Science infrastructure funding is being held hostage by government

Education minister Christopher Pyne has maintained that the higher education reforms must be passed in order for science infrastructure funding to be released. AAP/Lukas Coch

Leaders of many of Australia’s top scientific research organisations have today called on the federal government to release A$150 million in vital science infrastructure funding, which is currently being withheld due to wrangling over the government’s proposed higher education reforms.

Writing in an open letter addressed to the prime minister, they warn of the 1,700 highly skilled jobs that could be lost and the 27 scientific research facilities that could be at risk of closure if the funding under the National Collaborative Reserach Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) is not restored.

NCRIS was announced in 2004 by Julie Bishop as a five year programme to fund facilities that provide services to other scientific researchers, such as microscopy, telescopes and supercomputers.

Since that time it has committed more than A$2 billion and has supported 27 research facilities, including the Australian Biosecurity Intelligence Network, the Australian Synchrotron, the National Computational Infrastructure, the Australian Microscopy & Microanalysis Research Facility and the precursor to the Square Kilometre Array.

Funding was temporarily halted under Labor in 2011 and restored with the interim Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (CRIS). Since then, NCRIS has been renewed annually with the federal budget.

Last year, the NCRIS funding was tied to the higher education reforms, which have stalled in the senate with no indication they will be passed any time soon.

The Education Minister Christopher Pyne told the ABC that money for NCRIS was available but was locked in the higher education reform bill, currently before the Senate.

The open letter warns that the cost of continuing to withhold the funding could be “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.

The letter points out that some damage has already been done, as some employees at NCRIS facilities have been put on provisional notice of termination, and some facilities have not entered into new commercial contracts due to the unpredictability of funding.

The full open letter is printed below:


March 4 2015

Open letter to the Prime Minister of Australia: Australia’s national public research infrastructure preparing for shutdown

Dear Prime Minister

We, the undersigned members of the National Research Alliance are writing to alert you to the damage being caused to significant public infrastructure by the continued uncertainty over operational funding for the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

Since 2004, NCRIS and its predecessor program has sensibly and successfully guided Australia’s national research infrastructure investment; committing over $2 billion of taxpayer money to 27 major research facilities. Together, these facilities:

  • allow Australia’s scientists to undertake world-class research;

  • enable significant science industry linkage, including the capacity for innovative Australian companies to access high-tech infrastructure; and

  • facilitate international research collaboration, which provide substantial economic and intellectual value to Australia.

Over 35,000 Australian and international researchers use NCRIS facilities, and the 27 national facilities employ over 1,700 highly skilled scientists, and support and management staff. The facilities underpin much of Australia’s $30 billion annual spend on science, research and development at an operational cost of just $150 million per annum (0.5% of total, and 1.6% of the Australian Government science funding).

As with any major public infrastructure, the NCRIS facilities depend on secure funding to enable forward planning and efficient operation. 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 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. 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.

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.

If this does not happen, the locking of lab doors, the mothballing of world class facilities and the retrenching of specialist scientists and research staff will inevitably begin soon.

Yours sincerely

Dr Ross Smith, President, Science and Technology Australia

Professor Doug Hilton, President, Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI)

Dr Margaret Hartley, Chief Executive, Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering

Dr John Beaton, Executive Director, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia

Ms Vicki Thomson, Chief Executive, The Group of Eight

Dr Caroline Perkins, Executive Director, Regional Universities Network

Dr Tony Peacock, Chief Executive, Cooperative Research Centres Association

Ms Renee Hindmarsh, Executive Director, Australian Technology Network

Ms Robyn Porter, President, Professional Scientists Australia

Elizabeth Foley, CEO and managing Director, Research Australia

Professor John Fitzgerald FAHA, President, Australian Academy of the Humanities

Ms Belinda Robinson, Chief Executive, Universities Australia

Professor Andrew Holmes, President, Australian Academy of Science

Dr Phoebe Phillips, President, Australian Society for Medical Research

Mr Conor King, Executive Director, Innovative Research Universities