Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Budget Delivers Austerity Measures for Science

By Ian Lowe

Science agencies were delivered substantial funding cuts in the 2015 Budget.

The Budget was not a happy one for science. Hundreds of millions have been cut from key science and research agencies, while the promised increase for medical research depends on controversial savings in the health care system.

The only positive response I found was from the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, which received a multi-million dollar allocation for new infrastructure at Lucas Heights. Other large agencies suffered, with CSIRO’s funding cut by another $110 million after losing out in last year’s Budget, while the Defence Science and Technology Organisation also lost $120 million.

The outlook is gloomy for basic research. The Australian Research Council’s budget has been cut by $75 million over 3 years. In the now traditional weasel-words, this funding cut was described as an “efficiency dividend”. Presumably the ARC is expected to allocate its funds more efficiently, perhaps by eliminating tiresome procedures like peer review.

The Future Fellowships scheme for top-rank mid-career researchers will continue, but its scale has been cut back to 100 fellowships a year.

As has been done in other areas like the arts, the government has taken money from the ARC’s budget for competitive grant allocations to fund a few direct grants for specific projects like the Institute for Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University. All these direct government grants reduce the funds available for the best research projects, as evaluated by peer review.

The funding for ARC discovery and linkage grants won’t even keep up with inflation, but will actually decline further, from a combined total of $869 million in the 2014–15 Budget to $783 million in 2017–18. Universities have been given permission to charge postgraduate students fees of up to $3900: that is hardly a good way to encourage bright graduates into basic research.

The outlook for medical research is not much better. The Budget papers celebrate the establishment of a Medical Research Future Fund, potentially providing large amounts of additional money for research projects. The fine print reveals the fund depends on the Senate passing the government’s proposed changes to the health care system, including the discredited Medicare co-contributions.

The representative body Science and Technology Australia expressed concern about the source of the money for the proposed fund, as well as the worry that “the other cuts across the sector” are likely to reduce Australia’s capacity to conduct world-class research.

If the funding does materialise, however, the medical researchers will be in a much better position than those doing basic science. While the ARC’s projected 2018–19 allocation for all human knowledge is $792 million, the National Health and Medical Research Council is projected to have a budget of more than $1 billion for medical research.

This should ameliorate the falling success rates for NHMRC grant applications. In 2010, 24% of grant applications were funded. By 2013, when the peer review process assessed 73% of applications as worthy of support, only 17% were actually funded. The success rate dropped further to 15% last year.

We should worry that the system encourages the best researchers to apply for support but sends 85% of them away empty-handed.

Energy Efficiency Is the Key to Climate Change

The most cost-effective and least disruptive way to reduce our contribution to climate change is to improve the efficiency of turning energy into goods and services. So I was delighted to see that Jon Jutsen, whose pioneering work in this area was supported by the national energy research council 30 years ago, was a plenary speaker at EE Global. This Washington conference was a showcase for efficiency initiatives around the world.

Jutsen now chairs the Australia Association to Save Energy. The Association’s goal is to double energy productivity, and it has produced preliminary reports in key sectors: mining, agriculture, manufacturing and passenger transport. A further report on the built environment, both residential and commercial, is close to completion.

Improving energy productivity has the potential to achieve real economic benefits, as well as cleaning up our act. The Association has real success stories to demonstrate what can be achieved.

It’s a pity that the chair of the Prime Minister’s Business Advisory Council is still in denial about the problem.

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.