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Group of Eight warns government on ‘grants freeze’

The Group of Eight, a lobby group for Australia’s research-intensive universities, has urged the government to spare research from a plan to cut around AU$2 billion in federal grants.

The university group says such a funding freeze—aimed at securing a budget surplus—would slash AU$320m from university and research budgets. This would have “dire” consequences for the country’s research organisations, it warned on 31 August.

The caution comes after The Australian newspaper reported last week that the Gillard government has imposed across-the-board cuts for federal grants worth an estimated AU$2bn per year.

The Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education has said that no decisions to stop payments have been made but researchers fear that such cuts would keep the national research councils and other funding bodies from supporting new projects in 2013, which would cripple university balance sheets.

Professor Fred Hilmer, chairman of the Group of Eight, said that to freeze funding for research grants would run counter to the government’s message that science and innovation is vital to lifting productivity in Australia.

“Such cuts, if made, would be unprecedented and arbitrary, and would completely undermine the Government’s rhetoric on innovation as the key to Australia’s future”, he says.

The Group of Eight estimates that if cuts to research grants are realised, it will mean that 1,700 jobs will be lost from the country’s higher education sector. There are also fears that foreign investors will stay away.

“Australia’s future, Australia’s reputation, and the wellbeing of the national innovation system and our young and developing researchers, would all be harmed if the government adopts this approach”, says Hilmer.

The Expenditure Review Committee of Cabinet will pour over all federal grant schemes in the coming weeks to look for savings.