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Australian cuts rile researchers

Political scorn on top of shrinking funds creates hostility between scientists and Tony Abbott’s government.

A slashed budget sparked protests in June by government-funded scientists in Canberra. Credit: CSIRO Staff Association

Australia is booming. The country’s economy is strong, and this year the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development put the nation at the top of its ‘better life’ index — an attempt to quantify well-being in industrialized countries.

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But many scientists Down Under are not feeling on top of the world. Just over a year since taking office, the coalition government, under the leadership of the Liberal Party’s Tony Abbott, has cut several basic-research programmes and put science under the auspices of industry minister Ian Macfarlane — who last month dismissed those who complained about the consolidation as “precious petals in the science fraternity”. Last week, another government minister threatened that two key basic-research programmes could be targeted if parliament resists proposed cuts in higher-education funding. This came just days after the Australian Greens party released an analysis produced by the Parliamentary Library showing that government spending on research and development fell to 0.56% of gross domestic product for 2014–15, its lowest level since 1989–90 (see ‘Lean years’).

“It is getting noticeably more difficult to get funding, with success rates for various fellowship and project grant schemes declining,” says Darren Saunders, a medical researcher at the University of New South Wales in Sydney. “There is a very real perception that our current government doesn’t value or respect science and scientists as highly as we would like.”

The 2014–15 budget, released in May by the current government, cuts millions of dollars in research funding from government agencies such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), which employs thousands of scientists at various locations. At CSIRO alone, hundreds of jobs will be lost this year and the organization’s annual budget will be cut by Aus$30.9 million (US$27 million).

“I’ve been involved with CSIRO for 15 years and the feedback everyone is getting is that morale is at an all-time low,” says Sam Popovski, a former agricultural scientist who is now a full-time trade-union representative for the CSIRO staff association.

Credit: Source: Australian Parliamentary Lib./Australian Greens

Popovski points out that the previous government also made cuts to the CSIRO, which by mid-2015 will have lost one in five staff over the past two years, he says. Of roughly 1,300 job losses, Popovski estimates that more than half can be attributed to the Abbott administration, with another 300 caused by cuts from the previous government and 300 as a result of an internal reorganization.

Down and out

The government has also cut the budget of the Australian Research Council, the main source of non-medical government research grants. Leslie Field, secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science and vice-president of the University of New South Wales, says that the move is likely to reduce grant success rates below their current level of around 20%, thus eliminating support for a significant share of Australia’s high-quality research. On the govern­ment’s general science spend, Field says: “There is no question that the cuts will have a negative effect on Australia’s science system.”

Proposed changes to the nation’s higher-education system threaten to make a difficult funding situation even tougher. The government is seeking to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from funding for student places, and wants to remove a cap on student fees to allow universities to claw back the difference. But the proposal has run into trouble in parliament. In response, education minister Christopher Pyne said in parliament on 2 October that if the reform does not pass, the government could reduce scientific programmes to compensate. Cuts to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which supports scientific facilities, and the Future Fellowships programme, designed to support ‘outstanding’ mid-career researchers, would cost up to 1,500 jobs, he said.

Because universities can use student fees to subsidize their research, doubt over student funding further threatens the scientific community, says Brian Schmidt, an astron­omer at the Australian National University in Weston Creek and a Nobel laureate.“There’s huge uncertainty right now,” he says — especially for early-career researchers.

Not all areas of science have faced cuts in the past year. The Abbott government has strongly backed medical research, announcing that it wants to create a billion-dollar Medical Research Future Fund, which would invest Aus$20 million for 2015–16, rising to Aus$1 billion by 2022. Although this potential extra funding — which must still be approved by parliament — is welcomed by medical researchers, there is concern over the proposal that this money would be raised by a Aus$7 fee for people to visit a doctor.

“That medical-research fund of course is welcomed by the medical-research community,” says Peter Doherty, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne and a Nobel laureate. But he adds that “the funding mechanism has created a lot of hostility” towards medical research. Charities have expressed concern that public donations could decline as a result of the charge.

There is no question that the cuts will have a negative effect on Australia’s science system.

Some researchers say it is telling that the Abbott government has done away with a dedicated science minister, instead making industry minister Macfarlane responsible. Last month, Macfarlane lashed out at those who complained about his dual role with his now-famous ‘precious petals’ quote. He took umbrage at what he said was the insinuation that he did not care enough about science by saying: “I’m just not going to accept that crap.” In a e-mail to Nature, Macfarlane said: “It’s no accident that science is in the industry portfolio.” He added that the government would soon release a ‘competitiveness agenda’, of which a key element would be creating stronger links between business and research.

Schmidt calls the ‘precious petals’ comment “poorly judged”, but puts it down to ongoing “name-calling” between the government and its critics in the science community.

Other researchers are angrier. The comment inspired US researcher Ainsley Seago, who studies beetles at Macquarie University in Sydney, to create ‘I’m a precious petal’ T-shirts for irate scientists. Macfarlane’s quote “was terrifically insulting”, she says, and reminiscent of the “science-hostile Bush administration”.


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Cressey, D. Australian cuts rile researchers. Nature 514, 148–149 (2014).

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