Funding cuts leave Australia’s research infrastructure ‘lagging’

Cash flows are not moving fast enough to keep pace with technology, malaria expert cautions

March 18, 2019
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Australian researchers are struggling to afford the equipment they need to stay internationally competitive now, let alone build the automated labs of the near future, a Melbourne microbiologist has warned.

Monash University bioinformatician Ross Coppel said cuts to a ream of funding schemes – covering expenses from salaries, power and consumables to buildings, maintenance and the latest “kit” – had left a “large hole” in Australia’s research prospects.

Professor Coppel said that funding was not moving fast enough to keep pace with the improvements in equipment that had become essential to biomedical research, such as electron microscopes, mass spectrometers and next-generation DNA sequencing machines.

He said researchers facing the certainty of rapid technological change were handicapped by the uncertainty of funding schemes such as the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS).

“For better or worse, biomedicine is now tech-driven,” said Professor Coppel, deputy dean of Monash’s Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences. “If you want to be where the action is, you need to have access to that stuff.

“Do we want our researchers to be at the vanguard, if not at the very front? If so, how is that afforded?”

Professor Coppel said the trimming of block grants in last December’s mini-budget, saving Canberra A$329 million (£175 million) over four years, was the latest in a long line of incremental cuts to research funding.

The government paused indexation of the block grants and capped the Research Support Program – which covers indirect research expenses such as power, consumables and technicians’ salaries – hindering universities’ ability to run labs and bankroll scholarships for the doctoral students that help staff them.

Professor Coppel said the “personal support” component of grants from the National Health and Medical Research Council, Australia’s key funder of biomedical research, had also been eroded because it had not kept pace with universities’ industrial relations agreements.

He said NHMRC terminology had evolved as a result, from an organisation that “funds” research to one that “makes contributions”.

The Australian Research Council’s Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme was “fairly restrictive” in the infrastructure it supports, he added. Perhaps more worryingly, funding flows for large-scale research capital remained uncertain.

The government wants to close the Education Investment Fund, which bankrolled major teaching and research buildings early this decade. Meanwhile, most NCRIS allocations are not expected until well into the next decade.

“We’re basically saying ‘let’s just hold fire with what we have, even though it’s no longer competitive with the best in the world, for four years’,” Professor Coppel said. “That’s a very long time to not be investing.”

He said the sophistication of technology used in proteomics – identifying proteins on the surfaces of immune cells, for instance – had improved tenfold in the space of a few years.

Professor Coppel said laboratories in a decade or two would have robots capable of running experiments around the clock. Personal errors would be a thing of the past, while scale – and hence reproducibility – would be boosted through the capacity to repeat trials ad nauseam.

“That’s a big change for biomedicine in Australia,” he said. “How will it occur? Where will the money come from to invest in that next generation for how we do science?”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

Australia be warned. The US Government cut its research funding, as a share of GDP, by 50% since 1980 while China did the opposite. Now China leads the US in basic research and in most technologies. The first commercial fallout of this disastrous policy is Huawei whose technology, the world is discovering, we cannot live without. There are more Huaweis coming down the pike.

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