observing the ocean carbon and the atmospheric carbon will be a fundamental part of that story.

The second issue I would like to talk about is climate variability. We know Australia is a land of extreme climate variability, a land of extreme weather. It is not like the work we are doing in the climate change space is not relevant to that. The work we have done in climate modelling underpins our effort to pursue climate variability. We have made some fantastic advances in the last few years, looking at what drives the climate system. That will eventually underpin a climate prediction system—a system that will give us the capacity to deliver multiyear predictions of the climate system from which to plan our economy, plan our infrastructure investment. I think that will be fundamental to us becoming more resilient to climate change. I have focused a bit on the modelling in that space but the observations as well are fundamental to that. We have heard little bit of talk about Argo and its importance for monitoring the ocean, but that same system is fundamental if you are going to pursue this idea of multiyear climate predictions. It is not one or the other, it is both—we are reusing the same technology, the same expertise, the same observations to tackle a separate question.

The third matter I would like to emphasise is ocean modelling—ocean modelling, ocean forecasting, ocean reanalysis. All those products that we are delivering for operational oceanography, for using the marine environment more effectively, are again based on work that originally came from the climate space. The ocean models we use are the same models we use in the climate systems.

CHAIR: Assistance in search and rescue and those kinds of things?

Dr Matear : Yes, and the observations, again, are the same observations I have been talking about in the climate variability space, and this ocean information, this oceans intelligence we are delivering, will be fundamental to the Navy. We have had support from the Navy through a joint collaboration between the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO to develop this ocean forecasting and reanalysis and ocean data streams, and I think that work is fundamental to our ability to really exploit marine industries.

In conclusion, I look at the work we are doing as providing an insurance policy for Australia. We have a huge economy, a trillion-dollar economy, with multitrillion dollars worth of infrastructure, and to think that we cannot invest a little bit into the fundamental research that will help maintain and support that effort and make us a more resilient and more productive nation is ridiculous. I was motivated to speak today mostly because when I joined the CSIRO 20 years ago I was attracted here because I looked at the great work that was being done and the breadth of the research that we did. I feel like this latest switch is really pushing us down this commercialisation route, and this commercialisation of CSIRO might be good for CSIRO but I would like us to step back and think of what it means for the nation. Is it in the long-term interests of Australia to get out of public good science? I think not, and that is why I am speaking here.

CHAIR: Your passion is very obvious and everything you say makes total sense to me. Why do you think it is that the new CEO, Dr Marshall, does not seem to understand what you have just said—or do you think he understands but perhaps does not put the importance on it? With special emphasis on that short-term commerciality, do you think he understands the long-term economic implications of sea level rise and the kinds of things you have been talking about in terms of carbon?

Dr Matear : The way the cuts have evolved suggests to me there is a very poor understanding of the science we do—that we are fixated on climate change science when actually it is much broader than that. We have heard many times today this broad statement about dramatic reduction in the workforce in this space but no-one knows what it means.

CHAIR: We are internationally renowned for this and yet the CEO does not seem to understand it. I do not get that—or he understands it and wilfully ignores it. It is one or the other.

Dr Church : His comments are that we have detected climate change. That is a gross misrepresentation of the climate science that is done in the group that I am a part of. It is much broader than that. I personally think we should do more attribution in the formal sense of climate science. Detection is only the very first step in that. I think there is a lack of recognition of the breadth of climate science and also its importance for Australia. But I can only judge, I can only guess, why this change has been made. Certainly the pressure that is on us as scientists is: what are your external earnings?

CHAIR: What process did you go through when they asked you to project those earnings? Was it possible to put forward these compelling arguments for the economic and the risk management, and the kinds of things we associate with the work you do? Did you go through a process where you had to justify potential short-term commercial returns?

Dr Church : We did have to estimate what our future earnings were. What was particularly important in that were signed contracts.

CHAIR: With private industry or—

Dr Church : Private industry or, I think, governments also were counted. I am not particularly close to that. The climate change program has a proud history of 25 years of funding through the Australian Climate Change Science Program, which comes to an end on 30 June this year. That has been replaced by the much smaller NESP. Effectively, at this time we were in a weak position in terms of external earnings.

