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Christine Milne: CSIRO climate programs under attack by Abbott Government

The Australian Green's Leader, Senator Christine Milne, asks Chief Executive of CSIRO, Dr Megan Clark, about which climate programs will be cut as a result of the Abbott's government's anti-science agenda.


Senator MILNE: Does the CSIRO have absolute discretion as to how it will respond to the budget cuts, or are your decisions constrained and impacted by government policy?

Dr Clark: We do have discretion on where we allocate funding, but we also need to consider the external revenue market. We are 40 per cent funded by the external market and 60 per cent funded, so both of those factors come into play in our strategic decisions, both our decadal strategic decisions and also decisions that we make over the four years.

Senator MILNE: Are you obliged under the law to be guided by government priorities?

Dr Clark: We set our national priorities through our national flagship programs, so we are very focused on the national priorities and have been for many decades. We continue to do that and we set those national flagships in consultation with leaders at all levels-government, community, industry-as we look around the nation and set our strategic plan and our decadal strategic plan. So we are guided by national priorities. We would also be mindful if there were a setting of national priorities at the national level. We would be clear as to how we would respond to those national priorities.

Senator MILNE: That is what I am trying to understand here, so let me ask it another way. Has the CSIRO, purely on its own assessment, determined that Australia's long-term prosperity lies not in clean-technology development and climate research but rather in fossil fuels and resource extraction? Is that something you have determined by yourselves or is that something that has come from government priority?

Dr Clark: No, it does not reflect our investment. For example, with our energy investment, our overall aim is an integrated resource. We have the aims of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, ensuring energy supply, ensuring an energy grid that is positioned for the future and maximising the country's wealth from our rich endowment of energy resources. We look to balance that in an integrated research portfolio.

Senator MILNE: How has your flagship program structure for energy changed since last year? Appendix B lists coalmining, oil, gas and fuels, unconventional gas, low emissions technology and grids and energy efficiency systems. What areas were they last year?

Dr Clark: Our portfolio covers emerging renewable energy, it covers stationary and transport energy options, it includes solar, it includes smart grids and it includes energy storage, as well as future fuel options. That remains our portfolio, and, as I mentioned, we are looking to make sure our portfolio covers the full spread of requirements for the nation.

Senator MILNE: But isn't it fair to say that, with this restructuring, what we are seeing-as you have said in the annual directions statement-is that CSIRO will prioritise unconventional gas by reprioritising conventional gas and growing external revenues?

Dr Clark: With the investment the nation is making in offshore gas and the projects that will be in the gas sector, all of those projects will require technology and R&D for production, transport and processing. They will also require safety. We are seeing that our investment in gas will be maintained. We have indicated that we will reduce our investment in some of the liquid fuel products in some of the areas of carbon capture and storage, local energy systems and geothermal. But that does not take away from our integrated research portfolio; for example, recently we have had a major breakthrough in solar concentrator work with our partner Abengoa, where we managed to have a world first in the temperatures we could reach with the concentrator. This is a major breakthrough in how we can store solar energy, and of course it is the storage of that energy and its steady release into the grid which has been a major barrier. We continue to focus on that, and will look for commercialisation opportunities.

Senator MILNE: Given that CSIRO, along with the Bureau of Meteorology, was one of the biggest participants in the climate change science program, can you tell me what the budget cut implications are, how much funding will go from climate research, which areas of research will be cut and how many climate researchers are set to lose their jobs?

Dr Clark: There are two implications-there is the government amalgamation of the National Environmental Research Program and the Australian Climate Change Research Program. They will now form the new national environment science program, and we understand there are anticipated savings of $20 million. We have not worked through the full details of the impact. CSIRO has made it very clear that we will continue our world-leading atmospheric and oceanographic science, including further development of our modelling, through our access model with BOM, and we will be working to enhance the understanding of the key systems particularly that relate to Australia's weather and climate. We will be reporting to the nation, as we did this year, on the state of the nation's climate in the State of the Climate report that we do in partnership with the Bureau of Meteorology. The next schedule for that will be 2016.

As you mentioned, we have signalled that we will be integrating the work that we do across the different parts into a brand-new flagship, which is Oceans and Atmosphere, as of July. The teams are still working through that. There may be some synergies. It is an important area where CSIRO has world-class capability and one for which we have responsibly nationally and globally.

Senator MILNE: We certainly do, but I do not understand why we are moving to these amalgamations and taking $20 million out of this research area. What is your reason for amalgamating oceans and atmosphere, for example. What is wrong with the way it operates currently? This goes to Aspendale.

