Turnbull's rain adventure: $11m spent on pseudoscience
In 2007, Malcolm Turnbull, as Minister for the Environment and Water, decided he would try to end the drought. A noble cause, but he used $11 million of taxpayer money to trial a technology without scientific merit. What makes it even more frustrating is that trial wasn't conducted scientifically, so the experiment was a complete waste. Ian Woolf has provided us with a transcript of his show on Diffusion Science Radio.
Transcript: Its raining Innovation
from Diffusion Radio by Ian Woolf
Its raining innovation! When Innovation Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull was Minister for the Environment in the Coalition Government of John Howard in 2007, he paid Eleven Million Dollars of taxpayer's money for a trial of wire pyramids, that he claimed, would make rain from clear skies. If it worked, he would be hailed as a visionary hero who broke the drought, if it failed, his loss of millions of National Water Commission dollars during a drought, to pseudo-science could be hidden by the election campaign.
The Australian Rain Corporation sells wire pyramids that are connected over several kilometres to generate negatively charged molecules - ions of air, that will electrostatically bind with dust. The company claimed that these negative ions and the dust they bound to, would rise into the upper atmosphere where water would condense on them, and form into clouds that would then make rain fall from previously clear skies. They say the negative ions and their attached dust particles reach the upper atmosphere by means of wind, atmospheric convection, and turbulence. The Australian Rain Corporation presented research documents that were written in Russian, explained by a Russian researcher who spoke to a panel of Australian physicists, in Russian, without a translator. They learned nothing.
Appearing on the ABC TV show 7:30 Report in 2007, Ian Searle, the father of cloud seeding in Australia for the Tasmanian Hydro-electric scheme, said all the literature he has seen on the technology shows it to be a bogus science, similar to an American product called Cloudbusters that also claimed to ionise the atmosphere in order to make clouds out of blue skies and then to produce rain from those clouds.
He was followed by Israel's internationally respected cloud physicist Professor Daniel Rosenfeld from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who pointed out that there are no scientific papers published on this negative ion method of rain-cloud making, only the patent. One can patent anything claiming it's to do anything that he likes, as long as no one else has made the same claims before. There's no requirement that the claims be true.
A report was given to the Federal Government about the Australian Rain Corporation's unproven Russian technology: the former head of the CSIRO Office of Space Science, Ken McCracken, and the Emeritus Professor of Physics from the University of New England, Neville Fletcher, said they were highly sceptical about the technology and recommended that a trial only go ahead after more scientific work on the proposal, and if it could be done "at no great expense". They recommended no more than two million dollars be spent exploring the science before any commitment to a grant for a trial. The report was ignored by Malcolm Turnbull.
The World Meteorological Organization's Expert Team on Weather Modification has examined the claims that Russian negative ion pyramids have created rain in the deserts of Abu Dhabi, and concluded that it just didn't work. Yes, it did rain fifty times during the trial, but that isn't unusual in this coastal region.
Australian Rain Technologies themselves stated in their 2008 report on the Queensland trials of their Atlant rain-making technology that: "It should be realized that the energy involved in weather systems is so large that it is impossible to create cloud systems that rain, alter wind patterns to bring water vapour into a region, or completely eliminate severe weather phenomena" . Dr Roelof Bruintjes, a US-based researcher who advises the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) on rainfall enhancement said "As far as I'm concerned it's physically not possible, nobody can make or chase away a cloud. Nobody can make rain out of nothing."
The Coalition lost the 2007 election in a landslide to Labor, but the eleven million dollar grant had already been allocated to the Australian Rain Corporation's trial.
The Australian Academy of Sciences finally issued a statement explaining that "The chaotic nature of weather means very long trials are needed to determine the effectiveness of any such technology. Trials are held over many years, with the methods for these trials set out by the World Meteorological Organisation. The procedures and standards recommended by World Meteorological Organisation have not been met in the project announced by the outgoing government."
This is the saddest part of the story - regardless of whether it rained more or less, because the trials weren't conducted scientifically, nobody can actually tell whether the technology worked despite the science arrayed against it, or not, so the eleven million dollars was well and truly wasted. Australian Rain Technologies themselves stated in their 2008 report on the Queensland trials that "demonstrating a causal link between the operation of the Atlant system and rainfall would require a major scientific undertaking beyond the scope of the trial per se." In other words they didn't try to determine whether their system worked or not.
If you go to the Australian Rain Corporations website today, it has a disclaimer in red at the top of the page stating that it no longer claims to produce rain clouds from a clear sky, but to intensify rain-fall from existing clouds. Australia's Prime Minister's eagerness to grant many millions of dollars to what appears to be pseudo-science in his previous government, while also removing hundreds of millions of dollars from real science and sacking entire fields of experienced scientists in his present government, worries me greatly. I will report on the science policies of all the parties competing in the 2016 Australian Federal Election, in the months to come.
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