Dr Matear : I might add a little to that. I feel like we are in a lull in our funding. We have had quite a big reduction in funding for climate research and that has really exposed us. I want to be a bit more specific and say that even our contract with the Royal Navy is at a low stage at the moment. Maybe that will change now that the defence white paper has come out. So we are vulnerable and I think that has transpired into a dramatic change in the work that we do.

The second thing I would like to emphasise is that I also agree that this concept that we just do climate research is misleading. We are transitioning to mitigation and adaptation. Everything we talked about really has an impact on society or industry, and we are thinking about those things already. It is not like we are fixated on the climate problem and the climate projection of the future. We are trying to translate our research into big impacts. Maybe we have not been successful in getting the funding we require, but it is maybe a short-term transition that we going through.

Senator SINGH: Thank you, Dr Church, for speaking out as you have since this announcement was made. Dr Matear, you said you have worked at the CSIRO for 20 years. Dr Church, I think you started at the CSIRO in 1978. Between the two of you that is quite a number of decades of expertise in science. Dr Church, you are regarded as one of the world's leading scientists in oceanography and the effects of climate change on our oceans. How do you see the future for your jobs? Do you see that you will continue to be working at the CSIRO if these cuts go forward?

Dr Church : I have two responses. Firstly, I think the big issue here is that climate science is really important for Australia and Australia's future. That is my primary concern here. We need to continue that climate science independent of me. Personally, I do not expect to be working in this organisation in more than a few months.

Dr Matear : I echo John's concern. I am here because I am passionate about the science we do. I think it is important to this nation. Where I am going to be in the future, I do not know. This sends a terrible message to all environmental science in the CSIRO—period. It is a toxic environment at the moment. We are questioning our future and questioning our value. It is really demoralising.

CHAIR: Dr Church, when you said only a few more months, can you elaborate on that?

Dr Church : I expect to be one of those people who will be made redundant. I do not know that but that is my expectation.

Senator SINGH: There has been an incredible groundswell of international outrage to the CSIRO announcement, particularly in the open letter, with a number of international scientists signing on. I think that has made the Australian community at large aware of how much collaboration and partnering goes on with the CSIRO. Are you able to share with the committee information on some of those current partners around the world and in Australia that you, the CSIRO, do important climate research work with?

Dr Matear : We partner with so many people it is hard to know where to begin, to be honest—whether it is the US, UK or every university in Australia. I have supervised students from half a dozen different universities. If we focus on this region, my team and I have had incredible collaboration going on with many different scientists at UTAS. AAD has as well. It really is an important ecosystem of collaboration. To take a big chunk away will have a huge impact on the work we do. It will have a huge impact on our reputation. It will have a huge impact on the ability to track people to Tasmania for this work.

Dr Church : Our collaboration is very widespread. Our leadership on international programs is very widespread. I myself am a former leader and chairman of the Joint Scientific Committee for the World Climate Research Program, which organises climate research internationally. Many of my colleagues are now leaders of various groups within the World Climate Research Program.

You have heard about the Argo program. That is only one element of our observational program. That is for repeat ship observations. We do not have the expertise to do all the analysis of things like freons on those ships. We collaborate with people from overseas. They bring Northern Hemisphere resources to the Southern Hemisphere to complement us. We are key in initiating those collaborations, but much of the resources actually come from the Northern Hemisphere. For example, we are members of NASA and ESA satellite missions. Australia does not have those satellites, but by collaborating we are bringing effective resources to address issues that are so critical to the Australian climate.

On the modelling side, Australia's model is built with significant contributions from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in the USA, the Hadley centre in the US and our French collaborators. These collaborations are extensive.

Senator SINGH: Based on this devastating move by the CSIRO, where do you see the CSIRO's role as a public-good science organisation into the future?

Dr Church : I have major concerns for CSIRO's role in public-good research. It is clear to me that it is on the agenda and even in the CSIRO's strategy, but with the cuts both to the Oceans and Atmosphere division and the Land and Water division—some of the adaptation work that they do is key to responding—I have grave doubts about the future of public-good research in CSIRO with the current funding arrangements. I really think we have got to the stage where at least for climate research we need a new model to carry us into the future.

Dr Matear : I agree. I think public-good research in CSIRO at the moment looks like a non-viable way forward. It is climate this time around. It does not make you feel confident that CSIRO will be in this space.

