NCRIS Funding threatened
The Atlas of Living Australia is an NCRIS project supported by a number of CAMD museums.
Andrew Holmes and Alan Finkel, Science community begs government to continue funding vital research infrastructure, The Sydney Morning Herald, 5 March 2015
Imagine if the Australian government said it would stop paying train drivers. There would be a public outcry as hundreds of thousands of commuters were left high and dry while the trains were left to gather dust and rust. It’s hard to think of anything more wasteful.
This is exactly what is set to happen to science infrastructure in Australia. As our rail network supports the economy, the national, large-scale research equipment known as National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) supports Australia’s scientific research endeavour.
Funding for NCRIS comes direct from the Federal Government. Education Minister Christopher Pyne stated in parliament this year that because NCRIS funding was coupled in last year’s budget to the stalled higher education reform bill no money will be available to operate most of NCRIS after the end of this June.
This means that in a few months from now 27 NCRIS facilities throughout Australia will grind to a halt unless parliament can agree on an alternative funding mechanism. These are facilities that the government has already invested $2.5 billion into, including high-tech manufacturing facilities that create new materials and the sophisticated laboratories that were used to safely develop the Hendra virus vaccine.
To spend all this money on world-class facilities only to cut them off at the knees does not make sense. In just one example, the marine observing system has around $40 million worth of equipment in the oceans around Australia. Without funds to operate this equipment or bring it back to shore this investment will be wasted.
For those who think that this is just brinkmanship and the situation will resolve itself, that is not the case. The unravelling of the NCRIS capability has already started. Right now, these facilities, which employ some 1,700 staff and are used by national institutes, industry partners and more than 35,000 researchers, are preparing to close.
With no funding beyond 30 June – only a few months away – the heads of these facilities are already telling staff they may no longer have a job. These are highly skilled technical operators and support staff who could take their expertise overseas and away from Australian scientific projects. Not surprisingly, some have already found alternative employment and many are looking. These are the people who could be contributing to the next generation industrial revolution.
Crucial scientific programs will be set back several years and may never regain what they’re set to lose. This is not just an issue affecting academia. The government has been urging stronger ties between research and industry, yet industry is one of the biggest users of NCRIS facilities. Many of these facilities are used by researchers working in collaboration with industry partners to produce new products and technology: projects and partnerships that will languish if NCRIS disappears.
These big facilities are simply too important to be a political bargaining chip. You would not expect a tradesmen to build your house if you locked up all the tools he needed. Likewise, you cannot expect Australian scientists to do their job with both hands tied behind their back. Without access to the networks, the data infrastructure, the high-performance computing, the imaging facilities, and other world-leading equipment, where will the next breakthroughs come from?
The Nanopatch is a needle-free way of delivering vaccines, now poised for clinical trial. It uses 20,000 vaccine-coated, microscopic projections – a highly specialised manufacturing process. This novel device has the potential to vastly improve health outcomes across the world because it can be transported and distributed without refrigeration, cannot be re-used (eliminating the risk of blood-borne disease transmission) and is relatively painless. It was developed at an NCRIS fabrication facility in Australia, without which the research would have taken longer, been more costly and difficult, or likely been done in another country.
Success stories like this would not have been possible without NCRIS. That’s why the heads of major Australian science and research bodies, including the Australian Academy of Science and the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, have written an open letter calling on the Prime Minister to realise the government’s commitment to this vital infrastructure program and to sustain these major scientific facilities into the future.
The Prime Minister said throughout his last election campaign that he wants to “end the waste” and that he wants to be remembered as the “Infrastructure Prime Minister”.
Here is his opportunity.
Professor Andrew Holmes is President of the Australian Academy of Science.
Dr Alan Finkel is President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.