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Australian funding delay creates stress and uncertainty for scientists

Many postdoctoral researchers are waiting to hear whether they will have jobs next year.

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Dan Tehan

Australian education minister Dan Tehan has introduced a 'national interest' test for some grant applications.Credit: Lukas Coch/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

A weeks-long delay in a major funding announcement is having a detrimental effect on Australian science, say researchers.

The Australian Research Council (ARC) was expected to announce which projects would be awarded funding from 1 January sometime in October. The ARC, a major funder in both the sciences and the humanities, recommends which projects should be funded, but the education minister has the final say. There has been no official word on what is causing the delay.

The wait is creating stress for researchers and is likely to affect the start date of new projects, says Science & Technology Australia, the representative body for the country’s scientists. Many postdoctoral researchers and assistants, whose salaries are paid for by grants, are waiting to hear whether they will have jobs next year.

The uncertainly is likely to drive them to secure employment overseas, says STA president Emma Johnston. “If we want to attract the best staff to keep Australian research ahead of the curve, we cannot treat them this way,” she said in a statement.

The delay is thought to be due to the introduction of ‘national interest’ test for all projects seeking ARC funding from next year, says the STA. The education minister, Dan Tehan, announced the test last month, saying that grant applications need to describe how projects will advance the country’s interests. A spokesperson says that the minister is still considering the applications, but an announcement is expected by the end of the year. The spokesperson did not respond to questions about the cause of the delay.

Evolutionary biologist Rob Brooks of the University of New South Wales in Sydney is waiting to hear whether he will get funding to keep his mouse facility open. The contract for the research assistant who runs the laboratory ends on 31 December. “If I don’t get this grant, she has to look for another job to support her family, and we will have to close down our mouse facility, a process that would take weeks,” Brooks says.

But given the uncertainty, there is a chance she will get another job before the funding is announced, he says. “Then, if I do get the grant, I will have a period without anybody looking after the animals, and then I will have to find and train someone new.”

At Monash University in Melbourne, senior staff are delaying sending out termination notifications to staff whose contracts run out at the end of the year, says Moira O’Bryan, head of the School of Biological Sciences. “You can’t buy these people off the shelf, it’s a huge loss of momentum, a huge hit to morale,” she says.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-07507-6
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