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Australia threatens to pull buckets of astronomy funding

Government ties research cash to wider reform agenda

A political impasse is putting at risk Australia's participation in the ginormous Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope*, along with a slew of other major research science projects.

The impasse centres on a plan to "deregulate" Australia's universities by allowing them to charge higher fees to make up for reduced government funding. Australia's opposition parties won't pass the plan so the nation's education minister Chris Pyne has tied it to AU$150m promised to the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS). Australia can therefore have both university deregulation and the $150m, but not the latter alone.

In an open letter (PDF) to the government, the National Research Alliance says the funding brinkmanship is putting at risk 1,700 research positions, and threatening the shut-down of long-running projects that include Astronomy Australia, through which some of the funds for the Murchison Widefield Array flow.

Other high-profile NCRIS projects include the Integrated Marine Observing System, which warned Fairfax that $35 million worth of autonomous marine devices could be stranded without funds; and the Australian National Fabrication Facility, which provides fab for photonics, electronics, sensor, medical and nanotech researchers.

Apart from the researchers directly under the wing of NCRIS projects, the open letter says the facilities funded by NCRIS feed into the work of 35,000 local and international researchers.

The letter notes that since facilities can't be mothballed for any significant period, “the government will be effectively decommissioning high-cost public infrastructure that in many cases has years if not decades of productive working life remaining.”

Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt told local radio the political impasse is “childish”, while Pyne said the money for NCRIS remains “consequent upon the other offsets, the other savings measures” in his higher education reform bill. ®

*Update: The eminent astronomer Professor Bryan Gaensler has objected that Square Kilometre Array funding doesn't channel through NCRIS, although many other astronomy projects are funded through the body.

If The Register is in error, the author apologises: Astronomy Australia lists the SKA Pathfinder as a project it funded, saying it is "providing further funds to support ASKAP during early operations". NCRIS does not fund the Square Kilometre Array project. ®

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