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A Crisis at NCRIS – Australia’s Science Infrastructure under Threat.

by Ginny Barbour

(updated March 16th – see foot of post)

The Murchison Widefield Array. Image credit: Natasha Hurley-Walker/Wikimedia
The Murchison Widefield Array. Image credit: Natasha Hurley-Walker/Wikimedia

There’s a high-stakes game of chicken currently being played out in Australia that has everyone who uses science infrastructure (that’s, well, pretty much every scientist then) in Australia biting their nails with anxiety. The issue is this. The government of Prime Minister Tony Abbot has had a woeful year in attempting to get its budget passed. One after another, the key issues that were laid before the Parliament last year have been either voted down, or not even made it to a vote. Almost the last one, an attempt to reform higher education funding – something that everyone agrees needs to happen, just not how – is now the subject of frenzied negotiations. But the bizarre issue is this – somehow this higher education reform has been tied to continued funding for science infrastructure – specifically the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) – and this money comes directly from the federal government.


This programme of science infrastructure, which was set up in 2004, has slowly, and quietly – in that way that infrastructure tends to happen – been built up to a point where Australia leads the world in some crucial areas. Examples include monitoring on the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian National Data Service, the Australian Synchrotron, etc. – far-sighted, innovative programmes and structures. However, this funding has never been long-term but always subject to renewal, though that in the past has always happened. And the money is not large – A$150 million yearly to keep facilities going that have already had A$2.5 billion invested into them – and on the background of an annual science budget of A$9 billion.


I’ve no idea what political solutions there might be here so it’s hard to not have a terrible feeling in the pit of your stomach when watching this stand-off from the sidelines. Headlines such as “The science community begs the government to continue funding vital research infrastructure” are, for once, not hyperbole. Without funding, facilities will shut down in months. One manager reports that staff are already seeking employment elsewhere.


Is this getting the international attention it deserves? – I’m pretty sure not. It’s not even getting that much in Australia where the airwaves and newspapers and hence politicians have their attention primarily focussed in almost macabre hour-by-hour detail on the fate in Indonesia of two Australians convicted of drug smuggling. By contrast, when the US government was brought to its knees in 2013 by the crisis over the 2014 Appropriations Bill, the world watched.


Scientists in Australia, including heads of many institutions, are doing what they can to explain why this all matters so much – there have been many excellent, carefully considered articles written, a Getup Campaign and a twitter campaign – #Ncrisis – is gaining traction. Even cartoonists realise the absurdity of the situation, with Schrödinger’s cat being invoked.


This crisis might not have the same apparent economic reverberations on other economies as the US one but science around the world will suffer – and that essentially means we all will suffer – if common sense doesn’t prevail and everyone pulls back from the brink.


March 16th Update

Over the past several days the funding debate has intensified with the CEO of Universities Australia noting that the level of uncertainty in university funding would not be tolerated in any other business  -“Endless tweaking of funding rates make planning for this industry impossible.” The Vice Chancellors of the Group of Eight Universities even took out a paid advertisement in several newspapers calling the decision “dumb”. In Canberra this afternoon, to much relief, the link between funding for NCRIS and University fee reform was broken and NCRIS funding restored – for one year more at least – though the long term funding of this vital infrastructure remains to be determined.​


Ginny Barbour is currently the Medicine and Biology Editorial Director for PLOS.  She is also the Executive Officer at the Australian Open Access Support Group, a position she took up in Feb 2015 and for which she will be leaving PLOS at the end of March 2015. She is also the Chair of COPE (an unpaid position). The views in this piece are personal and not those of her employers. She is based in Brisbane, Australia.


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