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CSIRO has become ‘extravagant consulting company’, one of its former top climate scientists says | CSIRO

A leading Australian climate scientist says the national science agency, CSIRO, has been turned into a “very extravagant consulting company” under the Coalition, with its scientists barred from speaking publicly about government policy.

The warning from Prof David Karoly follows his retirement from the Commonwealth Science and Industry Research Organisation in February after more than 40 years as one of the most respected voices in climate science.

Karoly, who worked on four of the six major assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, returned to CSIRO in 2018. He agreed to head its Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub in the wake of the chief executive, Larry Marshall, making deep cuts to the organisation’s climate science capacity on the grounds the problem was “proven”. That push was partially reversed after public and political pressure, with Marshall later acknowledging it had been a mistake. Karoly signed on to help build a new program.

In an interview with Guardian Australia, Karoly says he knew the job would be challenging, and some people “questioned my sanity” for taking it on. He says he found budget cuts and changes in management had transformed CSIRO from a body focused on public good science into one reliant on external contracts to survive.

While he is proud he helped secure an effective 50% funding increase to be spent on a new climate systems hub, he says the cuts had been “stupid” and had a lasting impact. He says staff in CSIRO’s oceans and atmosphere unit were last year told 70% of CSIRO funding now had to come from external earnings – contracts with industry and government agencies – rather than core funding for a project to be approved. Historically, there had been about 30% external funding.

Karoly argues it has fundamentally changed an organisation that was once known for its international-standard “public good” science. Famously, CSIRO radio astronomers accidentally invented what became wi-fi while doing unrelated public good research. Karoly says that sort of work is now less likely.

“CSIRO’s approach is now to make money,” he says. “It’s essentially a very extravagant consulting company, and unless it has large enough external earnings science doesn’t go ahead. It means public good science has disappeared from CSIRO unless someone else is willing to pay for it.”

He says focus on “customer-driven science” is not limited to the federal Coalition, but it had accelerated the shift. “It’s not just a Liberal National party government perspective, it’s also a Labor party perspective: that the users should drive the science to answer the questions that are important for them,” he says.

Karoly says scientists at CSIRO and the Bureau of Meteorology are routinely blocked from speaking publicly and have their work suppressed if it could be interpreted as at odds with government policy. As one of CSIRO’s top climate scientists, Karoly was allowed to talk about global greenhouse gas emissions and the urgent need to reduce them, but not allowed to talk about Australia’s approach to the issue or performance in cutting emissions.

“We were not allowed to talk about Australian government policy on anything, whether it was Australian government policy on Covid, or Australian government policy on seasonal climate forecasts, or Australian government policy on emissions,” he says.

He says the suppression had “certainly got worse in the last decade” under the Coalition. “Part of that has been to do with CSIRO’s nervousness about funding. I think that explains why the CSIRO chief executive did not want to focus on climate change, and was willing at that point to say ‘we know enough about climate change science and we can reduce staff numbers by 50%’,” he says.

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Karoly was not always deemed to have stayed within CSIRO guidelines on what he could publicly say. In late 2020, a peer-reviewed scientific paper documented claims by Australian scientists that their evidence and advice on the impact of logging, forest destruction and mining had been suppressed in a variety of ways.

Karoly posted a comment in response to a piece on the issue published by The Conversation, thanking the authors for “shining a spotlight on the key issue” and pointing out commenting on science issues was restricted for public service employees. “This is not news for climate scientists, particularly those in the Bureau of Meteorology and in CSIRO, and has a long and interesting history,” he wrote.

He says within 24 hours he had a phone call from his manager at CSIRO relaying a message from the organisation’s executive that he had breached the organisation’s public comment policy by commenting on something he didn’t have expertise in.

“It was a classical catch-22. They suppressed my commenting on a paper that said there was suppression of science,” Karoly says. “I think it was absolutely stupid but, yes, what CSIRO was trying to do was to suppress science. It makes no sense that we have some of the country’s best climate scientists in the Bureau of Meteorology and in the CSIRO and they can’t talk openly about the links between science and public policy.”

A CSIRO spokesperson says scientists are “actively encouraged” to communicate their scientific work to government, industry and the community, but to remain a trusted independent and bipartisan advisor to government the organisation needs to remain impartial.

“We therefore ask that our people do not advocate, defend or publicly canvass the merits of government or opposition policies,” the spokeperson says.

On funding, the spokesperson says the CSIRO has “a variety of funding arrangements in place, depending on the nature of the research”, that each year about 35-40% of the money invested in research came from external revenue sources and that ratio had been consistent “for many years”. They did not respond directly to Karoly saying the oceans and atmosphere unit had been told that would be lifted to 70%.

Some of CSIRO’s external funding comes from fossil fuel companies. The organisation says on its website it is “developing more efficient and sustainable fossil fuel technologies and helping industry to safely access and extract Australia’s rich resources, including oil, gas and coal”.

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Karoly says he could have continued his connection with CSIRO as a post-retirement fellow but chose to cut ties so he could speak freely. His return to commenting on government policy began last month.

In the foreword of a Climate Council report on the Coalition’s failure to deal with the climate crisis, Karoly drew a sharp contrast between the major parties. He wrote that a decade ago under a minority Labor government the country had clear plans to deal with the climate crisis, including an emissions trading scheme, and was joining with others in the global community in recognising that much stronger action was needed to “avoid the unmanageable and to manage the unavoidable”. He was appointed as an inaugural member of the Climate Change Authority, which was created to advise government on policy, during this time.

He said the Coalition had abolished the carbon pricing scheme despite evidence it was working, ignored advice on climate targets, closed a 27-year-old climate science program, cut funding for research and appointed its supporters to climate advisory roles.

“The Liberal National government, throughout its time in office, has been making choices that make global warming worse. And that has been to the great detriment of our country,” he wrote.

Karoly’s career was honoured at a retirement symposium as he left CSIRO. Former colleagues praised not only his contribution to scientific knowledge, but his support for early-career scientists, particularly women, and desire to push boundaries to improve science communication. Freed from CSIRO, he says he now sees building public understanding as the most vital part of his work.

“I would describe it as building climate literacy or climate understanding,” he says. “Maybe that is advocacy, but it’s not just speaking publicly it’s also working in the business sector and with local government and across a whole range of community groups and organisations about the urgency of action on climate change.

“That, in my view, is where the rubber hits the road. We can only have a concerted, coordinated government action if enough people understand why it’s important to them, important to the community, important to the world and important to the environment. Working on that is what I see is now my most important legacy.”

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