Uncertainty over research funding is corrosive, Mr Pyne. Australia needs scientists
By linking higher education reforms to research funding, Christopher
Pyne risks the closure of some of Australia’s most successful research
Driving down a brand new highway in Sicily in my teens, I almost went
over the edge when the road simply stopped; no explanation, no
The road was one of many that had been abruptly terminated when the
cash ran out. There were hopes that funding might flow again, but it
hadn’t happened, so the road remained half-built.
Coming from Australia, I found this hard to understand but comforted myself it could never happen at home.
But it may be about to.
Back in 2004, the Howard government launched the national
collaborative research infrastructure strategy (NCRIS). Announcing it,
the then education minister Julie Bishop said it was “essential to build
our national capacity to generate knowledge and use it to advance our
economic, social and environmental objectives”.
She was right. Over almost a decade since, the now 27 flourishing national research facilities have done just that.
They are used by the nation’s top researchers, from all sectors, to
tackle big challenges and and to address the issues that will determine
how successful we are in the 21st century.
These facilities – supercomputers, fabrications facilities,
ocean-monitoring programs – are the basic tools of modern science. They
hold the key to the progress of a modern nation. Without them, we have
no hope of competing with the rest of the world.
tiny snapshot of recent results from NCRIS programs includes a
nano-patch to deliver vaccines without the need for refrigeration,
making an obvious life-saving difference for remote Australians and the
health of our region; use of marine models and data to search for
Malaysian Airlines flight MH370; and the weather-prediction technology
that picked up the recent Northern Territory and Queensland cyclones.
I could go on, but while the NCRIS facilities may not be household
names, everyone seems to agree they are a good thing: building
capability, providing unique and cutting-edge services to industry,
helping to improve lives, making money and creating jobs.
So why worry?
While the facilities have bedded down and flourished, government
funding for operating them has been a little lumpy, the initial
seven-year commitment followed by less predictable terms and amounts.
But, until now, the funding has always come in the end.
Last May, the education minister, Christopher Pyne,
again found a last-minute sum – $150m to fund the facilities for
2015-16 – while initiating a review to identify long-term funding
options. Scientists were pleased with the move and have been supportive
of the review. The final report, which includes a decent set of
recommendations, will be submitted to the government in the next few
The problem is that the $150m has not flowed, nor has a date been set
when it will. In fact, Pyne has indicated it may not be forthcoming
unless his package of university deregulation reforms are passed. Anyone
who has kept half an eye on politics in recent months knows that that
package may not pass at all and is unlikely to pass quickly.
This is a serious problem: the current NCRIS operations money runs
out on 30 June, less than four months away. Without certainty of
funding, staff are already looking for employment elsewhere, crisis
meetings are being held, and some facilities are measuring their
existence in terms of weeks, not months or years.
Research facilities such as these cannot be shut down quickly, a
phased shut down has to be planned for and implemented before the
funding runs out. Some will be expensive, if not impossible, to reopen.
If the government does not move very quickly to release the funds,
there is the very real possibility that a good number of the 27
facilities will close.
It is hard to believe that the government could allow a highly
successful, 11-year, multi-billion dollar capital investment to fall
over for want of an operating budget.
At a showcase for all 27 NCRIS facilities late last year in the Great
Hall at Parliament House, parliamentary secretary Scott Ryan spoke on
behalf of Pyne. He said:
There is no question about the impact NCRIS has in Australia and
internationally. This is well recognised by universities, research
facilities, state governments and industry, with NCRIS projects
leveraging a total of $1bn from across these groups.
The government will safeguard the future of Australia’s world-class
research and research infrastructure, and help prepare Australia and the
world for the challenges before us. I ask you to continue to work with
us in this endeavour.
Scientists want nothing more than to get on with the job of tackling
challenges and grasping opportunities – but they are facing a dead end.
Uncertainty over funding is corrosive, but things are much more serious
that that. If the government does not guarantee the $150m will flow, and
soon, Australia’s research effort will run off the road.