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Scientists threaten to strike in funding row at key research facility

Date: January 01 2013


Clay Lucas

ABOUT 100 scientists, engineers and technicians who run the Australian Synchrotron research centre are poised to take their first strike action over pay.

The move, highly unusual for scientists, could disrupt installation of new equipment to be used in cancer research.

The association representing staff at the centre has warned that, unless governments better fund facilities like the synchrotron, Australian scientists will go overseas and make discoveries that could be made here.

The likely industrial action at the synchrotron centre, in the Melbourne suburb of Clayton, comes after the facility - the only one of its kind in Australia - was saved from closure last year.

A $100 million cash injection by the Australian, Victorian and New Zealand governments in March kept it open for four more years.

But staff say they are now being underpaid as a result of management using this operational funding to barely keep the research program running.

So tight is funding for research at the centre that, by the end of 2012, the synchrotron was operating at around a quarter of its capacity.

Research staff want a 5 per cent a year pay rise over the next four years, while managers have offered them 3 per cent a year for three years.

The Australian Electoral Commission will conduct a ballot of staff on a range of industrial actions. These include indefinite stoppages and a ban on installing new beamlines - the sources of highly intense light a million times brighter than the sun that scientists use for research.

To increase its research capacities, staff were due to begin installing a new ''wiggler'', a series of magnets designed to deflect a beam of particles, in January. Installation of the wiggler, imported from Russia, could be disrupted by the industrial action.

The Association of Professional Engineers Scientists and Managers Australia represents staff at the centre. Victorian director Bede Payne said the facility was being gravely under-utilised.

''If you think of the synchrotron as a car, it is currently funded to run on less than two cylinders,'' he said.

He argued that the synchrotron was crucial to Victoria and Australia developing a ''smart economy'', but that it could not achieve its potential while it was funded so poorly.

Mr Payne said both the state Liberal government and federal Labor government were failing scientists and engineers by not funding research properly. ''The sustained lack of funding now presents a very real risk of a brain drain,'' he said.

The scientists and engineers at the synchrotron did not want to take industrial action, but were ''being asked to do more for less, which is not fair in anyone's language'', he said.

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