Senator McKIM: I have a follow-up question on that. Do either of you want to offer any thoughts around what a model for public-good science in this country might look like? You only have a few seconds to do so, I am sorry. But, in general terms, I just offer you the opportunity to—

Dr Church : We have heard this morning about the significant partnerships. We need to maintain those partnerships. The Bureau of Meteorology is a key partner here. The UK actually offers us a model that I think would be very valuable for us to look at, and that is the Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services, which is sponsored by the UK Met Office. I think there could be something similar to the Hadley centre, very closely linked to the Bureau of Meteorology but also with links to ACE CRC, the various universities around Australia, the Antarctic Division, Geoscience Australia et cetera. So I think we need to move to a new model where the delivery of climate services to the nation is one of the prime roles of that organisation.

Senator McKIM: I will throw that to you, Dr Matear.

Dr Matear : I go back the other way. I say: look at the CSIRO charter. It is not as if this work is not in there. I came to this country because I looked at what CSIRO did and I was excited. I have stayed in this country because I think the breadth of CSIRO's scientists is fantastic. It allows us to tackle the problems we just raised today. The fact that we can go from energy to water resources to land use to climate to oceans all within one organisation makes CSIRO really unique in the world, and that is really attractive to me. We do have a mandate to do this work. We have kind of twisted it, but it is not as if it could not be done in here. So I cannot comment on what the best model is, but I just feel that I have come here because of the breadth of CSIRO, and I think it would be a tragedy if we do not exploit that capability.

Senator McKIM: Thank you both for that. You have both given evidence, basically, that you do not know what your employment futures are at the moment, and that is terribly sad to hear, but obviously there are far more people than just you guys in that situation. I know for a fact, because I know the people involved, that there are people already applying for other jobs around the world. Are you aware of this? Can you confirm that? Can you give the committee any information about the quantum of people—your colleagues—that, because of the uncertainty, are now looking at alternative employment arrangements and different institutions around the world?

Dr Church : I know of a number of colleagues who are applying internationally. I cannot put numbers on it; I am sorry. I have been here a long time in this organisation. I recruited many of the people, in fact, that we have heard from today and that we have heard of today—the Steve Rintouls of the world. Our reputation is now trashed internationally. We could not attract those people again at this time. It would require a very significant new investment to convince leading international people to come to Australia.

Another example is that not only are we losing people who are applying for jobs overseas but international students are not coming here. We had a Chinese student lined up to come in a couple of months time. Since this announcement, that student has decided they will not come to Australia, to Hobart; they will instead go to the USA. That is an example, and we are still in the very early stages of this.

Senator McKIM: It is just devastating evidence, Dr Church. Dr Matear?

Dr Matear : I would say most of the scientists I have spoken to are looking in some way or another. I would echo John's comment: we had visitors coming to CSIRO, and they have decided not to come because of some of these decisions that have emerged. In fairness, we almost say, 'Well, now's not the time to come; we might not be here in three months when you show up.'

Senator McKIM: So what you are basically both saying, as I understand it, is that to a large degree the damage has already been done, or a great deal of the damage has already been done. Obviously there are some more things to be worked through. So I understand your evidence, Dr Matear, I think you said a large number of your colleagues. Are you specifically confining that to the oceans and atmospheric section?

Dr Matear : Yes.

Senator McKIM: So you are saying that a large number of the scientists and researchers involved in that section are looking for other employment opportunities right now?

Dr Matear : I am not saying they would not stay, but I think it is very natural. When you are told that 80 per cent of the staff in the two programs that are identified are going to be cut, of course you start to think, 'What is my future?'

Senator CAROL BROWN: The process that has been undertaken by Dr Marshall does not appear to be the best way to deal with a so-called restructure. What is the conversation happening in CSIRO about the way Dr Marshall has made this announcement and subsequent information, or lack of information, that has been coming through from Dr Marshall?

Dr Matear : I think you have to question the leadership of the organisation: do they really understand what we are doing? It is just a really crazy way to run a scientific organisation. I just feel like they must not understand how we do our research. We are in a complicated environment and I understand that it is tricky to figure out how to implement change, but it has not been handled in a very positive or a very helpful way and it has just created a lot of uncertainty.

Dr Church : People are dismayed. They are dismayed at the clear lack of understanding of what is at risk here—what the implications of those decisions are. They are dismayed at the lack of consultation. Our program leaders I do not think are meant to talk to us about what is happening. There is lack of understanding from our chief of what is implied.

