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Aurora australis (the southern lights) at the South Pole

Aurora australis (the southern lights) at the South Pole

Keith Vanderlinde, National Science Foundation

Australia's Antarctic Research Division Faces Cuts

Imagine the McDonald’s Australia Antarctic Expedition or perhaps the launch of Australia’s new research vessel, the Microsoft Australis. These scenarios are not complete fantasy. Government officials this week told staff at the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), the nation’s lead polar science agency, that planned funding cuts mean the division will be seeking “[a]lternative funding models” for research, including philanthropic donations and commercial sponsorship.

Gordon de Brouwer, secretary of the federal Environment Department, which oversees AAD, told scientists and support staff on 8 April that the division, based near Hobart, Tasmania, also faces an unspecified number of “voluntary” job losses. According to the acting regional secretary of the Community and Public Sector Union, Jessica Munday, AAD has already lost 30 employees over the past few months, leaving the remaining 300 staff members stretched. “So more cuts could impact workloads and research capabilities,” she told Fairfax Media.

The news follows a warning issued late last month by the Australian Academy of Science that the country’s strategic position in Antarctica is at risk because of a declining scientific effort there. Seven countries have made territorial claims to Antarctica under the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, and Australia’s claim of 43% of the continent is the largest. Such claims, however, have little practical effect under the treaty, which does not recognize, dispute, or establish territorial claims, and establishes an access system to the continent governed by the 50 nations that have signed the treaty.

Any AAD efforts to offset lost government funding with private donations could be difficult, predicts Will Howard, deputy chair of the academy’s National Committee for Antarctic Research. In part, that’s because international agreements, such as one known as the Madrid Protocol, rule out commercial activities such as mineral resource extraction in the Antarctic. “So governments really have to take the leading role” in funding, he says.

This week, employees at Parks Australia were also advised that the organization faces budget and staff cuts. The organization—administered by the federal Environment Department—oversees Australia’s six national parks, including Uluru—also known as Ayers Rock—and Kakadu, as well as the nation’s marine reserve network.

The financial squeeze comes as the Environment Department’s budget will be slashed from AU$460 million to AU$361 million over 4 years. The department will cut a total of 670 jobs, roughly one-quarter of its staff, over that period.

The move reflects the low priority placed on environmental protection and science by Australia’s conservative government. Immediately after its election in September 2013, it shut down the independent Climate Commission and is drafting legislation to abolish a second government body, the Climate Change Authority. The government failed to appoint a science minister—the first time an Australian government has not had a science minister since the science portfolio was created in 1931.

Recently, the government, headed by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, triggered a public debate over plans to construct potentially the world’s largest coal port adjacent to the Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Area, and to excise 74,000 hectares of forest from Tasmania’s World Heritage–listed site.