Understanding Climate Risk

Science, policy and decision-making

Save CSIRO: the value of public good research

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Yesterday was hug a climate scientist day. Dear readers, you missed out if you didn’t get to one, because there were a whole bunch of climate scientists at the State Library of Victoria being very huggable. And other friends of CSIRO.


The Friends of CSIRO had a forum at the State Library of Victoria, moderated by Kate Auty. Senator Kim Carr spoke and announced that if elected, Labor would restore $250 million to the CSIRO budget, reversing the cuts currently underway. Adam Bandt science spokesperson from the Greens said they would would go further, investing slightly over $300 million, and boosting funds for R&D generally. Both were very welcome statements.

Penny Whetton, Honorary Fellow at CSIRO spoke of her 25-year personal involvement with climate science in CSIRO, constructing every edition of the projections (began by Dr Barrie Pittock) and leading the last two editions (the latest here). Of course, with the cuts, no more of these would be possible at this scale. Kelly Mackenzie from the Australian Youth Climate Coalition spoke about the desire of young people to be able to have a career on science and also to have a world where public good science had contributed to reducing problems like climate change. Sam Popovski of the CSIRO Staff Association spoke about their ongoing efforts to preserve jobs in CSIRO, where a massive 20% have disappeared since 2013. Their election campaign is here, and the Support CSIRO page where a lot of the information about the current proposed cuts of 300 more staff, mostly in public good research, can be found here.

Also from the floor, we had good comments from Senator Janet Rice of the Greens, Professor Barbara Norman and the good Greg Hunt (SE Councils Greenhouse Gas Alliance). My mum turned up, having driven three hours from up country.

I spoke on the need for public good science and what it is. Earlier that morning I had listened to the excellent Background Briefing The Inconvenient Scientists by Paddy Manning broadcast on ABC radio on May 27. Listen to it here:


The key piece from that broadcast is this, where the current Chief Executive, Larry Marshall details his understanding of CSIRO’s agenda and public good science:

The focus now would be on delivering the Prime Minister’s innovation and growth agenda, said Marshall. That meant funds once devoted to so-called ‘public good science’—such as monitoring and measuring climate change—would be directed elsewhere.

“The government policy, frankly, determines public good,” Marshall proposed to the meeting. “That’s their decision.”

“The danger of us deciding what is public good for ourselves; the risk is that we are biased. If I poll the organisation−and I did−each group fundamentally believes that what they do is public good, in the truest, purest sense of the word.”

This is wrong and on its own shows that Marshall does not understand what science is, or does, or what the public good is. The understanding of public good in the modern era goes back to Adam Smith, who in the Wealth of Nations in 1776, wrote:

The third and last duty of the sovereign is that of erecting and maintaining those public institutions and those public works, which, though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature, that the profit could never repay the expense to any individual or small number of individuals, and for which it cannot be expected that an individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain. (Dalrymple, 2003)

This is just as true today as it was then. Public good exists separately to the views of the Government of the day, although they can and will offer their own policy interpretations of it. For CSIRO to roll over and operate under this type of regime, where science and research becomes subservient to policy to the point where the government as customer comes before the CSIRO charter and the people that charter serves, is governance degraded to the point where CSIRO may as well shut up shop and give the game away. For the CSIRO Board to countenance this sort of claptrap from the CEO is untenable.

Kim Carr reminded the gathering of the CSIRO ACT:

  •   (1)  The functions of the Organisation are:
  •                      (a)  to carry out scientific research for any of the following purposes:
  •                               (i)  assisting Australian industry;
  •                              (ii)  furthering the interests of the Australian community;
  •                             (iii)  contributing to the achievement of Australian national objectives or the performance of the national and international responsibilities of the Commonwealth;
  •                             (iv)  any other purpose determined by the Minister;
  •                      (b)  to encourage or facilitate the application or utilization of the results of such research;
  •                    (ba)  to encourage or facilitate the application or utilisation of the results of any other scientific research;
  •                    (bb)  to carry out services, and make available facilities, in relation to science:

This makes it quite clear that there is a substantial public good component in 1a ii and 1a iii that is not subservient to 1a i or 1a iv. This is the sense of public good that is not just generated by scientific knowledge, but engages in its work consistent with the endowment that work provides to the public without any expectation of direct profit as a return on expense.

It is clear that Marshall and many of his colleagues in government either do not know what public good research is, or does, or don’t care. It is not clear to them what its role is in underpinning the economy by 1) reducing the risks from processes such as climate change and environmental degradation and 2) by increasing human welfare and environmental benefits in social-ecological systems dominated by human activity, such as cities and farmland. This is an issue that desperately needs a larger public profile.

My presentation on public good research is on Slideshare, linked below (slightly edited from yesterday’s presentation to add Marshall’s quote above)


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