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Australian budget delivers no big surprises for research

 Image: HM Treasury [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr

Small overall increase in science and research spending receives lukewarm reaction

Australia’s federal budget has provided few surprises or big-ticket items for the research sector.

Some science bodies expressed concerns about funding declines in real terms after treasurer Jim Chalmers (pictured) delivered the budget on 9 May, but they welcomed some ongoing support from the government.

The Australian Academy of Science published an analysis suggesting that the budget represented an overall A$455 million increase in science and research spending, to A$13 billion. Around a quarter of that expenditure takes the form of tax rebates for R&D, the academy said, with the increase representing about 11,000 more jobs.

The academy said that figures released in April showed government spending on R&D to be at 0.49 per cent of GDP, “the lowest on record”.

“Reversing the downward trend of government investment in R&D is not the work of any single budget,” academy president Chennupati Jagadish said. “It will take a decade or more of commitment and effort from government, industry and the higher education sector to boost total investment in R&D. Work must start today.”

Innovation nation

Kylie Walker, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, said that overall the budget “falls short on the strategy and investment critically needed to grow wealth and wellbeing by making Australia a global leader in research and innovation”.  

“Time is of the essence for Australia to grow as a leading innovation nation, rapidly decarbonise our economy and become a global renewable energy powerhouse,” Walker said. The academy repeated calls for an economy-wide R&D spending target of at least the OECD average of 2.67 per cent. The Australian Academy of Science says the current figure for Australia is 1.79 per cent.

A reduction of A$25m in the Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund in the budget went against international trends for more cooperation and outreach, Walker said. The academy of science said it was “disappointed” by that reduction. 

Medical science

Health research was not prominent in the budget. The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes said the budget was “relatively quiet” for the sector.

In a statement, Steve Wesselingh, president of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences, said that although the academy “recognised” the ongoing work of the Medical Research Future Fund and the National Health and Medical Research Council, “we are concerned that the NHMRC research budget continues to drop in real terms”.

Industry growth

The budget also contained a new A$392m Industry Growth Program, which will go to commercialising new ideas from small and medium-sized businesses. Cooperative Research Australia, which represents Australia’s Cooperative Research Centres, welcomed the fund.

Chief executive Jane O’Dwyer said it was “a welcome addition to the support mechanisms to harness Australian research capacity and smarts from fundamental research right through to scaled-up manufacturing and impact”.

“It is pleasing to see steady and ongoing commitment to our national science agencies, research funding and critical programmes including the Cooperative Research Centres programme and National Critical Research Infrastructure.”

She said the government now needed to turn its attention to how to “unlock” potential R&D spending from the private sector.

The budget allocated A$101m to artificial intelligence and quantum computing research, development and translation, including a new Australian Centre for Quantum Growth.

An earlier commitment to provide A$535m in funding for urgently needed works at several major collecting institutions was also delivered in the budget.