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Australian science embroiled in government leadership row

Posted on behalf of Cheryl Jones.

Fears abound that Australian science funding will be vulnerable to cuts after a succession of changes of minister in the science-and-research portfolios amid a protracted battle for the leadership of the minority Labor government.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard yesterday appointed Craig Emerson minister for tertiary education, skills, science and research. He will be the fourth cabinet minister covering science and research in less than 16 months.

The science-and-research portfolios cover university research and the science agencies, including the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Emerson will add science and research to other portfolios, including trade. He will be assisted by Don Farrell, who has been appointed science-and-research minister, a separate position outside the cabinet.

The latest upheaval is the result of leadership tensions since Gillard unseated former prime minister Kevin Rudd in 2010.

Emerson’s appointment followed the resignation last week of science-and-research minister Chris Bowen, a Rudd supporter, after a failed attempt to unseat Gillard. Bowen had been in the position for less than two months.

Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, which covers Australia’s 39 universities, says the high turnover of ministers has been “destabilizing”.

“We’ve had a stop-start approach to funding, particularly around research and research infrastructure,” she says. “As we get closer to the budget, I think that instability has become of quite profound concern to the sector.”

The government will deliver the budget in May.

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