Dr Clark : The $20 million was in reference to the government's amalgamation of environmental programs and not our research reduction. Secondly, the reason we have amalgamated it is that we have elevated it to the status of a flagship, which is the highest priority for CSIRO. We felt it was very important to bring together all of the work we do in Oceans and Atmosphere into a single flagship and elevate it to a national flagship status.

Senator MILNE: Since it is so important to elevate it to a flagship status, are there any jobs to go or are there any cuts to the budget of Oceans and Atmosphere?

Dr Clark: As I mentioned to Senator Carr, we are currently working through those areas. The main area that we have signalled in the environmental area is in the urban water area. I am just referring to my notes to make sure I give you the proper areas. The areas where we will reduce our appropriation investment is in urban water. As I said, we will focus some of the world-leading work we do in biodiversity and also, as I said, aggregate the work we do in climate science.

In terms of the implications-and you asked me about job numbers-our leaders and managers are currently working through that. They are also working through discussions with our external partners. They are also working through the implications of the other decisions that have been made. Once we have worked through those we will actually have clarity in the next few months about the detailed implications as they relate to jobs.

Senator MILNE: Why would we consider losing jobs from ocean and atmosphere if climate change is the priority and being a flagship is to elevate the significance of this area of work?

Senator Ronaldson: I think that is probably a comment rather than a question.

Senator MILNE: Well no, I am asking a straight question. If you are saying it is elevated, that it is going to be a flagship-that oceans and atmospheric research is so important-why are you considering slashing jobs in that area in research?

Dr Clark: We are not considering slashing jobs in that area. I think I have been very clear with where we are looking to reduce.

We have had that science operated through a division and we have also had work that was being undertaken in the flagship. We have also had work that was being undertaken in oceans. As we bring those together, there may be areas where we do have synergies and where we do not quite need as many roles-we will be looking at that. That is really operating in the most efficient and effective manner as we bring this together. I think I have been very clear that we see this as a national priority-the work we do in oceans and atmosphere-and have elevated it as such.

Senator MILNE: Okay, so-

Senator Ronaldson: I just want to be cautious about using emotive language such as 'slashing'. I think what Dr Clark has said is that these are being considered at the moment and anything beyond that is hypothetical. I just do not know whether it is terribly helpful for the staff. I think Dr Clark has been-

Senator KIM CARR: I would say a thousand jobs is probably 'slashing'.

Senator Ronaldson: There is just a little bit of noise behind there; I am trying to engage with Senator Milne. I just think we need to be a bit careful about the language. Dr Clark has said we are looking at this. We know there has been some 300 job losses under the previous government, so I just think we need to be a bit careful.

Senator MILNE: Okay, thank you Minister. I will use the Prime Minister's term that obviously is not emotional, and that is 'axed'. He is very good at 'axed', so I will use 'axed' in future as non-inflammatory language.

I will just move on Aspendale in particular, and where Senator Carr asked a couple of questions about that before. That is a marine and atmospheric research staff base. Senator Carr did ask how many people will be relocated as opposed to how many will be offered redundancy. Can you just give me any more detail on that? And, particularly, won't the closure of Aspendale disrupt CSIRO's research into climate change?

Dr Clark: Our position on Aspendale has not changed for many years. As I have mentioned, we have had a long-term intent and signal to consolidate in our capital cities and, in particular, Melbourne. We have signalled that we would be looking to consolidate Aspendale eventually into Clayton. We have no date and, in fact, we have no funds at the moment to be able to do that. So it is not correct to signal that anything has changed with regard to Aspendale as a result of the budget.

Senator MILNE: Can you tell me about the marine division in Hobart then? You referred earlier to the importance of marine research and you mentioned Hobart. I am interested to know how many jobs are slated to go from CSIRO operations in Tasmania, in Hobart.

Dr Clark: We have been actively working to build Hobart as one of the largest concentrations of marine and atmospheric science in the southern hemisphere. Together with the University of Tasmania and the Antarctic Division, we have the new funding for the vessel. So the vessel will dock in Hobart in the middle of the year; all things are going extremely well. We will continue to build Hobart and look to see how we work effectively with those partners. We have made a very strong commitment strategically to Hobart and to making sure that it is there.

With your question in relation to the impact of the budget: we would need to work through that over the next few months to be clear on any roles in Hobart. I cannot provide that for you right now.


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