Senator CAROL BROWN: So when you say that your program managers are not to talk to you about what is happening—

Dr Church : They are supposed not to be consulting with us on ways forward. So we have heard some information from our program leader, but it is very limited.

Senator CAROL BROWN: And that is based on a decision from Dr Marshall and the board?

Dr Church : Where those decisions emanate from I do not know.

Senator CAROL BROWN: What I can see is that a number of questions were put out there—whether from CSIRO employees or the international scientific community and governments—and there does not seem to be any adequate response coming back from Dr Marshall. Is that what you are seeing? There are a number of questions in terms of transitioning projects and programs to other institutions—that was just thrown out there from Dr Marshall. But there does not seem to be any real ability to question those statements.

Dr Matear : I feel like you have as much information as us, in some ways. We have been presented with this big cut. We are now being told, 'We're still trying to work our way through what that actually means,' and we are already a month and a bit into that process, and I still feel like we do not know any more than we knew, for example, on the day it was announced, other than that they are reassessing how they are going to implement it—one month into it.

Dr Church : One of the issues that concerns me is that, whenever CSIRO is questioned on particular aspects—Argo and Cape Grim are two of the prime examples—'Yes, they will continue.' We cannot continue all of the programs with half, or maybe even less than a half, of the people. As to Cape Grim, I am told the funding going into Cape Grim, even this year, is down by a factor of four from what it was in previous years. And that is not even speaking about next year. So maybe you can keep some sort of program limping along, but, as to achieving world leadership, maintaining the standards and continuing to develop into the future—as Cape Grim has had a reputation for, over many, many years—I still have grave concerns.

Senator CAROL BROWN: From some of the evidence that we have heard, as to the commitments to contracts and to projects, really there is no information being provided or any ironclad assurances coming from CSIRO that that is the case—it has all been very general information, and that is quite concerning.

Dr Matear : I think we are back to the complexity. I just feel like our leadership did not realise the complexity of our research in this space. So, instead of actually exploring a little bit what it means to reduce staff and reduce effort, we have kind of had the big statement, and now we go, 'Oh my goodness—to actually get there, there are a lot of things we need to consider.' So it has kind of been done backwards.

CHAIR: And you wonder why they made that big statement, don't you, without consultation and thinking this through.

This is my last question, and feel free to answer it or not answer it. Not too long ago, the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, was in Hobart. My understanding is that there was a sense of optimism that he would have a commitment to climate science and the Antarctic and the Southern Ocean work that happens here out of Hobart in the Antarctic Gateway Partnership. Do you have any message for the Prime Minister? Here is your chance!

Dr Church : There is a clear need for Australia, for climate science. It is critical to our mitigation pathway, it is critical to our adaptation pathway and it is critical for Australian society broadly.

Dr Matear : I agree. He signed that agreement for COP21. He has committed us to dramatically reduce CO2emissions in the next several decades. He has committed us to the transition to a carbon-free world and we are going to do that under this variable climate with lots of things changing. So why would we not want to have some of this information? This climate intelligence would be really valuable for us to transition this economy to a new world.

Dr Church : We are part of an international world and part of an international community. We need to play our role in that community and bring the world's expertise to help address Australia's problems. We cannot do that if we do not play our part.

Senator SINGH: Dr Matear, you said that the environment at the CSIRO is toxic at the moment. Can you describe what that means? What is going on? Is there some kind of—

Dr Matear : It is like we are in an information vacuum.

Senator SINGH: big brother approach going on in relation to senior management? What does it mean that it is toxic?

Dr Matear : I feel like we are in an information vacuum. We have this separation of our key science program leaders from the rest of the staff. There is almost no interaction going on. People are extremely tense. People are looking around for new jobs and wondering what is going to happen to them. It has been going on for over a month now. It is a really stressful environment. People who have opportunities to look outside, to look for new jobs, are doing that. Other people cannot do that and they are much more resigned to 'just gotta go with the flow' and make the best of the situation. But it is amazing how it has caused upheaval in the whole organisation. It is pretty hard to be motivated about working when—

Senator SINGH: Are people being monitored?

Dr Matear : I cannot comment. I do not know.

CHAIR: No doubt that stress would feed through hundreds of families in the Hobart community who have chosen to make Tasmania their home. It is really quite devastating evidence. Thank you very much for your bravery in coming to present to the committee today. It is most appreciated.