Higher temperatures, lower research funding

 

File:CSIRO ScienceImage 4507 Dry bed of the tailings dam at the Brukunga Pyrite Mine east of Adelaide in the Mount Lofty Ranges South Australia 1992.jpg

A dry dam bed in South Australia. Rising temperatures due to climate change are predicted to cause more heat, less rain, and longer fire seasons in Australia, according to CSIRO. Photo credit: John Coppi, CSIRO

In January, when the semester was young enough that I still had time to lie around reading, I was browsing Scientific American when an article caught my eye. The headline read, “Australia Cuts 110 Climate Scientist Jobs,” written by Gayathri Vaidyanathan. It struck me as weird, especially because Australia is one of the places that is being hit the hardest by climate change. What was its government doing cutting climate research jobs?

Reading the article didn’t give me any satisfactory answers. According to the story, enough influential people within the Australian government had decided that because “the science is already established,” there is no need to continue researching climate change, and that money would be better spent on innovation instead of basic research. It seemed awfully arrogant to me—“we already know all there is to know, why keep looking?”

The 110 scientists referenced in the headline worked in the oceans and atmosphere division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO—120 more in CSIRO’s the land and atmosphere program were also being relocated to new government jobs unrelated to their specialty. Sources in the article expressed sympathy for young climate researchers who were just getting started.

While the Australian government’s “the science is settled” argument covered—and I say that in the loosest way possible—the basic research aspect of the program, their explanation in the article made no mention of what seems, to me, one of the most important services CSIRO offers. For more that 40 years, CSIRO scientists have been collecting carbon dioxide readings from Cape Grim in Tasmania, adding a constant stream of data to what we know about the changing climate. CSIRO scientists said in the article that these readings are unlikely to be continued.

 

A CSIRO scientist at Cape Grim. Photo credit: John Woudstra

To me, this lays bare the real reason for the cuts—money. Moving of from “settled science” to “innovation” seems like a platitude to calm angry environmentalists, but discontinuing the carbon dioxide readings shows that “innovation” may come at too high a price. It’s a little bit like saying, “we know how the stock market works, what’s the point in checking prices day-to-day?”

Disregarding the unhappy content of the story, the article itself was beautifully written—my inner journalist had a field day over the pointed, clever lead:

“With an ax rather than a scalpel, Australia’s federal science agency last week chopped off its climate research arm in a decision that has stunned scientists and left employees dispirited.”

This brutal imagery of the lead set the tone for the rest of the article– decidedly negative, with the only firsthand sources quoted being angry research scientists. CSIRO executives were cited secondhand, and Australian government officials “did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.”

After reading this article, I am unsettled. At the Paris Climate Summit last year, nations from all over the world agreed to take drastic measures to reduce their emissions and limit the warming of the atmosphere. Less than three months later, in February, the Australian government cut these climate research jobs. It shows a lack of governmental concern about climate change. I hope that the Australian government can deliver on their promise of innovation, and that these cuts are compensated for by funding to other departments.

One response

  1. I agree with your sentiment here Eva. There is more that should be done to understand climate change. The readings and research need to continue and the people who are dedicated to it should not be alienated. Public support will be the main catalyst to bring the funding for these jobs back or for research to become a priority for the Australian government. Right now, even with multiple environmental changes occurring and international agreements, the Aussie leadership seems to be moving backwards.

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