CSIRO's chief executive, Dr Larry Marshall, cited the agency's "finite resources" in defending job losses that are projected to all but shut down CSIRO's climate research. But a valid argument about efficient use of resources cannot justify obliterating one of the world's leading climate research hubs just when the world needs it most.
It's true that resources are limited. After all, CSIRO suffered a $115 million funding cut in the 2014 federal budget. Then it was required to absorb the national ICT research agency, NICTA, which was de-funded by Malcolm Turnbull as communication minister. In last year's innovation statement, Data61, the successor to NICTA within CSIRO, scraped back less than half its previous funding, equivalent to a cut of $24 million a year.
But the choices CSIRO's leaders have made to manage these pressures – and to branch out in new directions – have rightly raised eyebrows among our global partners.
In proposing that jobs be cut in climate monitoring and modelling, Dr Marshall acknowledged that CSIRO's climate models "are among the best in the world", but then concluded that the question of whether the climate is changing "has been answered, and the new question is what we do about it".
Has the question of proving climate change been answered? If by "answered" Dr Marshall simply means that the evidence has been interpreted by the overwhelming majority of the world's climate scientists as confirmation that anthropogenic climate change is real, he is no doubt correct. The problem lies in the timing, and in his assumption that research into how to respond to climate change can easily be hived off from research into climate change itself.
The worst aspect of the Abbott government's cuts to CSIRO and other agencies – which Malcolm Turnbull, for all his talk about cleverness and innovation, has done nothing to restore – is that the balance between basic and applied research has been lost.
Without new knowledge, there can be no new ideas to translate into broader economic or social returns. A research policy that neglects basic research will inevitably fail to achieve its objectives in applied research.
The history of science, and of CSIRO in particular, is full of examples of basic research flowing over into applied research and the development of new technologies. The usual instance cited by proud Australians is WiFi, which was made possible by technology that CSIRO scientists developed for deep-space astronomy. Without CSIRO's research into black holes, the world wouldn't have WiFi.
This isn't one accidental spin-off. It is how human knowledge has always progressed, and ignoring or curtailing basic research curtails our chances of doing applied research really well.
CSIRO has long had a close relationship with Boeing, which in 2011 declared the agency to be its "Global Research and Development Supplier of the Year". One of the drivers of this relationship has been CSIRO's research into nanoparticles – extremely small chemicals or objects that may be more conductive, reactive or stronger than larger particles of the same substance.
Nanotechnology, the application of research into nanoparticles, is transforming the way people around the world live and work, in everything from renewable energy and manufacturing to health care. CSIRO is involved in developing many of those applications, but it is the quality of its basic research that has enabled it to do this. That is why Boeing has cultivated is relationship with CSIRO.
Dr Marshall told the CSIRO staff that "just like a start-up, our nation needs to reinvent itself in order to navigate a new and uncertain future. Our nation needs us to create the science to enable the innovation for this profound reinvention". He is surely right about that: scientific research is crucial in fostering a national culture of innovation. Yet Dr Marshall is also proposing cutbacks in Data61 and the Land and Water and Manufacturing Divisions – areas of science that are vital to creating and sustaining the jobs of the future.
If all the emphasis is on application and commercialisation while basic research is neglected, we will not be well-placed to navigate anywhere, let alone reinvent ourselves.
Reckless cuts to science, research and innovation programs in the 2014 federal budget are continuing to have a dire effect on the operations and the aspirations of CSIRO and other public agencies.
While the Prime Minister keeps spouting talk about innovation and senior public servants like Dr Marshall try to do his bidding, CSIRO's scientists are being asked to "find solutions for the climate we will be living with" without also continuing their inquiry into just what that climate will be.
Their task is becoming Mission Impossible.
This article was first published in The Age, 12 February 2016