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CSIRO: Thinking About Climate and Society

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 8:30 PM GMT on February 28, 2016

CSIRO: Thinking About Climate and Society

My last blog was about the layoffs of climate scientists at CSIRO. CSIRO is the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization and is Australia’s national science agency. The public view of those layoffs appeared to be politically motivated. The rationale for the layoffs was posed as a need to change mission and, perhaps, change the culture of an entrenched organization of scientists. The premise of my analysis was that from a perspective of scientist and science-manager with some science-policy credentials, a layoff-driven approach did not appear to the outsider as, say, well-posed.

There have been a number or articles written about in that last couple of weeks about the CSIRO layoffs. Three articles written by Australians have appeared in The Conversation:

CSIRO Boss’s Failed Logic Over Climate Science Could Waste Billions in Taxes

CSIRO Cuts to Climate Science Are Against the Public Good

CSIRO Cuts: Climate Science Really Does Need to Shift its Focus Towards Adaptation

Good points are made in all of these articles, but I want to focus on the last article in the list. This article is written by Peter Tangney, a lecturer in science policy & communication, Flinders University. The basic premise of Tangney’s article is that scientists often do not understand what policymakers need from climate scientists and climate models. Therefore, the needs of policymakers must be more effectively integrated into climate-model products. This conclusion is, in fact, one I not only agree with, but one that I work to achieve. Developing this sort of use-driven modeling culture does, indeed, expose resistance by climate scientists for many reasons: scientific, philosophical, and emotional. It does not, however, lead to the conclusion that climate scientists should be laid off. (Tangney does not explicitly support the CSIRO layoffs, only states that scientists need to know how to play the policy game, another point for which I have great empathy.)

I have had some back and forth with Australian colleagues, and there is a relevant article in the New York times. A theme that emerges is the need for commerce, the need for products with profit. Let’s go back to what I take as CSIRO’s mission as Australia’s national science agency.

“At the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), we shape the future. We do this by using science to solve real issues. Our research makes a difference to people, industry and the planet.”

The words, “real” and “industry,” in this statement open up all sorts of complications for science and scientists. There has been over the last two decades, perhaps longer, a push that science and scientists should be profitable. In the same vein, there have been pushes that scientific research and scientific organizations should run more like businesses. I can find some merit in these ideas. I even did an analysis in my later years at NASA for some sort of review panel. In that analysis, I noted that products for profit were different than products for knowledge. Further, I noted that the value of knowledge products was not, in fact, measured by its ability to generate profit. That is, a ready buyer was neither a sufficient nor necessary metric of research value.

As, perhaps, a corollary to this conclusion about the profitability of science, I also noted, in the U.S., that there is a strong philosophical and political dogma anchored around free markets and profit as the metric of value. This provides a viable tactic to attack science and scientists, especially, if the results of research were viewed as a threat to profits and market-based solutions. I was thrilled in that book-thumping sort of way to read a David Brooks opinion piece in 2004 that our country was in a polarized state because of battles between two classes of educated elites – the aristocracy of ideas and the aristocracy of money. This is one of those abstract observations that has served me well for years. (I was shocked that this was written 12 years ago.)

Going back to CSIRO, the Chief Executive, Dr. Larry Marshall, is listed, first, as a venture capitalist. He does have interest in renewable energy. I have no meaningful way to interpret,further, whether or not the CSIRO layoffs are politically motivated or based on some sort of value-driven foundation of bringing rightful change. The approach is, clearly, polarizing, and there is an element of an ideology that has been around for many years. That is a science-as-business ideology, which in government organizations is, often, destructive to science and, ultimately, increases societal risk.

That said, I want to bring this back to the U.S. There is in the U.S. an increasing demand that state universities and government research bring more direct tangible value – that is, profits and jobs. For example, a New Yorker article discussed the marketization, commodification, and politicization at the University of North Carolina. Buzzwords emerge in the document about the need to keep universities from indoctrinating students as liberals or conservatives, and to guide students towards skills that are demanded by the market. There is the suggestion that education at universities is becoming shallow and trendy. At Carolina, the market-based, political review led to closing down centers on the environment, voter engagement, and poverty.

There is undoubtedly an ideological anti-climate science agenda being carried out in the U.S. and Australia. The use of profit and jobs as a value metric is a powerful tactic in the execution of this agenda. It is powerful, because, the argument can be made that it has merit. But merit, does not mean that the far-reaching, less tangible value of science to society should be dismissed. It does, however, add emphasis to Tangney’s conclusions above, scientists must know they are playing in an ideology-driven political environment – one where knowledge is often viewed as the enemy to success.


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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.