Dr Larry Marshall has been the CEO of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) since January 2015. He has a PhD in physics and began his career as a cadet at the Defence Science and Technology Organisation before moving to the US and starting a few technology companies before becoming a venture capitalist. His term as CEO began just as the Abbott coalition government cut the organisation’s budget by $111 million over four years, which meant as many as 420 jobs going, the closing of some sites and shutting down or greatly reducing some fields of research1.
Before he started at CSIRO he suggested the cash-strapped organisation spend scarce research dollars investigating dowsing. He said: “I’ve seen people do this with close to 80% accuracy, and I’ve no idea how they do it. When I see that, as a scientist, it makes me question, ‘Is there instrumentality that we could create that would enable a machine to find that water?’ … I’ve always wondered whether there is something in the electromagnetic field, or gravitational anomaly”.2
It is difficult to understand how a scientist, even an ex-scientist like Marshall could be so gullible, especially given the following. In 1964, magician, the late James Randi instituted a prize (initially $1,000; later $1,000,000) for someone who could demonstrate any paranormal ability, including dowsing. All applicants failed in the 50 years the prize was offered (it ceased when Randi retired in 1915)3. The Australian Skeptics have also offered a prize (initially $50,000; now $100,000) to anyone who could demonstrate paranormal ability. Probably because we live in an arid continent, the most active among those trying to claim the prize have been dowsers. All have failed in the 40+ years the prize has been on offer4. However, while not the $100,000 prize, Larry Marshall did get something from the Australian Skeptics; their annual Bent Spoon Award for 2014 for his enthusiastic embrace of dowsing5. The Bent Spoon Award is given to the “the proponent of the most preposterous piece of pseudoscientific or paranormal piffle of the year”.6 Marshall joins luminaries such as former parliamentarian, Covid denier and Ivermectin promoter Craig Kelly, and dodgy ‘chef’ Pete Evans who have also been so awarded, the latter twice7.
It seems that Marshall wanted to extend his time at the CSIRO, but his relationship with the board of the organisation had “fractured” to such an extent that, although he wanted another term as CEO, the board refused. It also seems that Marshall was “furious” at receiving the boot, but told the media that it was he had decided to step down. Insiders at CSIRO said this was “complete and utter bullshit”. Of course, the billionaire media were glowing in its praise of him. This was presumably because he led the organisation into controversial arrangements with corporations8.
Although it has been said that Marshall “modernised” the organisation, when questioned about his priorities by Greens senator Barbara Pocock at his last senate estimates hearing in early June, he relied on the distant history of the organisation in replying “CSIRO was originally created almost a hundred years ago, specifically for the purpose of assisting industry.” Pocock hit back: “Surely it’s to assist the Australian public as its primary goal?” To this, Marshall replied: “I think the first purpose under our act is to assist Australian industry, then the Commonwealth and then society”. The act does not indicate such a hierarchy8.
The more things change the more they stay the same. This is the continuation of the socialisation of risk and the privatisation of profit. CSIRO’s public money funds, with corporations, specific projects of interest to the corporations, and any profits from this, solely flow to the corporations. Respected climate scientist, David Karoly, who left CSIRO last year, has suggested that the CSIRO has been turned into a “very extravagant consulting company” under Marshall. Karoly agreed to head its Earth Systems and Climate Change Hub in the wake of Marshall’s deep cuts to the organisation’s climate science capacity on the grounds the problem was “proven”9 [If Marshall knew anything about science he would know nothing is proven; it is only alternatives have been disproven10]. That push was partially reversed after public and political pressure; even Marshall realised this was a mistake. Karoly said the cuts had been “stupid” and had a lasting impact. He says staff in CSIRO’s oceans and atmosphere unit were last year told 70% of CSIRO funding now had to come from external earnings (i.e. contracts with industry and government agencies) rather than “core funding” for a project to be approved. Historically, there had been about 30% external funding9. Even this 30% was difficult. A fellow CSIRO scientist told me, partly as a joke, that they spent 70% of their time running around getting 30% of their funding. This must change.
Hopefully, the new CEO, the respected molecular and cellular biologist, Doug Hilton will be better than Marshall. On getting the nod, Hilton said: “CSIRO is a unique national treasure, there to deliver science for the benefit of the community. The intent of CSIRO and my personal values are completely aligned, and I am looking forward to leading CSIRO as we work to solve our nation’s greatest challenges”.11 One can only hope he means it.