Bushfire research opportunities ‘vanishing’ without funding

Frustration as Australian Research Council takes six months to judge applications to support urgent impact assessments

March 6, 2020
Source: Getty

Australia is squandering a golden opportunity to learn vital ecological lessons from the recent bushfire crisis because of a lack of emergency research funding mechanisms.

Ecologists said environmental research was urgently needed to exploit a window of opportunity to help protect threatened species – some teetering on the brink of extinction, after more than 100,000 square kilometres of bushland were scorched and a billion or more native animals were incinerated – and to alleviate drinking water contamination.

But while fast-tracked funding is available for bushfire-related health research, ecological proposals are subject to protracted assessment. “We can’t rely on existing competitive grant programmes [because they] are designed to work on much longer timescales,” said Emma Johnston, professor of marine ecology at UNSW Sydney.

“The impacts are happening now. Everyone can see that. If we are to learn anything from this ecological disaster, we need to be out there doing urgent impact assessments.”

The Australian Research Council said all projects it recommended for funding were assessed through “a rigorous, competitive peer-reviewed process” to ensure that money went to the most meritorious applicants.

It said the Linkage Projects scheme, a key funding stream for joint research involving academics and business, community or public sector partners, had a “continuous submission and assessment process”.

But the ARC website shows that applications for Linkage Projects this year will be assessed not continuously but rather in three distinct rounds, from 8 April, 5 August and 1 December. Funding recommendations are made up to six months after those dates, and ministerial approval can eat up more time.

The National Health and Medical Research Council, by contrast, issued a targeted call for applications to its A$5 million (£2.6 million) Bushfire Impact Research Grant Opportunity in mid-January, while the fires were still raging.

Teams were given two weeks to lodge bids for funding to research the physiological and psychological impacts of bushfires and hazardous smoke exposure. Successful applicants can expect to be notified rapidly and to begin work soon afterwards, according to a Department of Health funding “snapshot”.

The different approach illustrates the relatively privileged position of health-related research since Australia’s Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) was established. As well as bushfire impacts, the MRFF-funded Emerging Priorities and Consumer-Driven Research initiative is bankrolling fast-tracked research into subjects including ovarian cancer, mental health “pharmacogenomics” and coronavirus vaccine development.

Research that is not health related has no future fund to support it. Exacerbating matters, the coronavirus crisis has stripped universities of discretionary cash to bankroll research.

Professor Johnston said the “many” gaps highlighted by the bushfire disaster included shortcomings in research funding systems. “[They] may need to become more responsive to the increasing frequency of extreme events, and the urgent need to understand our changing climate and adapt quickly,” she said.

“Even if we had three weeks to spend writing an ARC Linkage application, it would be at least another six months before a decision was made to fund it. We need to be out there now while the rivers and beaches are full of ash and dirt.”

Professor Johnston said little was known about the impact of burned logs, ash and bushfire erosion on waterway health. Her team was testing nine major New South Wales estuaries but lacked funding to analyse the samples. “We’ll need to try to find a philanthropist to help out,” she said.

It has also emerged that Australia is set to disband its renowned Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre, with public funding set to expire at the end of June 2021. The centre brings together researchers from 17 Australian universities as well as emergency services agencies, federal and state departments and the governments of New Zealand, Portugal and the US. 

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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