Unis plead with government over research infrastructure funding

Deadline looming for NCRIS funding

The Pawsey Centre is one of the facilities that has benefited from NCRIS funding.

The Pawsey Centre is one of the facilities that has benefited from NCRIS funding.

An open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott warns that continued uncertainty over funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy could lead to "immense" damage for Australian research.

"As with any major public infrastructure, the NCRIS facilities depend on secure funding to enable forward planning and efficient operation," states the letter, which is signed by representatives of the National Research Alliance, which includes among its members Group of Eight Australia, Research Australia, Universities Australia, Science and Technology Australia, and the Australian Academy of Science.

"However, with continued uncertainty over the 2015-16 operational funding included in the last budget, many of the NCRIS facilities are preparing to close," the letter states.

The government is saying increase university fees, or the scientist gets it

Greens MP Adam Bandt

"The damage to Australia's domestic and collaborative international research effort that will result from such closures is immense. Continuity and productivity of critical research programs will be set back by several years, with some innovative Australian companies will be forced to take their operations offshore, many profitable international research collaborations will cease, and 1,700 highly skilled NCRIS staff could become unemployed.

"Importantly, with just four months until the end of the financial year, the uncertainty is already having an impact [emphasis in original]. Many NCRIS staff have been put on provisional notice of termination, and the consequent exodus of highly specialised skills has begun and will only accelerate as the end of the year draws closer.

"Furthermore, many of the facilities cannot be viably maintained if taken offline for significant periods. This means that if operational funding for 2015-16 is not confirmed in the next two months, the Government will be effectively decommissioning high-cost public infrastructure that in many cases has years if not decades of productive working life remaining."

NCRIS has funded some 27 major national research facilities, which collectively employ more than 1700 staff. More than 35,000 researchers use NCRIS facilities, the letter states.

In the last budget, funding of $150 million in 2015-16 was earmarked for NCRIS. However, the funds are linked to the government changes to higher education, which it has been unable to push through the Senate.

Projects that have in the past benefited from NCRIS funding include the National eResearch Collaboration, Tools and Resources (NeCTAR) project, the National Research Network, and the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre.

"[M]any of the facilities [relying on NCRIS funding to continue operating] cannot be viably maintained if taken offline for significant periods," the letter states.

"This means that if operational funding for 2015-16 is not confirmed in the next two months, the Government will be effectively decommissioning high-cost public infrastructure that in many cases has years if not decades of productive working life remaining.

"The National Research Alliance urges the Government to fulfil its responsibility to fund the NCRIS program in 2015-16, and to use the NCRIS review that is already underway as an opportunity to find a long-term funding solution for research infrastructure in Australia."

Education minister Christopher Pyne blamed Labor for the situation facing NCRIS.

"It is a simple reality: Labor defunded NCRIS and Future Fellows [program]," the minister said in a statement.

"They were left on a cliff. We are putting the money back in to keep the programme going. That requires the reform to pass to provide the savings.

"Labor left no money in the forward estimates for NCRIS and Future Fellows beyond 30 June 2015."

Labor's shadow education minister Kim Carr said that "the decision to hold NCRIS funding hostage was made by Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott".

Carr said that the Coalition government should immediately release the $150 million of funding for NCRIS.

"NCRIS facilities have already started losing staff and negotiating redundancy agreements," Carr said.

"There is a very real risk that some facilities will be forced to close if their funding is not secured by the end of March.

"If this happens, Australia could lose these capabilities for years to come."

'Blackmail'

Greens MP Adam Bandt described Pyne's stance as being a form of "parliamentary blackmail".

"Education Minister Christopher Pyne is blackmailing the Parliament, saying that unless the Parliament passes his plan to increase university fees, he’ll take the axe to science and research facilities in this country," the Greens' science, research and innovation spokesperson said in a statement.

"It’s like saying the government is not going to fund schools unless the GP fee gets passed. The two areas are unconnected."

Australia’s long-term needs have become caught up in the Abbott government’s sordid short-term political tactics," the MP said.

"The government is saying increase university fees, or the scientist gets it," Bandt told a press conference earlier today.

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