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Scientists warn of major skills shortage and imminent biosecurity and quarantine risks.

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Wednesday 13 September 2006

Scientists warn of major skills shortage and imminent biosecurity and quarantine risks


TONY EASTLEY: Australia could be facing a major biosecurity risk.  


of the nation's most eminent biologists say successive governments have failed to realise the threat that Australia is facing. 


They say it's not a matter of "if, but when" invasive bugs or disease take hold. 


Science reporter Sarah Clarke. 


SARAH CLARKE: Australia's Quarantine Service is the government body given the task of protecting Australia from exotic pests and disease.  


But many of those scientists who developed those AQIS (Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service) programs over the last 30 years have retired or moved on.  


Professor Max Whitten is one of them. He's now warning of a major skills shortage and an imminent biosecurity and quarantine risk.  


MAX WHITTEN: And these people of course are passing on and they're not being replaced, so there's been a looming crisis developing for years now and I think it's certainly at crunch point. 


SARAH CLARKE: Professor Whitten is also the former chief of the CSIRO entomology department. 


He oversaw the last major review of AQIS 10 years ago. Back then he says there were three times as many specialists. 


Over the last decade, he says, any government money invested in the area has gone into administration and these days no universities are offering training or jobs. 


MAX WHITTEN: We're simply not recruiting young people, and of course there aren't the jobs, the secure jobs to keep them there. So we've reached a point where I think we're not even aware of the problem. We've put it down to other factors like, you know, acts of God or accidents. So when things like the fire ant came into Queensland there was some years before it was recognised that it was a fire ant, and that was just put down to bad luck, but it wasn't, it was, really should have been put down to the fact that we didn't have skilled people in the right places to identify those problems. 


SARAH CLARKE: Joining the chorus of criticism is Doctor Jim Cullen. He's also a former chief of the Department of Entomology at the CSIRO.  


He says the federal and state governments have failed to give it the priority it needs. 


JIM CULLEN: It's been an area which has been difficult to get support for. It's an area which I suppose to some extent has gone a little bit out of favour, but I don't think people realise how much it's a foundation for so many other things that we do. 


SARAH CLARKE: While the Federal Government denies an outbreak of exotic disease or pests is imminent, the Agriculture Minister overseeing AQIS admits it's a problem. 


And Peter McGauran says without specialists in the area, there is an increasing biosecurity risk.  


PETER MCGAURAN: It's a real problem for Australia. We've quantified the future shortage, and the future is almost upon us. 


TONY EASTLEY: Peter McGauran. Sarah Clarke reporting there.  



EDITOR'S NOTE: The transcript has been amended to accurately record the name of Peter McGauran.