Antarctic scientists raise fears at senate hearing

A senate committee into funding of the Australian Antarctic Division has heard that cuts to its programs will have “large and ongoing” impacts on the nation’s research in the Southern Ocean.

The committee was convened in response to reports the AAD was looking to chop its budget by a sixth, potentially affecting dozens of scientific research programs.

The inquiry was called by the Greens and Liberal senators after an email was made public in July from the AAD’s new director telling staff the agency was seeking $25 million in savings.

At Tuesday’s hearing in Hobart, representatives from major scientific and industry groups told the inquiry of fears budget reductions – not only at the AAD but across all government research in the region – would diminish the nation’s standing in the field.

It comes amid ongoing issues plaguing the RSV Nuyina – the AAD’s $528 million jewel-in-the-crown icebreaking vessel – which has experienced delays in research voyages and is currently unable to travel beneath Hobart’s Tasman Bridge for refuelling, forcing it to travel more than 600km north to Burnie to perform the exercise.

The Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society’s Professor Ian Allison said the proposed cuts would come at a time of unprecedented change in Antarctica.

Allison is the former head of AAD’s Ice Ocean Atmosphere and Climate program.

He said cost-savings across scientific investigations would result in no marine science projects in the upcoming research season, cancellation of long-planned investigations into the marginal ice zone due to issues with Nuyina, and budget-related cancellations of “a number of smaller investigations” of sea ice near Davis Station.

He, along with others giving evidence, warned of the “disproportionate” impacts funding cuts would have on Antarctic science programs and staff morale.

“The staff that I talk to from [Australian] Antarctic Division who have been around a long time are very unhappy and very disillusioned,” Allison said in response to questions from the committee chair, Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson. “I think the disillusionment is more with a larger picture than just this $25m budget cut.”

Allison also warned cuts to programs and funding risked international collaborations. While he expects other nations would continue to collaborate with Australia amid its challenges with Antarctic research, it warned they might be “probably be a little bit more reticent” about engaging.

Professor Rufus Black, vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania, told the committee the latest funding challenges had a significant impact on researchers. Many Antarctic researchers hold joint positions at UTAS and within the AAD or other government-funded programs, such as the Australian Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science.

“To change, or cancel, or significantly delay one of these programs has enormous implications not just for the science, but for the scientists,” Black said.

He too highlighted concerns that the absence of Nuyina had compromised the ability of scientists to research major changes taking place in Antarctica, particularly in sea ice accumulation which was at a record low in 2023.

“To understand how this key part of the Earth’s system works, you need a lot more than satellites, you need boots on the ice, measuring how thick it is, the snow on top, the atmospheric conditions, the ocean underneath,” Black said in his address.

“The last time we had scientists on the sea ice in East Antarctica was 10 years ago – this was a time when it appeared that Antarctica was more resilient to climate change than expected, and the sea ice was actually increasing. As this trend has slammed into reverse this year, we needed to be back on the ice to observe these drastic changes that were occurring.”

The committee will hear from former AAD researchers on Thursday morning before its senior leaders appear later that day.

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