‘Not very good at politics’: CSIRO Larry Marshall’s Senate hearing admission

Larry Marshall has been forced to appear for a second time before a Senate Select Committee as pressure intensifies around the CSIRO Chief Executive’s controversial plan to cut hundreds of jobs, Fairfax Media reports.

‘Not very good at politics’: CSIRO Larry Marshall’s Senate hearing admission
Peter Hannam, Fairfax Media

CSIRO’s embattled chief, Larry Marshall, stumbled through another Senate committee hearing on Wednesday, while declaring he was “not very good at politics”.

Dr Marshall has been under pressure to explain the reasons behind plans to slash 350 jobs, many of them within climate research, announced by the science agency on February 4.

Criticism from home and abroad, particularly regarding CSIRO’s plan to axe as many as 100 climate scientists, has since prompted a a reduction in the cuts.

The agency on Tuesday said it would create a special climate centre based in Hobart to guarantee long-term funds for 40 staff, many of them doing climate modelling work. The number of jobs to go would also be trimmed to 275 positions.

During Wednesday’s appearance before a Senate committee dominated by the Greens and Labor, Dr Marshall spoke about his performance in steering the $1.3 billion-a-year agency.

“I’m not very good at communications and not very good at politics,” Dr Marshall, a former Silicon Valley venture capitalist, said.

At other times during the hearing, Dr Marshall struggled to find an email CSIRO had provided to the Senators, asking Greens Senator Janet Rice if he could have a copy.

After praising the potential of CSIRO’s other research to extract omega-3 and even oils from “leaves”, he had to jump back in later during the hearing to amend his evidence, saying he meant “seeds” instead.

Wednesday’s hearing, the latest in a series over the past two months, left many questions unanswered, such as how much climate science funding would be cut – rather than increased – by the creation of the new CSIRO climate centre.

At one point, Dr Marshall stated that delaying the cuts to the Oceans and Atmosphere division by one year would cost CSIRO $10 million. Later, chief financial officer Hazel Bennett intervened to say she didn’t want that figure “to be a headline”.

The division is home to the two main research units facing cuts of about 45 staff, down from the 96 planned at one point by management, according to evidence handed over to the committee.

Staff also say it is unclear what will happen to the 60 climate scientists who remain at CSIRO but are not included in the 40 staff at the proposed centre.

They are also uncertain why Hobart was named as the location for the centre, given that as much as 75 per cent of staff doing the climate modelling and those involved in the National Environmental Science Program dealing with climate are based in Melbourne.

During the two hour-long hearing, Dr Marshall said the agency had trimmed back losses in climate scientists and in the Ocean and Atmosphere division which housed them. His use of language, though, drew attention on social media.

One of Dr Marshall’s deputies, Alex Wonhas, denied that the creation of the centre also meant there would be “second-class” scientists.

Dr Wonhas said CSIRO wanted to build up capability in Hobart, and that the research priorities would change.

“They would never commit to 100 at the centre,” one senior CSIRO scientist said. “It could be an excuse for the next cuts. If you’re a cynic, they could say, ‘we only committed to 40’.”

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