A decision by Australia’s science agency to lay off 350 researchers and shift focus to more commercial enterprise threatens climate studies around the globe.
SYDNEY — Perched on a wild, windy promontory on the rugged tip of northwestern Tasmania, the tiny Cape Grim research station has been measuring airborne greenhouse gases since 1976.
It is one of a handful of such stations in the world, and because the wind that reaches it has traveled more than 6,600 miles across the southern oceans, uncontaminated by cities or factories, the measurements are considered a baseline for tracking changes in Earth’s atmosphere.
A decision by Australia’s science agency to lay off 350 researchers and shift the organization’s focus to more commercial enterprise threatens not only the work done at the station but also climate studies around the globe.
Scientists worldwide have protested the shift, saying the loss of the Australian data — from Cape Grim and the agency’s role in a vital ocean-monitoring program called Argo — could impair their ability to predict severe regional weather and help people prepare for extreme floods, drought, bush fires and cyclones.
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“This, for me, is such a big shock,” said Ronald Prinn, director of the Center for Global Change Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “To think that you could stop measurements or throw out the people, that doesn’t make any sense to me and to many, many other people around the world.”
About 3,000 scientists from more than 60 countries have signed a petition calling the cuts “devastating” and saying research stations such as Cape Grim are “critical and irreplaceable” to global climate science.
The Australian agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, or CSIRO, has played down the impact, noting it is not closing the two programs, but shifting missions. The move, from a focus on the causes of climate change to developing profitable products to cope with its consequences, follows the 2014 appointment as agency director of Larry Marshall, a former technology entrepreneur and venture capitalist in Silicon Valley.
Australia’s climate research has helped “prove global climate change,” Marshall said in an email to the agency’s staff this month. “That question has been answered and the new question is what do we do about it and how do we find solutions for the climate we will be living with.”
The cuts are the latest twist in a national climate policy that has been erratic for the better part of a decade. Experts say Australia is suffering more than most places from the effects of climate change — and from some of the world’s highest per-person emissions — but that its leaders seem unable to make up their minds about how to combat it.
After years of political wrangling, a left-leaning government managed to put in place laws that required large companies to pay for carbon emissions. But the leader of the conservative Liberal coalition, Tony Abbott, won an election in 2013 after promising voters he would scrap the tax. Now, the changes at the science agency are raising questions about whether Australia is trying to run away from understanding the basic facts of what is happening to the climate.
The 350 layoffs are to take place over two years. Officials have not specified which jobs will be cut, but members of the climate-science team said they expected to lose 70 to 100 scientists, half to three-quarters of their number. The Oceans and Atmosphere division, which analyzes data from both Cape Grim and Argo, has been targeted for the deepest cuts.
CSIRO’s chairman, David Thodey, insisted, in a response to the petition from scientists, that there would be “no break in atmospheric measurements at Cape Grim as a result of these changes.” Marshall, for his part, said the agency would “continue our contribution” to Argo, the global effort to track temperature and other conditions in the world’s oceans, a fundamental task for understanding how quickly the planet is changing.
But scientists who work for them disagree.
Paul Fraser, who led the division’s greenhouse-gas team, said that if the job cuts proceeded, they would “have a severe impact on global programs.” John Church, an agency expert on rising sea levels, said: “You cannot lose 100 out of a team of 130, or even 70 from 130, and still maintain all the functions.”
Even if the machines continue to gather data, Church added, “You need the skills to collect the data, the skills to maintain it at the highest levels, and also to interpret what it means.”
“There may be ongoing observation, but not analysis and the modeling,” he said. “If we lose this capability, which we are talking about at the moment, it will be very difficult to rebuild.”
Internationally, beyond the mass petition, lead scientists from organizations including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the NASA-sponsored Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment have privately begun lobbying the Australian government to reverse course.
They fear that as the organization changes focus, farmers will have less information about rainfall, heat waves, crops and pests, and planners will know less about rising sea levels and the impact of major shifts in weather patterns.
“If I had to pick a single poster country showing the adverse effects of climate change, then Australia would be it,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. “You have a big desert, wildfires, drought, extreme risks — and what are you going to do about it? If you don’t collect the data, you won’t know how to deal with the problem.”
Church worried that Australia’s place in the Argo ocean-observation program might also be at risk. Argo relies on 3,800 high-tech floats that bob around in the ocean, about 180 miles apart, collecting data on sea currents, salinity and water temperatures.
Australia, the second-largest participant in Argo after the United States, monitors floats in the Southern Ocean and across almost 30 percent of the Indian Ocean.
Marshall, who was chosen to bring commercial expertise to the agency and strengthen links between industry and research, has said he will focus on programs aimed at mitigating the effects of climate change. In his email to the staff, he said he had “high hopes we can transmute commodity mineral sands into unique titanium ink for 3-D printing to create a new multibillion-dollar industry or coal into a cleaner form of diesel fuel to reinvigorate a $43 billion industry.”