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Mopra Telescope

Mopra Telescope

Australia Telescope National Facility

Budget Cuts Lead to Lab Closures in Australia

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—The bad news just keeps coming for Australia’s scientific community. According to an internal planning document obtained by ScienceInsider, the cash-strapped national research body, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), will shutter eight research facilities in the wake of an austerity budget announced by the federal government for 2014 to 2015.

The labs slated to close include a horticultural facility in Merbein specializing in wine, table grapes, and citrus fruit; the Aspendale Laboratories near Melbourne, a stronghold of marine and atmospheric research; and the Griffith Laboratory in New South Wales, which specializes in water and irrigation. Industry was not consulted on the closures, which could “rob us of a great resource” and undermine Australian competitiveness, says Anne Mansell of Sunraysia Citrus Growers in Mildura. The planning document, called the CSIRO Directions Statement 2014, also spells out cuts to agency-funded research on geothermal energy and liquid fuel and marine biology.

As reported in Science last week, CSIRO has already targeted radioastronomy for heavy cuts. The Directions Statement, released to staff on Wednesday, specifies that the Mopra Telescope will close. But Lewis Ball, chief of CSIRO’s Astronomy and Space Science (CASS) program, hopes alternative funding can be found for the 22-meter telescope, which since 2012 has been run by a consortium that includes the University of New South Wales and the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan. “We’re exploring the possibility that our partners … can pick up the cost of Mopra,” he says. While the partnership agreement runs to 2015, the budget cuts would take effect on 1 July. Research at two of Australia’s other four radio observatories, Parkes and Narrabri, will also be reduced. Ball says CASS is working out details of the reduction and the number of staff members who will lose their jobs. He affirms that CSIRO intends to meet its obligations over the next 2 years to the $2.5 billion international Square Kilometre Array, the world’s largest radio telescope, and the Australian Square Kilometre Array Pathfinder instrument.

Other CSIRO facilities on the chopping block, according to the Directions Statement, are a Queensland site housing the Australian e-Health Research Centre; Victoria’s Highett Laboratories, home to advanced processing, materials and infrastructure research, and sustainable ecosystems; and the Victorian Science Education Centre. Arding livestock field station in New South Wales will be sold. Three facilities in Canberra that house ecosystems scientists and administrators will close, as will one near Melbourne that specializes in fiber science and engineering. It is unclear which staff members will be redeployed and which will lose their jobs.

Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist, fears that the budget blow will erode the nation’s scientific capacity and international reputation. “We can regret the cuts and sympathize with the people most directly affected, but we have to get a strategic approach to science,” says Chubb, who acknowledges that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s government did not seek his advice on the budget. Even some members of Abbott’s conservative Liberal Party are questioning the wisdom of the CSIRO cuts and, more broadly, the diminished funding for science. Dennis Jensen, an engineer and member of Parliament, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Wednesday: “I’m worried about the future of science, quite frankly.”