Shortage of climate scientists ‘significant risk’ to Australia: Academy of Science

The Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef. Source: AAP/Ed Roberts/Coral Reef Studies

Australia’s ability to maintain world-class climate science research is being jeopardised by under-resourcing and a lack of staff, according to a new report by the Australian Academy of Science.

The report by the Australian Academy of Science investigates the current arrangements for the country’s climate science workforce, assesses Australia’s capability to respond to new developments in the field in the future, and analyses how findings are communicated.

The study of climate science aims to understand atmospheric conditions and processes over an extended period of time, in a broader way than climate change science, and the country’s ability to assess climate science findings directly affects how the world can respond to climate change.

Around 420 full-time staff are employed to work on four areas of climate science in Australia: climate observation; climate understanding; climate modelling; and climate services. Fifteen of those are based at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Climate Centre in Tasmania. But the Academy says a staged increase of at least 77 full-time staff is necessary across those four fields, with 27 required immediately.

“These capability requirements are brought into sharper focus when you consider that our country is potentially more exposed to the impacts of climate change than most developed nations,” said Professor Trevor McDougall, who led the review.

Australia’s location in the southern hemisphere is crucial in terms of how its climate and weather is determined. However, according to the report, there are “weaknesses” in coordination and resourcing that “create avoidable inefficiency”.

It states that financing arrangements are “overly complex” and place an “unnecessarily large administrative burden on operational scientists” to get funds from multiple sources.

It also outlines the under-resourcing in particular areas that present “moderate to significant risks” to Australia’s ability to continue to provide crucial weather information.

Climate modelling, which simulates how the earth’s elements – like the oceans, ice and living things – can impact climate through mathematical equations, has been noted as one of those most under-resourced fields.

The report indicates that around 30 new climate modellers and scientists in that area would be required in Australia in the next four years to even attempt matching the quality of research on an international scale. 

“Our location means that key factors that influence the climate in our region are not well represented in climate models developed by other countries,” said Professor McDougall. 

“It is in our national interest to ensure our national climate science capability, built up over the past 50 years, is maintained. This will also mean Australia maintains its custodianship of many aspects of climate science research in the southern hemisphere.”

The Minister for the Environment, Josh Frydenberg, told SBS World News: “We thank the Australian Academy of Science for their review, which will be an important input into the work of the government's own National Climate Science Advisory Committee.

“The Academy in its report acknowledges that Australia has ‘substantial climate science capability’ and ‘well-funded and supported’ climate science infrastructure.

“As the report recognises, there are 420 climate scientists doing important work across federal agencies like the CSIRO, the Bureau of Meteorology, the Institute of Marine Science and Geoscience Australia as well as in our universities.

“The Turnbull government continues to make a significant financial investment in climate science with a new CSIRO Climate Science Centre in Hobart with 40 staff, a $37 million investment in long-term climate science monitoring capability, a $23.9 million investment in a climate change hub in the National Environmental Science Program and a $255 million commitment as part of the Australian Antarctic Strategy which places a significant emphasis on climate science related research.”