Picture: Pieces of the puzzle. Credit: Ryoji Iwata (Unsplash).

by Christian Jakob
In March 2019, a time that feels incredibly distant today, the National Climate Science Advisory Committee (NCSAC) asked CLEX to provide a comprehensive report on the current state of climate processes research in Australia. It also asked us to discuss gaps as well as opportunities for the future.

I volunteered to lead the writing of this report. It did not take very long for me to realise that I did not even know where to start. But start I did, and in February 2020, thanks to the help of an incredible team (see below), we delivered the report into a challenging world.

At the time of the report’s release, I thought our biggest problem was that there was no committee to deliver the report to anymore. The NCSAC had been dissolved in December 2019 and a follow-up had not been put in place yet. As we all know now, this has become a minor issue in comparison to what we, and perhaps more so, many of our friends and families in less secure circumstances than us, both here and abroad, are facing today.

I do feel, however, that the work and ideas formulated in the report are of high enough importance to the ever-changing landscape of Australian climate science to write about them in this issue of our newsletter. Let me try and convince you that this report is well worth a read!

The report process

First things first though, how did we get it all done? As always, it starts with a great team, which I was lucky to be able to assemble. Marty Singh at Monash University volunteered to be my wingman through the process, which I guess makes me the “Maverick”.

We quickly discovered several serious challenges. For starters, ask any climate scientist what a climate process even is, and you will receive more responses than people you ask. Is the formation of a droplet in a cloud a climate process? What about photosynthesis? Or is that already several processes acting together? What about El Niño as a climate process?

Second, we knew immediately that we knew very little about who is doing climate processes research in the country and for what purpose. We knew we needed a survey, but on what exactly?

So, we expanded the team to include colleagues in various fields of climate science across many major groups that do it. Here is the big thank you for all who helped: Josephine Brown (University of Melbourne), Martin De Kauwe (University of New South Wales), James Goldie (Monash University), Petra Heil (Australian Antarctic Division), Ian MacAdam (University of New South Wales), Richard Matear (CSIRO), Amelie Meyer (University of Tasmania), Hanh Nguyen (Bureau of Meteorology), Andrea Taschetto (University of New South Wales). Thank you all!

The team constructed and then conducted an online survey where we asked those leading teams in climate research across the country what they spend their time on. We received a great response from the community covering more than 550 full-time equivalent staff, of which 345 are dedicated to climate research. Add to that the 121 climate science PhD students, and a substantial workforce emerges. You need to read the report to find out what exactly they all do.

Suffice to say, the survey provided us with the best view of the current state of affairs that we could hope for. So how could we use this to make suggestions for future initiatives or priorities? The team could have given their opinion, but would that have been a fair reflection of what the community thinks?

To overcome this difficulty, we convened a two-day workshop of current and emerging climate science leaders. We asked them just a few questions:

  1. What are the top-five climate science questions that need answering in the coming decade?
  2. Are we well set up to answer them?
  3. What could we do to improve our ability to answer them?

The answers to these three questions are what the report is about.

What did we conclude?

Well, there are the 25 main pages of the report if you really want to know the details but here is the primary upshot of our work.

Climate-processes research is the foundation of all climate science activities. No phenomenon can be understood, no climate model built, no prediction made, and no adaptation decision reached without understanding the processes that underpin the working of the system.

Australia is overall well placed to tackle climate processes research, but there are some key gaps that require filling sooner rather than later.

Two key issues for the community are:

  • The frequent fragmentation of what could be critical-mass research efforts and
  • Institutional priorities often overwhelm the need for national collaboration.

In short, we aren’t as good as we ought to be in bringing our significant talent together in ways that allow us to truly tackle the key big science questions. Without answering these questions, the expectations that society has of us and our work cannot be fulfilled.

Make no mistake, we are doing great work on many of the parts of the puzzle, but as many are finding out today in their living rooms, large jigsaw puzzles are hard to solve. They only come together more easily when the sky mum and dad were working on gets combined with the forest the kids were putting together.

As a result, the report recommends the main improvement for the future should be to strengthen the collaboration between those engaged in climate science.

Our proposed options to achieve this range across a light-touch but well-funded collaborative research network; small and highly targeted collaborative “accelerator institutes” that forge ahead in especially critical areas; and the formation of a national climate science institute. A staged approach using all three turns out to be our preferred option. I hope I have managed to intrigue you sufficiently to read the full report. With no committee in place to discuss it with and with all of us overcoming much more significant issues at the moment, we are starved for feedback. I am counting on you to change this!