Australia — The CSIRO should take over the leadership of Australia’s bushfire research effort, creating a national research flagship to fast-track results, scientists say.
State and Federal government agency sources have told The Canberra Times they believe the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre currently Australia’s biggest bushfire research effort with a budget of $110million lacks high-level scientific leadership and is struggling to deliver effective, practical research on climate change and fire behaviour.
These sources, all within agencies that have worked with the centre, claimed it had lost relevance, was ”producing academic waffle” and should be dumped by the Rudd Government when its seven-year funding cycle ended next year.
They said the Melbourne-based centre should be replaced by a large-scale national research program led by CSIRO, and should answer directly to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet for delivering bushfire research that would save lives.
The centre’s chief executive, Gary Morgan, has defended its research record, pointing out that it was already working with CSIRO on several research projects. He said the centre was negotiating a renewed partnership with CSIRO as part of a bid to secure a new round of federal funding in 2010.
Mr Morgan said the centre had been ”highly successful” in producing critical research to improve firefighting and was pioneering bushfire-related social science issues such as decision making in unpredictable fire situations
”Prior to this [research centre] there was virtually no research on the social science around bushfires,” he said.
The centre was established by the Howard government in 2003 as a public research showpiece with a budget of $110million over seven years. It received an additional $3million federal grant in 2004 to research the impact of cattle grazing on reducing fuel loads in alpine ecosystems. The grant attracted controversy at the time, and was criticised by scientists as politicising bushfire research.
Sources within government agencies contacted The Canberra Times this week after it was revealed the centre was so cashed-strapped it had recently launched a public appeal for donations to fund its bushfire research. It is the first time any of Australia’s cooperative research centres has appealed for public donations since the program was established 18 years ago.
The centres are approved by the Federal Government and jointly funded by Federal and state government grants, commercial partners and universities in a bid to boost Australia’s research effort.
Government sources said they believed the centre was floundering due to an inability to attract high-profile scientists and had ”lost its way” in recent years.
They claimed several pages in the centre’s latest annual report only made public this week after a three- month delay appeared to indicate it was ”using media coverage and media commentary as a substitute for peer-reviewed research”.
The report said the centre had a ”high volume” of unpublished research and was experiencing difficulties in having its research adopted by fire management agencies.
It also listed posting video footage of a research on YouTube and attracting 120 people to a national fire behaviour workshop as key achievements in raising community awareness of bushfire behaviour and risk.
Mr Morgan said attracting media attention and commenting on fire-related issues was ”part of getting the message out” to the public, and was vital to raising the profile of the centre’s research.