One of the world’s premier coral reef research centres has failed to secure Australian Research Council funding, placing in doubt the science hub even as the Great Barrier Reef faces another bout of bleaching.
The council confirmed in Senate estimate on Thursday that the Townsville-based Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies missed out on even making the funding shortlist for its next round of funding.
“It’s certainly an esteemed centre,” Professor Sue Thomas, the council’s chief executive, told estimates.
She rejected criticism from Labor’s science spokesman, Kim Carr, that the centre’s missing out was the result of “political intervention” because of outspoken criticism from its head Terry Hughes of the government’s reef policy.
“This has been a standard competitive process, there has not been any subversion of the process,” Professor Thomas said. “The minister [Dan Tehan] has not been involved.”
Senator Carr said the centre, along with its host James Cook University, constituted the largest concentration of reef scientists in the world, ranking first by citations among 1644 institution in 103 countries.
“By any measure, this is a highly effective and world-renowned group of scientists,” he told Fairfax Media. The Morrison government “are trying to silence these environmental scientists”.
Education minister Dan Tehan said there had “been no ministerial involvement in decisions made in relation to shortlisting Expression of Interest applications for ARC Centres of Excellence commencing 2020”.
The Great Barrier Reef lost half its shallow corals in back-to-back summer bleachings in 2015-16 and 2016-17. As reported by Fairfax Media this week, the likelihood of an El Nino event this summer has increased the odds of a third mass bleaching in four years.
Professor Hughes, who helped draw global attention to the bleaching events, declined to comment about the funding loss. A spokesman for James Cook University said the institution was “committed to delivering world-class coral reef research now and into the future”.
A researcher said staff had recently been informed by email that the centre had failed to secure funding. Existing money – including a seven-year grant issued in 2014 – should last until at least August 2021, the email stated.
The ARC funds accounted for about 25-30 per cent of JCU’s reef research, it said.
“A lot of the work done here has global reach, it’s not just the Great Barrier Reef,” the researcher, who declined to be named, said.
Charlie Veron, a retired marine biologist known as the “godfather of coral”, said he was surprised the centre had lost its funding, saying they “basically deserved it”.
Dr Veron blamed the $443.4 million grant to the Great Barrier Reef Foundation announced by the Turnbull government in April that “had upset the apple cart in every direction … I see damage absolutely everywhere.”
A spokesman for the foundation said it had “an enduring and productive working relationship with James Cook University and the [centre]].”
“We will be outlining our Investment Strategy in coming months, including priorities and objectives against the five component parts,” he said. “We then look forward to engaging with potential delivery partners.”
Federal Labor has said it will claw back any unspent money from the foundation if it wins power next year.