News & Views item - December 2011



CSIRO Headliner in July,  Sacked in November. (December 25, 2011)


From a July 1, 2011 CSIRO media release.

Speaking today at the International Union of Geodesy and Geophysics (IUGG) conference in Melbourne as this year's Prince Albert I Medal winner, Dr McDougall said the new definition facilitates the more accurate representation of heat content and of heat uptake by the ocean. [click here]



But that was the 1st of July 2011.


Yesterday The Canberra Times' Rosslyn Beeby broke the story that "oceanographer Trevor McDougall, has been made redundant by the CSIRO, drawing a stinging letter of rebuke from top international scientists".


In anything but diplomatic terminology the letter said that CSIRO is ''relinquishing its responsibility'' to global climate science and is ''taking definitive steps towards mediocrity'' by abandoning ''high-impact research''. The letter was prompted by the 30 November 2011 dismissal of Dr. Trevor McDougall who is a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, a CSIRO Chief Research Scientist and winner of this year's Prince Albert I Medal, an award given once every two years. It was awarded to Dr McDougall: "For his outstanding work on (1) important and fundamental problems of ocean fluid dynamics over the full range of ocean scales, and (2) the thermodynamic properties of seawater". The committee in making the award noted: "To faithfully represent the ocean in climate models, it is necessary to incorporate elements of ocean thermodynamics as described by McDougall’s work... [His] recent work strengthens even further the brilliant and unique contributions Trevor McDougall has made to oceanic science. He is a most worthy recipient of the Prince Albert I Medal."


In a request by Ms Beeby to "please explain" she was told that CSIRO must focus on science that delivers ''the greatest national benefit''. and in further comment she reports:


The chief of CSIRO's marine and atmospheric research division, Bruce Mapstone, said the agency supported and valued Dr McDougall's work. ''We are very pleased that Trevor will retain a link with the CSIRO as an honorary fellow and continue to work with his colleagues ... CSIRO works in areas of science that answer the big contemporary questions for Australia and the world. Our science mission means making decisions about areas to grow and areas to reduce so we remain focused on addressing those issues that ultimately result in the greatest national benefit,'' Dr Mapstone said.§


Australia's Chief Scientist, former ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb wouldn't comment on the matter except to tell Ms Beeby that it was ''time for Australia to show the rest of the world we do value our scientists as highly regarded citizens and contributors to our future'', and that a national overhaul of potential science career paths was ''long overdue''. He also warned a report on the state of Australian science, being compiled by his office and due for publication early next year, ''is not likely to paint a pretty picture''.


Dr McDougall's dismissal should darken the cracking varnish considerably.


Ms Beeby also sought the views of CSIRO Staff Association president Michael Borgas who told her the redundancy of such an internationally regarded scientist sent a message that science ''is not a secure career in this country''. It suggested successful scientists were not valued or rewarded, and ''success has become an occupational hazard at CSIRO''.


So far the Australian Academy of Science and its president, Suzanne Cory, have remained silent regarding Dr. McDougall's dismissal.  One wonders how the Academy might have reacted had the first woman in radio astronomy, Ruby Payne-Scott, been its president. Her battle with Ian Clunies Ross in regard to the position of women, and particularly married women, in CSIRO as of the 1950's is memorable*.


§ Brings to mind Paul Krugman's recent comment: My experience is that nobody in the political world ever admits to having been wrong about anything.

*Goss, W. M. and McGee, Richard X., Under the Radar The First Woman in Radio Astronomy, Ruby Payne-Scott. Springer, 2009.