The 2019-2020 Federal Budget may have promised a surplus and an extensive investment in training, but science and technology interests are mixed in their reaction to a range of initiatives balanced with what some call “damaging cuts” to research and development programs.
Federal treasurer Josh Frydenberg said in his Budget speech that the government was “backing the industries of the future”, with a science, research and technology investment of $9b, the $20b Medical Research Future Fund, and more than $400m in the Budget for genomics research.
Frydenberg also singled out communications technology, advanced manufacturing and health services as priority areas and said the government would “work closely with industry to train Australians in areas of future high demand.”
Science bodies highlighted a range of science-focused initiatives such as:
- $3.4m to support women in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) disciplines
- $5m over two years to build the Stawell Underground Physical Laboratory to help the University of Melbourne research dark matter
- $56m for nuclear medicine and waste management through the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation
- $25m for coastal, environmental and climate research through a facility at Point Nepean, Victoria
- $19.5m over four years for to establish a Space Infrastructure Fund
- $15.1m over three years for expanded outreach and education activities through Canberra’s Questacon science centre
- $3.6m over two years to trial a National Innovation Games program that will see students working together on innovation challenges set by corporate sponsors
- $0.5m over five years to establish an Australian Antarctic Science Council
Such new programs were, however, offset by major cuts to R&D including the abolition of the $3.9b Education Investment Fund and the redirection of that funding to a new Emergency Response Fund; slashing nearly $50m from entrepreneurship and industry research programs; and $389m worth of cuts to future allocations for university research, the CSIRO, and research grant programs.
Peak body the Australian Academy of Science (AAS) welcomed the new initiatives, but AAS president Professor John Shine called it “counterintuitive” for the government to laud its Budget surplus while slashing R&D funding to key science and research agencies.
“Given the Government’s focus on economic growth it is disappointing that some of the very welcome announcements in this budget went hand in hand with these damaging cuts to Australia’s research programs,” Shine said in the AAS Budget response.
The AAS was more positive about last year’s science and technology allocations, previously calling the 2018-19 Budget a “good budget for science”.
Science industry bodies had less enthusiasm about the new Budget, which sacrifices a range of allocated funding programs and redirects their funds away from science and technology areas.
Professor Ian Frazer, president of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, was “disappointed” that the Budget surplus wasn’t being tapped to bolster broader R&D investment.
Cuts to university funding and the Australian Research Council were problematic, he said, “as these organisations are essential to drive the basic research that enables the clinical research that translates into practical outcomes for patients.”
Missed opportunities and false economies
Dr Liz Hanna, an ANU academic who is chair of the World Federation of Public Health Associations’ Environmental Health Working Group, slammed the government for “obsessing with relative low-level risk of terror threats whilst ignoring that existing and future populations are in real and present danger... due to the ravages of climate change.”
The budget, she said, was “full of lollies and tantalising teasers, but completely fails to deliver a healthy future.”
The diversion of $3.9b from the Education Investment Fund to a new Emergency Response Fund, in particular, is a “false economy,” Science & Technology Australia president Professor Emma Johnston warned while calling the Budget’s failure to keep up with inflation “a stark concern”.
“Bold investments in medical research and development through the Medical Research Future Fund will empower Australian scientists and technologists to become world leaders in their field,” she said, but “what we did not see in this budget was an ambition to be the clever country in all fields.”
Efforts in areas such as bolstering female participation in STEM subjects had driven progress towards addressing entrenched bias and obstacles for women, Johnston noted, but warned that Australia had seen “the trend of falling investment in research and development over the last few years and this needs urgent attention.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson warned that the government had “missed a prime opportunity to reverse its previous $2.1b freeze on student places and $328m cuts to university research.”
The cuts “are the wrong decision for Australia’s future and they will deny Australians access to university, and to life-changing and life-saving research breakthroughs.”