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Fire science funding at risk - research advances slowed

FEATURES: Fire NZ, May 2015

Keith Newman believes the world-leading group tasked with research and development of tools to assist with the science of rural firefighting could have achieved far more than it has, if it wasn’t so cash strapped.

Scion Rural Fire Research Group’s leading edge work on fire modelling and smart decision support tools to improve firefighting capabilities, faces uncertainty following a shift in the way the Government allocates science funding.

Scion RFRG will have to contend with much larger science providers to even retain its meagre $750,000 baseline annual budget in an area that has been redefined as less relevant, under Government policy changes.

The fire science group was already struggling to achieve stable funding in order to pay two full time and three part time fire researchers, as well as advancing critical research projects.

Senior fire scientist Grant Pearce says he has 16-months to build a convincing case to retain or grow its existing funding or risk losing most of it when its 4-year contract with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) expires in 2016.

“The money we get through the contestable process will go into a larger pot and the news to date is that we might not necessarily get it back. That’s not great news for us.”

Scion Rural Fire Research is a minnow alongside other contenders including universities, NIWA and earth sciences agency GNS. The National Science Challenges money includes cash, as yet unallocated from the 2012-13 budget totaling $153.5 million, plus $30.5m annually thereafter.

Public good outcomes

Scion RFRG is tasked with public good outcomes based on the science of predictive fire modeling and prevention, and has developed a range of support tools to monitor weather and wind, increased fire risk and technology that can indicate likely fire spread.

The group, based at Canterbury University, is currently trialling technology that monitors the health and location of firefighters and is exploring robotics to reduce the risk to firefighters in steep or difficult country along with drone technology to assist operations and detect hot spots.

Proposals to automate and integrate some of its fire modeling and predictive tools and improve communications could further transform rural fire prevention and firefighting but funding is already an issue.

Pearce says MBIE wants greater collaboration between research providers and is refocussing on the big questions facing New Zealand including ‘Resilience toward nature’s challenges’, where Scion RFRG is proving an ill fit.

The category is all about natural hazards and the general feeling is, that’s around “social and community resilience to earthquakes and floods”.

While there’s room for fire, it’s effectively been pushed to the outer. Scion tried to argue for the value of its contribution when it submitted its proposal in December but the feedback was that fire-related science came under the broader umbrella of risk assessment. The irony says Pearce is that “you need to be able to do work on assessing risk to deliver resilient solutions.”

Scion RFRG has a proven track record and respect from stakeholders including the NZ Fire Services Commission, the National Rural Fire Authority, forestry companies, the Department of Conservation and local government.

Only its social scientists working with communities on fire event responses, are likely to be supported under the new approach proposed by the consortia of research providers. Discussions are underway with MBIE to have the criteria re-evaluated.

Ideally Pearce wants funding set aside from the pool or alternatives to be arranged to ensure the fire science researcher has a future.

By Keith Newman

Back to Fire

Scion RFRG's Senior fire scientist, Grant Pearce.

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