Thursday, October 18, 2012

MYEFO Madness. Research is shutting down

Australia’s medical and scientific research system is in chaos ahead of next week’s budget update with as many as 4000 of the nation’s top researchers uncertain of their futures and without guidance.

Australian Research Council chief Aidan Byrne told a Senate hearing yesterday he didn’t know whether or when hundreds of millions of dollars of grants preliminarily already approved would be announced and paid.

Next year’s ARC grants were due to be announced this month. But a funding “freeze” or “pause” in the leadup to the minibudget means the ARC is able to unable to tell applicants anything. Many of the grants are for continuing projects.

Applications for grants for 2014 were meant to have closed by now but “because of the pause or freeze, we haven’t even opened them,” Professor Byrne said.

Tertiary Education minister Chris Evans told the committee he would find out what remained after the freeze when it did.

University of New South Wales vice chancellor Fred Hilmer said top flight researchers lured to his university from overseas were close to leaving the country and not coming back.

“The need to make plans for next year, they need to know whether they are successful effectively unemployed,” he told The Age.

“If they knew they were going to be successful they could plan to stay and take leave without pay.

UNSW has 400 research staff on grants that expire at the end of this year, more than half doing medical research...

“These are the top 20 per cent because you only one in five succeeds. They are mainly young, this is crazy.”

Research grants typically last three years meaning one in every three projects is at risk.

“Researchers are preparing to leave. While we might think we have a budget problem Germany and France are actually increasing their research funding. They won’t come back.”

Head of the Melbourne-based ARC Centre of Excellence for Coherent X-ray Science Keith Nugent said freezing the grants would have ‘‘irreversible consequences’’.

‘‘The idea of putting these grants on hold for twelve months is not simply delaying funding, it is putting on hold the career development of a whole generation of people,” he said.

“People are depending on these grants for their livelihood.”

The Senate hearing was told the government decided to freeze all so-called discretionary grants on or near August 28. Staff at AusIndustry were told not to mention the decision unless asked and to tell callers inquiring about the progress of specific applications that they were subject to a “brief pause”. It was likely the word “brief” had since been removed from the script used by its call centre.

Grants to Australia’s big car manufacturers are among those frozen.

Universities Australia chief Belinda Robertson said her members had already begun dipping into funds meant for other purposes to support researchers and researchers themselves were beginning to “self fund”.

“What’s particularly worrying is that the May budget promised an extra $155 million to fund research support under the Sustainable Research Excellence program. Universities have begun hiring staff. It’s a nail-biting time.”

Professor Hilmer said the University of New South Wales took one in every ten of Australia's medical and academic research dollars. This meant that Australia-wide as many as 4000 researchers were in the dark about their immediate futures.

Senator Evans said he thought the budget update would end the uncertainty, but he did not know how much grant funding would be left.

In today's  Age

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