A highly-regarded private research body charged by the Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission with investigating the Black Saturday tragedy is chronically underfunded and may be struggling to carry out the massive research task required to provide closure for victims, insiders say.

Crikey has been informed that the Melbourne-based Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, comprising both front-line fire fighters and academic experts, is unable to properly investigate the unprecedented disaster which claimed the lives of 173 Victorians, due to paltry $5 million in annual federal government funds.

With limited cash provided by the Howard and Rudd Governments, the CRC’s non-profit partners have been forced to shore up the CRC’s bottom line to the tune of about $4 million a year.

Now, in what some have billed a new era of climate change-induced “mega fires”, those arrangements are looking wholly inadequate.

In the wake of Black Saturday, with the CRC tasked with researching the unprecedented disaster, emergency funding was urgently sought from the Brumby Government. Experts were flown in from across the country with the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, the Country Fire Authority and the Office of Emergency Services chipping in a combined $1.5 million.

That money is now exhausted, with the CRC urgently seeking fresh funds for a sorely-needed second stage of research into fire behaviour, community safety and burn rates. However, Crikey understands that that extra cash is by no means assured, with the research centre preparing to sidestep the state government and tap potential industry partners instead.

One source says the initial funding allocation was so limited that a large proportion of the initial money was consumed by ancillary expenses like food and accommodation.

Crikey contacted the Bushfire CRC who confirmed they were in the midst of delicate negotiations over a new round of state government funding to continue the survey work.

The current stoush comes amid debate over a new eight-year $50 million funding bid that has been submitted to Canberra. Industry Minister Kim Carr is expected to rule on the CRC’s bid by mid-July. But this is by no means assured, with Treasury said to be resistant to committing to new spending amid the toughest budget in decades.

Without a new agreement, the CRC faces being wound up with money only guaranteed under the current arrangement until 2010.

The dispute over CRC funding has a long history. In January 2007, serious concerns were raised over the Howard Government requirement that research be matched to “marketable commercial benefits”.

Then, in the wake of Black Saturday, Greens leader Bob Brown urgently negotiated an extra $15 million over three years for the CRC as a condition of the Greens passing the Rudd Government’s stimulus package.

The storm over the CRC comes amid questions over the centre’s research agenda. Dissident scientists say a new approach is needed in the new mega fire era that climate change experts say will continue to ravage the Australian bush for decades to come.

A recent series of Canberra Times articles have quoted anonymous government sources hostile to the CRC, with one accusing the organisation of producing “academic waffle”. The source claimed more research was desperately needed into pressing issues more appropriate to the new paradigm.

These sources have called for the CRC’s current structure to be reviewed and replaced with a centralised research body auspiced by the CSIRO.

However, Crikey understands the allegations emerged from a long-running spat over prescribed burning, with a group of Green-tinged researchers based in national capital pitting themselves, via Times science and environment reporter Rosslyn Beeby, against more pointy-headed CRC scientists operating at the frontline.

A subsequent letter to the editor from ANU professor Peter Kanowski claimed the collaborative structure of the Bushfire CRC was given the seal of approval by an independent panel engaged to review its activities late last year. The real issue, Kanowski said, was an historic legacy of R&D neglect from tight-fisted federal governments.

The CRC’s website paints a successful picture, claiming that the Black Saturday taskforce has “assessed more than 1000 homes, interviewed more than 600 residents and taken more than 21,000 photographs”. However, the results won’t be known until they are publicly submitted to the Commission.

The upshot will be carefully scrutinised, both by the notoriously combative bushfire research community and victims seeking answers over the traumatic events of Black Saturday.

Peter Fray

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