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Senate estimates reveals brain drain in Antarctic Division

The Department of the Environment’s Australian Antarctic Division lost 20 staff members from its science branch as a result of funding cuts in the May budget.

Under questioning from Labor Senator Lisa Singh in Senate estimates, AAD’s chief scientist Dr Nick Gales confirmed 44 employees took voluntary redundancies after the most recent round of budget cuts. Of those, he said, 20 were either scientists or scientific support staff, the others coming from “head office”.

A tense exchange ensued between Singh and Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, who objected to Singh calling all 20 “scientists” in a follow-up question and asserting that “since the budget, the AAD hasn’t been given appropriate funding to do its work”.

Gales later explained that technical support staff were qualified with degrees in disciplines like engineering or electronics and described them as “essential for supporting the overall science program”. He estimated that “about a quarter” of the 20 who recently left AAD were in technical support roles, but could not clarify exactly how many were genuinely scientists, taking the question on notice.

“It is a fairly blurry line between someone who sits alongside the scientists in a technical capacity and the scientists themselves,” he told the committee.

Australia’s position as a leading player in Antarctic affairs is being eroded by past under-investment, according to Dr Tony Press, a former director of the AAD who recently delivered a 20-year Antarctic strategy to the government. His sweeping 35-point plan for a redoubled commitment to Australia’s efforts in Southern Ocean science and diplomacy appears certain to require a big funding boost to be fully realised.

Environment’s deputy secretary responsible for environmental science and economics, Dr Steven Kennedy, told the committee that interdepartmental processes had been set in motion to inform the government’s response to the Press report, and would likely continue until the middle of next year.

“The department is comfortable that we’re appropriated reasonably to undertake our existing activities.”

“The department is comfortable that we’re appropriated reasonably to undertake our existing activities,” Kennedy said, reminding the senators that Press’s report “doesn’t actually have a specific 20-year plan”.

“It provides a set of recommendations that might underpin a 20-year plan,” he explained. “The government will consider those and then put down a 20-year plan and as part of that it would consider how it would fund such a plan. There’s now an exercise going on within [the public service] to develop recommendations [for the government] to how that might be achieved.”

Singh also homed in on Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s recent mention of crowd-sourcing, asking if the AAD has been advised it would need to seek money direct from the public.

“I think the Minister characterised that source of funding as a relatively small and sort of add-on component of funding,” Gales said in his response, suggesting Hunt was probably referring to programs like one where the public was invited to count penguins in a large number of photos taken by automatic camera traps. “We haven’t been given instructions to go out and replace core government funding with crowd-sourcing.”

Opening the session, Singh made sure to have Hansard record Hunt’s embarrassing slip of the tongue at a recent press conference about the 20-year Antarctic strategy, in which he made reference to the “walrus population”.

“Yes, we’ve certainly had discussions with the Minister,” replied Gales. “I think the Minister was making some broad comments about sea-ice habitats for marine mammals … as you would know there are no walruses in the Antarctic and the Minister certainly knows that.”

More at The Mandarin: The ambitious Antarctic plan to position Australia as a key player

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is a journalist at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.