The other Marshall Plan
Part of the debate about CSIRO funding and priorities, and public good research (PGR), is what public good research means. This confusion in part comes from different world views, but it also has specific economic and less specific philosophical meanings that need to be teased out and understood. Otherwise PGR will be a political football, subject to the politics of the day.
In Australia, we’ve already seen that happen in a number of areas of public good, such as climate change, the arts and the humanities, to name a few. Because they are not directly injecting cash into the economy (or are perceived slow down other areas of income generation), these areas are held to be uneconomic and a burden to the public purse.
In a meeting with CSIRO staff earlier this year, secretly taped and played on ABC radio’s Background Briefing The Inconvenient Scientists by Paddy Manning broadcast on May 27, the Chief Executive Officer of CSIRO, Dr Larry Marshall, said this:
“It’s a fundamental shift away from curiosity-led research, towards impact”
“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.
Firstly, Marshall did not “poll” the organisation, although he visited many Divisions (though not the climate folk). In late 2015, CSIRO held a so-called “deep dive” process where each of the business units (BUs; many years ago they were known as Research Divisions) were asked to provide rejigged business plans for cuts larger than they were anticipating. The BUs (Divisions) have been through many of these previously and also through science reviews, so budget time is always a fight to get the two to fit together.
The “deep dive” can be understood through the riding instructions given to BU executives and research leaders. These are taken from a set of emails (pdf download) delivered via FOI request:
- Deep Dives are about redistribution of approp(riation) dollars across BUs;
- focus: maximise impact on nation;
- science: not doing science for science sake, Nature papers alone don’t cut it…;
- public good is not enough, needs to be linked to jobs and growth but science that leads to SLO (sustainable long-term outcomes) is ok;
- ET (executive team) needs “investible propositions/growth cases”.
In the meeting to staff, Marshall said (in response to cuts being perceived as coming from head office), he wasn’t cutting but the customer was cutting, and to get real about the customer. He also referred to the understanding of climate change – that because it had reached a tipping point in understanding that there was a problem, there was a need to focus on solutions. Marshall has also said elsewhere that he is implementing a cultural change to CSIRO that brings a larger focus onto the customer (implying strongly that it wasn’t there beforehand), but this is clearly the paying customer, not the end-user of the research.
Marshall’s terminology makes it clear that although he acknowledges the underpinning science, CSIRO’s focus is on the customer who is willing to pay for those solutions:
“O & A (Oceans and Atmosphere) has been carried for about three years … you carry anything, you carry anything you can if you believe the market is going to come back … I don’t believe the domestic market is going to come back no matter who’s in power because if you look at the financial state of the country, we’re falling off a cliff and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.”
By this, Marshall tells us where he stands – and accepts that the cuts are necessary to prevent disastrous government debt. However, if we look at the facts, in 2015, Australian government debt was third lowest in the OECD at 36% compared to an average of 111%. The shortage for funds in Australia is because the government will not provide the required funds through taxation (6th lowest in the OECD in 2013). But when you look at private debt Australia is at 206% of GDP, the fifth worst of the OECD. Where is the cliff? There is the cliff! It’s private, not public debt. Marshall is parroting some bullshit he read in the pages of the Murdoch press.
This is not a problem of CSIRO’s making or conclusion. It is the role of government to set policy that provides sufficient governance to solve these problems. However, in the run-up to the July 2 election, both Labor and Liberal are focusing on the 36% and ignoring the 206%, which is largely unproductive property investment. Liquidity based on growing private debt in a flat property market fuels consumption, not production. CSIRO’s job is to meet its charter, not second-guess flawed policy perceptions, and it cannot fix Australia’s private debt with a flawed research-to-market strategy.
Halfway through the recording Marshall gets a brilliant question from the floor that encapsulates the problem, the urgency, the need to understand what’s going on and the public good aspects of what all that means – if I find out who asked it, I’ll give her a bunch of flowers.
Marshall answers the question by summarising the financial issues facing CSIRO – all perfectly legitimate. Then goes on to ask:
“How are we to know what is public good?”
Woman who deserves flowers: “It’s to meet research interests which are in the public good, which are not met by the market.”
Marshall: “So can you list them please, what is in the public good?”
Woman who deserves flowers and chocolate: “biodiversity, ecology, basic water science, basic climate science; there are things for which there is not an immediate customer.” (there was more – she got to unicorn status but no need to transcribe).
The next part of the discussion gets really interesting because Marshall asks a series of (rhetorical) questions of the assembled scientists attempting to wedge the discussion by setting non-commercial public good in opposition to income-generating public good. With the gathering being too intelligent to be fooled by this, Marshall was asked what he thought public good research was. And his answer?
“Anything that’s good for the public”
Audible groans – Marshall then mentions education as an example. He goes onto another definition of public good that “doesn’t include his opinion – the other metric that doesn’t include anyone in this room and that’s the government.”
Marshall: “Government policy, frankly, determines public good. That’s their decision. When they fund renewable energy, environmental science, education, health care, that’s a fundamental policy choice. It’s completely separate to us. National objectives, national challenges, is that not, a realistic measure of public good?”
From the floor: No … (over-ridden)
Marshall: “(interrupting) The danger of us deciding what is public good for ourselves, the risk is that we’re biased, if I poll the organisation, and I did, that each group fundamentally believes that what they do is public good, in a truest purest sense of the word.”
This is completely unjustified, because in the deep-dive exercise that was exactly what they were asked to do.
Later he says in response to a question: “we are also setting the agenda, emphasising what is important.” Cognitive dissonance, much.
All of this makes it abundantly clear that Marshall is focused on the government agenda of solutions to market and is re-engineering CSIRO to meet that agenda. Doing so would totally screw up the historical legacy and current capacity of CSIRO in the area of public good research, making it incapable of meeting either its old, or its new obligations. Also, it ignores the role of underpinning knowledge, public good and the iterative role of research in formulating the problem-solution space, so is doomed to fail. He is completely unfit for his position.
Having fisked the meeting recording, because many of Marshall’s claims needed airing and rebuttal, the original subject of this post, “What is public good research?” will have to wait for next time.