Ocean researchers around the world are dismayed that an Australian research institute that has become an international authority on the declining health of reef ecosystems will lose most of its government funding after 2021.
Papers published by scientists at the Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, headquartered at James Cook University in Townsville, were cited almost 40,000 times in 2017 — more than any other institute in the world doing reef science. Its most cited study was based on surveys showing that half of the shallow-water coral on the Great Barrier Reef died from severe bleaching events linked to warmer ocean temperatures in 2015 and 20161.
But in a public hearing on government expenditure in late October, it emerged that the Australian Research Council (ARC), an independent government agency that reports to the education minister, had not shortlisted the centre to receive a share of the latest round of funding. The ARC has funded the centre since its inception 13 years ago.
The centre will lose 37% of its current annual budget and its title as an ARC centre of excellence. It is not clear what the loss of funding means for the centre’s future.
James Cook University says it is committed to delivering world-class coral reef research into the future, but has not explained how the centre will be supported.
Fears for the future
Scientists fear job losses and a reduced research capacity are to come. They say the quality of the centre’s work, which is important to Australia and people living alongside reefs across the tropics, should have been recognized with ongoing support.
“It is deeply stupid for Australia not to fund, or even consider funding, its world-leading coral-reef research when the centre has an excellent track record and a strong proposal,” says Garry Peterson, an environmental scientist at the Stockholm Resilience Centre in Sweden, which has collaborated with the centre.
“This is about so much more than Australia’s own reefs — the centre has global reach and influence,” says Neil Adger, a geographer at the University of Exeter, UK. “Its work is critical in galvanizing ecologists everywhere and it has become the hub of new research techniques, critical inquiry and rigorous interdisciplinarity.”
The ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies runs on a budget of about Aus$12 million (US$8.7 million) a year, and employs about 300 researchers, nearly half of whom are graduate students. Its most celebrated work, which established the extent of recent bleaching along the 2,300-kilometre Great Barrier Reef1, involved aerial surveys and 100 underwater divers. It has researched the movement of species towards the poles, increases in disease outbreaks and invasive species, and the economic and social impact of poor reef health2,3,4.
“There are many great coral-reef researchers around the world, but the centre is special due to its concentration of researchers and the possibility for them to deeply collaborate with other disciplines,” says Peterson.
Some researchers link the ARC’s decision to the Australian government’s more general failure to adequately address climate change, which is the greatest threat to coral reefs.
“It’s a very bad look,” says physicist Bill Hare, chief executive of the climate-research and policy institute Climate Analytics in Berlin. “A different government with a different outlook would have found a way to support that centre.”
“The Great Barrier Reef is dying from global warming and the Australian government puts its head in the sand and would rather not know about it,” says Stefan Rahmstorf, head of Earth-system analysis at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.
But ARC chief executive Sue Thomas says that the decision was based on a standard competitive process, and that the education minister, Dan Tehan, was not involved.
The Australian government, run by a coalition of the conservative Liberal and National parties, also says there was no political interference in the decision.
ARC centres of excellence receive generous funding for up to seven years to develop an international standing for their research. The rules of the programme do not allow existing funding agreements to be renewed. Institutions can apply for continuing support, but must emphasize different areas of inquiry. The coral-reef centre has done that once already, winning consecutive funding rounds, including Aus$28 million over 7 years from 2014. Its application this year placed a greater focus on the impact of reef health on poverty and food security.
Peterson and other scientists note that in April, the Australian government granted Aus$444 million (US$320 million) to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation, a small charitable organization in Brisbane that was set up by Australian business leaders. The foundation, which employed only six people when awarded the grant, aims to support projects that build resilience in the reef to global warming, but it does not conduct research into the impact of climate change.
Hare says it is exasperating that an organization that says it is willing to take money from fossil-fuel industries also receives significant public funding while internationally recognized researchers have effectively had their funding cut.
The centre’s director, Terry Hughes, declined to comment on the ARC’s decision.