Former scientists lament science impact of AAD budget constraints

The Australian Antarctic Division has defended its budget decisions at a senate committee hearing in Hobart as leading researchers described the negative impact it’s imposed on the agency’s ability to perform its core role.

The AAD has been the subject of a two-day hearing into proposed cuts to the program revealed following the leaking of an email to staff from the division’s chief, Emma Campbell, earlier this year.

In it, she forecasted a need to “trim” planned activities to meet the AAD’s budget for the current fiscal year.

Landscape in antarctica
Credit: Mint Images / Getty

Appearing before the committee, senior AAD and departmental leaders clarified the budget adjustment was due to a discontinued temporary allocation made in previous years to bring on alternative shipping while the new icebreaker RSV Nuyina underwent repairs. The need to operate two ships during this time was blamed for the AAD’s $42 million overshoot last financial year.

Deputy secretary of the Department of Climate Change, Energy, the Environment and Water, Sean Sullivan, framed reductions as the AAD “living within its means”, while Campbell echoed this saying ongoing budget planning was about science project prioritisation, and her email was “about communication and transparency to my staff”.

“My email, which has since been in the media, was really about a communication tool to my staff and we’ll continue to work with staff so that they understand how budgets are built, what our responsibilities are, and what we deliver for government under the portfolio budget statement,” she said.

The AAD mentioned more scientists were returning to Antarctica now than at any point in the last five years, though as the committee chair Senator Peter Whish-Wilson pointed out, it had been a “pretty tough five years” given the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Division’s chief scientist Professor Nicole Webster confirmed close to 68 scientists, which includes non-AAD funded researchers, would travel south for the coming research season, compared to about 30 in each of the last four years.

And while no approved projects had been cancelled, eight had not proceeded to the final season plan. Beyond this, the committee heard from Webster that scientists were now being advised niche science proposals should be considered as part of larger undertakings.

“I am really, strongly encouraging individual scientists who may have previously undertaken fairly small, bespoke components of science to actually integrate this into larger campaigns… and with external partners as well,” Webster says.

She pointed to small-scale krill research as an example of projects that would benefit from wider collaboration with other agencies which builds an understanding of Southern Ocean ecosystems.

“The science is still happening, it’s just not happening in discrete individual projects. It’s enabling us to answer really big picture questions about the state of the ecosystem.”

“It was always the science that suffered”

The AAD has been subject of two independent reviews in recent years into its science branch and a culture of harassment.

While the AAD defended its budget measures and its recent moves to remedy cultural and leadership issues, the committee yesterday heard former staff, unions and other science observers claiming they were worried about diminishing morale amid staffing reductions and funding constraints.

On Thursday morning, three senior researchers who have since left the AAD described challenges with the advancement of science projects within the organisation. One, marine biologist Dr Andrew Davidson, described a historic tension of the AAD’s logistics and science functions competing for funding.

“At least the last two decades… there’s always been a tension between provision of logistical support capability and the provision of science,” Davidson said. He described situations where supply priorities took precedence over research needs such that “it was always the science that suffered”.

“Midway through marine science voyages, if something came up, they’re running short of time, whatever, they would end up going to doing the resupply rather than persisting with the science,” he said.

Similarly, Dr Dana Bergstrom, an Antarctic ecologist who recently departed the AAD, explained her concerns regarding the funding allocated specifically to science projects, and the priority Antarctic research is given by governments.

“When an organisation has a budget of over $200 million, why don’t we have science happening?” she said.

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