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Australian scientific research takes further hit as Government refuses to secure funding

The Coalition is refusing to guarantee funding to scientific research in Australia, threatening over 1,700 jobs and 27 research facilities.

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CSIRO Archives

After last year's proposed budget redacted $111 million in funding from Australia's national science agency, the CSIRO, scientific research in Australia is set to take another funding blow to the tune of $150 million.

This National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme funding was set to come from Minister for Education and Training Christopher Pyne's higher-education reforms, which would see the deregulation of university fees and the privatisation of HECS governmental tertiary education loans, as well as a 20 percent cut in governmental funding to the higher education sector.

With these reforms rejected by the Senate in December, Pyne has resubmitted a slightly amended bill to try again. However, without the bill approved, the Government is unable to guarantee funding past June 30 this year.

This loss in funding is already affecting the 27 research facilities it funds, impacting the 35,000 Australian and international researchers who use these facilities; and the 1,700 jobs funded by the NCRIS are at risk.

One of the facilities on the line is the Australian National Fabrication Facility, working on a mass production technique for the needle-free vaccine delivery patch developed at the Australian Microscopy and Microanalysis Research Facility. As ANFF Chief Executive Rosie Hicks told The Guardian, even if the funding were to be guaranteed tomorrow, it's already too late.

"We will close on the 30th June. There's no magic bullet, there's nothing up our sleeves. We are now entering the phase where we have to make wind-down plans," she said. "Obviously we're losing people. I'm being asked for references."

In an open letter to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a group of 15 scientific facilities called the Research Alliance banded together to protest the funding loss.

"The damages 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, 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 reads.

"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."

Pyne laid the blame squarely on the doorstep of the Opposition, saying it was Labor who set the June 30 deadline; however, he did not acknowledge the fact that funding for the scheme has only ever been granted on a short-term basis.

"Labor left no money in the forward estimates for NCRIS and Future Fellows beyond 30 June 2015," Pyne said in a statement.

"This was an integral part of the higher education reform package announced in the 2014 Budget. The funds for NCRIS only exist because of savings elsewhere in the higher education package. As I have made clear on many occasions over many months, if the higher education reforms don't pass, funds do not exist for NCRIS. The jobs of 1,700 people will be at risk. Australian research will suffer."

He added, "Labor needs to stop playing politics and enter negotiations with the Government because it will be on the heads of Labor, the Greens and the cross benchers if it closes."

Greens Deputy Leader Adam Bandt condemned the Government's refusal to guarantee NCRIS funding as "blackmail".

"Education Minister Christopher Pyne is blackmailing the Parliament, saying that unless the Parliament passes his plan to increase university fees, he'll take the axe to science and research facilities in this country," he said in a statement.

"Christopher Pyne is saying he will not give research facilities funding that has already been announced unless the Senate passes his Higher Education bill. The Abbott government is simply threatening Parliament, saying 'increase uni fees or the scientist gets it'. It's Parliamentary blackmail, pure and simple."

Updated at 1:50 p.m. AEDT: Added statement from Greens Deputy Leader Adam Bandt.