Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Undervalued, underfunded, undermined… How science fared in the Budget

By Rod Lamberts

Once again the Federal Budget treated science as discretional spending rather than a key to the nation's competitiveness.

Anyone expecting undying gratitude from scientists should think again. MacGeekGrl/Flickr
The post-budget political rhetoric to me reinforces the underlying, ongoing, disdain that this, and indeed many previous, governments have for science-related matters in Australia.

Minister Carr is reported as saying that finding the “record” $3 billion to keep CSIRO going for the next four years “wasn’t easy".

While I applaud him for fighting the good fight to secure this cash, I’m still left feeling bewildered that a fight was even necessary.

How is it that we are still in a world (and in Australia’s case, an economy) where funding enterprises such as CSIRO are even slightly tricky to sell to our lords and mistresses?

Mr Carr himself speaks of how CSIRO gives Australia a competitive edge, and how 150 companies have been directly arisen from CSIRO research.

The line is being trotted out by certain media outlets that the funding represents a “big splurge for science” is cause for great disappointment.

It’s as if science spending should somehow be considered reckless, as if it’s showing favouritism to niche interest groups as opposed to investing in our collective futures on myriad fronts.

Other causes for disillusionment abound.

Apparently, roughly $9 million will be allocated for the decommissioning of two nuclear facilities in NSW (at Lucas Heights and Camperdown). News like this leaves me with the impression that we are supposed to be grateful for the spend.

Seriously? Surely the decommissioning of an ageing nuclear facility is an absolute no-brainer – it’s not in any way an indicator of even noteworthy (better yet impressive) budgeting.

The government’s new initiative on science communication, Inspiring Australia, did in fact receive the money it was promised: $21 million over three years. For this, we in the science communication community can say thanks.

But some $13 to $14 million was already committed under the auspices of a recently closed program called SCOPE, so we are looking at just $6 to 7 million of new money. Over three years. Across the whole of the country. For all the sciences …

Still, nothing grieves me more than the ongoing NHMRC funding discourse. The maintenance, and indeed marginal increase, in funding over the next few years is in no way a cause for celebration.

For starters, this convinces me even more that the pre-budget rumours of a $400 million cut were almost certainly a stunt.

Threaten to take away what we have, magnanimously offer it back to us later, and pause for gratitude and devotion. Minister Carr was quoted yesterday as saying the high-profile protests beforehand were misplaced.

Why? Because the cuts were never going to happen? Because medical research isn’t that important? Because protesting is just “not cricket”?

I assume in the post-budget wrap-up it really means: “See, there was nothing to worry about, we even gave you a tidgy bit more.” Yep, 4%. Barely above CPI. And for medical research.

While it would be churlish to suggest the budget is a bad result for science, it would be naïve, even sycophantic, to say it’s a good one. I personally dream of the day when money directed to science-based research and development is seen as investing, rather than spending. Ain’t it nice to dream…

As a country, we continue to undervalue, underfund, indeed undermine science when compared to relevant OECD partners. But at least we aren’t doing this any more than before.

For the sciences, it’s budget as usual.

Rod Lamberts is Deputy Director of the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University.