Climate change mitigation, STEM education, and research commercialisation and funding are atop the budget wishlists of Australia’s scientists, engineers and medical researchers.
They say this year’s budget could be “legacy-defining” for the government and for post-pandemic Australia.
A $2.4 billion commercialisation fund, climate change mitigation, early medical research fellowships, and support for STEM education and diversity programs, are all necessary budget measures to spur the COVID-19 recovery, according to peak organisations.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg will hand down his third budget on Tuesday night, his second of the pandemic and a crisis which has brought into sharp focus the value of Australia’s science sector and sovereign capability.
It is a “legacy-defining” opportunity for the government, according to Science & Technology Australia (STA) chief executive officer Misha Schubert.
STA, which represents more than 88,000 scientists and technologists in Australia, is calling for a strategic $2.4 billion commercialisation fund alongside the development of a new breed of “bench-to-boardroom” scientists to help spur the recovery.
“This would drive deeper collaboration between universities and business, create new local jobs, and boost Australia’s sovereign capability,” Ms Schubert told InnovationAus ahead of Tuesday’s federal budget.
“It would have strong potential to create billion-dollar Australian grown companies, as well as many small startups.”
STA has also called for the government to invest $4 million over four years to support an Australian Indigenous Scientists/STEM Network and tap into Australia’s deep Indigenous knowledge in science, technology, engineering and maths.
“Finally we want the government to tackle the urgent need to stop the brain drain of young people out of STEM and boost future STEM talent for Australia with a new strategic initiative to inspire more Australian school students into science, technology, engineering and maths,” Ms Schubert said.
Commercialisation has also been highlighted by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as an area in need of government support.
The Learned Academy of more than 900 of local leaders in applied science, technology and engineering, is calling for adjustments to tax incentives as a way of targeting public funds and attracting private investment to research translation.
“Incentivising private sector investment in research through a 20 per cent collaboration premium in the R&D tax incentive in this Budget would ensure public investment in research is clearly directed towards public benefit,” the Academy told InnovationAus.
The federal government allocated $5.8 million for a research commercialisation scoping project in last year’s budget and has principle support from The Opposition, driving up hopes of a major announcement on Tuesday.
ATSE also identified mitigating and adapting to climate change and STEM education as the other two priority areas in need of investment.
“Government has an opportunity to fast-track Australia’s transformation to a clean energy economy, and supporting ‘clean’ industries could create over 75,000 jobs in the next three years, in economic sectors and regions hardest hit by the COVID-19 downturn,” ATSE said.
The government should make an “ambitious commitment” to achieving net zero emissions in Australia and invest in technology-led solutions to get there, including accelerating electrification of infrastructure and the implementation of renewables energy networks, according to ATSE.
ATSE said it welcomes the announcement of $100 million in the budget for developing digital skills in the workforce, but emphasised “the need for every Australian to be able to participate in the future economy”.
The government should continue to build STEM career pathways and more a diverse workforce generally, according to the Academy.
“Australia’s future prosperity relies on the quality and reach of STEM education, and the ongoing development of a diverse, innovation and knowledge-based workforce,” it said.
The Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes has called for 300 new fellowships to be funded by the Australian government for early to mid-career researchers, which currently struggle to find funding.
“There are not enough grants or fellowships available from the government at this level,” Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes president, Professor Jonathan Carapetis told InnovationAus.
“Instead they’re often part funded through philanthropy and fundraising, and then turn to their medical research institutes to fund the rest. But due to the economic downturn resulting from COVID-19 the holes in this imperfect system have turned into chasms.”
Half of the funding should come from existing money within the now fully funded Medical Research Future Fund, and the other half from new funding for the National Health and Medical Research Council, according to the Association.
“It’s not just about more funding, it’s about strategic investment to where we need it most. Every time one of these highly skilled medical researchers is unable to secure funding and continue with their research, about 20 years of past training expertise is lost,” Prof Carapetis said.
“Our early to mid-career researchers are tomorrow’s scientific leaders, and without action to support them we will lose them.”