More evidence that the Aust. government doesn’t care about research

Thanks everyone for reading my post last week. It was incredibly popular – by my blog’s standards anyway – showing that there are a lot of people who care about the state of research in Australia.

Federal Greens MP Adam Bandt started a petition on 27 September about stopping research funding cuts. Sign it here.

We seem to be learning more about the extremely cavalier attitude the government is taking towards research funding in Australia. The lack of information around the rumoured cuts to funding make it a very bleak and uncomfortable time for the researchers in Australia waiting on funding outcomes for the major grants schemes.

This week, we’ve learned that the Group of Eight universities are concerned (see article from The Australian at the bottom of the post) that the research funding cuts may come via the Sustainable Research Excellence initiative, part of the block grant funding scheme for covering indirect costs associated with running research at universities. They fear up to $150million will be lost. According the article:

Commentators say it may be a more politically astute way of clawing back money by avoiding unwanted headlines if researchers lost jobs as a result of cuts to grants

So the government is reportedly trying to be sneaky with its budget cuts. I say that’s a red herring, because indirect costs for universities’ budgets include salaries for people working who are not permanent staff. And if research programs have to be scaled back, who gets their marching orders first? People like research assistants and technical officers and postdocs, who may find themselves out of a job because the uni can’t afford to fund the indirect cost of them working with a professor on an ARC grant.

But it gets worse. Yesterday, amidst editorials that actually mentioned the current frozen state of research grant funding (it’s about time it got more attention), we were treated to the knowledge that the Department of Industry, Innovation, Science Research and Tertiary Education (DIISRTE) – the very department in charge of this research funding debacle – have dropped a cool $75,000 on five coffee machines for their office in Canberra. But, according to a spokesperson, “the machines generate value for employees and we believe increase productivity”. Never mind the fact that there is a cafe in the foyer of their building, or that $75K would just about fund a postdoc’s salary for a year.

Meanwhile, as DIISRTE sips its coffee the ARC is still frozen in time, unable to say whether all the Discovery projects listed as successful will actually receive funding. It doesn’t know when it might be able to announce the outcomes of the Discovery round, or open the next Linkage round:

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 with preliminary approval 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 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.

I thought that the ARC was being coy by not giving any information out about the funding freeze, but they are actually in the dark as much as we are.
However, it gets worse. Reported by the ABC this morning, at the Senate Estimates Committee hearing, Greens senator Lee Rhiannon said that the government risks losing researchers overseas with their handling of the funding freeze. Our esteemed Minister for Research, Chris Evans, defended the government’s decision by saying that Rhiannon’s claims were “outrageous” and “No-one apart from you [Rhiannon] is suggesting that it is playing out in that way….I don’t mean to be aggressive, but sometimes you make these statements and they’re just plain wrong.”
Evans is clearly deluded. What Rhiannon said is perfectly true – this current climate is not conducive to job security for many researchers, and certainly some would be assessing their options for working overseas right now. What does Evans think researchers do all day? Sit around drinking coffee and waiting for some extra, superfluous money to drop into our laps? No, we don’t – and not because we don’t have fancy $15K coffee machines either. Researchers work bloody hard for little reward, apart from advancing knowledge in their discipline (which is important, but often negligible if converted into a purely economic or monetary context). Many of the people waiting on ARC outcomes are waiting to see not only if they get funded to do research next year, but also if they’ll have a salary.

The final word for today shall go to Brian Schmidt, Nobel laureate and professor at ANU, who tweeted, “We need to spend our research $ smarter-This freeze does the opposite- devaluing the $ invested by creating uncertainty”

The Australian, 17 Oct 2012 (click for larger version)


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