RV Investigator, the new CSIRO marine science platform. (Photo CSIRO)

CSIRO’s death by 1000 cuts is creating international embarrassment, especially its CEO, Larry Marshall, an Abbott captain's pick who won the Skeptics Bent Spoon Award for promoting water divining. Peter Boyer reports.

COMPETITION ISN'T everything. Communities also need people to be neighbourly, tolerant and well-mannered the civilised attitudes and behaviours that bind us.

Based on this need, we created public services and amenities and thought up ideas like democracy and the rule of law, universal education, human rights. We call these benefits the public good.

Centuries of effort by numberless people have created our public good, each contribution adding to previous ones like the stones that make a cathedral. It belongs to everybody, crossing all social boundaries. It can yield financial returns, but its most valuable benefits aren’t financial.

But when the public good is turned into a commodity to be bought or sold, it ceases to be a public good and our civil society is diminished.

CSIRO’s exceptional global reputation rests heavily on its non-commercial investigations of space and the atmosphere, ocean and landforms, ecosystems and other attributes of our region. To Australians this work is part of the public good, serving us all.

But a series of politically expedient decisions have put that notion under threat. Clinging to the neoliberal nonsense that market economics has the answer to everything, governments have behaved as if public good research is a burden to be got rid of.

For 25 years CSIRO funding has been cut back. It’s been told to get its money from corporate sources, but in the bizarre world of government finance, any success that it has in doing this is seen as reason for yet more funding cuts.

Once, scientists were put in charge of CSIRO, but no more. In 2013 the Abbott government plucked Larry Marshall out of a crowded field of applicants for CSIRO chief executive. He has a physics degree but since the late 1980s has been a venture capitalist in California.

It shows. After being appointed he told scientists they had a “duty” to be entrepreneurs and start companies, as he’d done. Around the same time he won the Australian Skeptics’ Bent Spoon award for pseudoscience, for speculating that water-divining might have scientific merit.

Then last month he astonished the science world by baldly stating that we no longer need to measure or model climate and that climate data gathering, modelling and other positions would be cut to make way for new teams to work on adaptation solutions.

I accept that CSIRO should help secure funding for its work but strongly disagree with Marshall that scientists must also be fund-raisers and entrepreneurs. Science and entrepreneurship require radically different skill sets, in my experience rarely if ever found in one person.

And Marshall is wrong to think he’s serving business by targeting atmospheric and marine research. Like the rest of us, business needs all the climate knowledge it can get its hands on.

After thousands of climate scientists from 63 countries signed a letter to Malcolm Turnbull about the threat to critical data gathering and modelling posed by the Marshall plan, early this month a New York Times editorial deplored its impact on “arguably the greatest challenge facing the planet”.

The PM hasn’t replied to the letter and is silent about the international furore, while science minister Christopher Pyne and environment minister Greg Hunt both say it’s a matter for CSIRO.

Consider these facts. The first quarter of 2016 is set to break all heat records globally. Unprecedented warming of coastal waters is bringing tropical fish to Tasmania and bleaching the Great Barrier Reef. Five hundred km of the Murray River has been poisoned by a huge algal bloom.

What is the government doing to address this? Having put a venture capitalist in charge of our premier science body and told him to let the market determine its future, it stands aside, its leader remaining silent, while he announces plans to cast aside those people best able to provide guidance, to make way for “digital solutions”.

Meanwhile it continues to oppose carbon pricing and approves new coal mines. It misrepresents Australia’s rising emissions as a good-news story. It pledges to abolish clean energy agencies.

Groucho Marx couldn’t have written a crazier plot. Do they have any idea what they’re doing?

This article was originally published on 22 March 2016 in SouthWind and is reproduced with Peter Boyer's permission.

You can follow Peter on Twitter @PeterBoyer8.

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