Budget concerns for science leaders

James Riley
Editorial Director

While the Coalition budget’s science announcements hold one marquee boost to the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), there was precious little to impress science leaders in other areas and cuts continued in areas including ARC research funding and the abolition of the $3.9B Education Investment Fund.

The Medical Research Future Fund was established in 2015 to support health and medical research with a long-term $20 billion funding goal – with $9.5 billion funded to date.

The new injection adds $5 billion across a range of initiatives that all fit the remit of pushing medical research toward breakthroughs that could improve Australian health outcomes while also creating commercialisation opportunities.

Science: Medical research wins big but few other positives across the sciences.

$931M in new funding specifically targets coal-face areas of medical research, such as rare cancers and diseases, and anti-microbial and drug resistance. $444.6M targets breakthrough research initiatives and support for clinical researchers and industry training.

$1.2B is aimed at the longer-term Missions, focused on complex research efforts in areas such as genomics, aged care and dementia, stem cells, and more. This was a particular focus of the ‘moonshot’ aims in last year’s ISA 2030 report.

A further $1.2B for the MRFF focuses on the effort to bring research out of the lab and into primary care, including an extra $254M for medical research commercialisation.

Beyond the MRFF funding, the budget figures around the sciences stick to smaller numbers.

  • ANSTO gets $56.4M over three years for its nuclear medicine research and other work such as radioactive waste management.
  • Monash University and the University of Melbourne receives $25M over four years to establish a “coasts, environment and climate science research and education centre” at Point Nepean, Victoria.
  • $5M over two years to University of Melbourne to build a dark matter research laboratory.
  • Questacon sees $15.1M over three years to expand its education and out research activities.

The Space Infrastructure Fund will also see an added $19.5M in support of the push to develop an Australian space industry.

“This means money on the ground to help triple the size of the Australian space sector to $12B and increase employment to 30,000 jobs by 2030, as part of our plan to create more jobs and growth in emerging sectors of the economy,” said Karen Andrews in a budget statement.

The $19.5M includes the already announced funding of a $6M Mission Control Centre in South Australia, as well as $2M space manufacturing capability in New South Wales.

In the other key funding initiative that was announced ahead of the budget, $3.4M over four years has been allocated to promoting greater participation of girls and women in STEM. The funding will support the existing Science in Australia Gender Equity program, as well as an awareness initiative led by the Women in STEM Ambassador.

Losses to the science industry include:

  • The $3.9B Education Investment Fund was abolished, with the funds moved to a new Emergency Response Fund.
  • $345M lost from university research funding.
  • $6.73M gone from the ARC researching funding, a reverse of the return to indexation announced in last year’s budget.
  • $16.5M out of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme.

Reactions from the sciences industry showed concern with seeing such a positive outcome for medical research but so little for other key research areas.

“Bold investments in medical research and development through the Medical Research Future Fund will empower Australian scientists and technologists to become world leaders in their field,” said Professor Emma Johnston AO, President of Science & Technology Australia.

“What we did not see in this budget was an ambition to be the clever country in all fields.

“A complementary Fund to support the translation and commercialisation of knowledge built through non-medical science research programs would amplify the economic returns that STEM brings for Australia.”

Professor Johnston was also particularly unimpressed by the loss of the EIF.

“Research at tertiary institutions is also severely hampered by the reallocation of $3.9 billion from the Education Investment Fund to a new Emergency Response Fund,” said Professor Johnston. “While it is important to support those affected by emergencies including floods and fires, taking funding away from education to fund emergency responses is a false economy. STEM education should be supported in a way that increases our National capacity to predict, prevent and respond to the impacts of national emergencies.”

While Professor Johnston acknowledged the positives of the women in STEM, Questacon, and space investments, she felt there remained an overall lack of vision.

“Reductions to the Research Support Program, which compound the cuts this program suffered in December – severely limiting our universities’ ability to conduct world-leading research and drive innovation,” said Professor Johnston.

Professor John Shine AC, President of the Academy of Science, also felt there was more cause for concern than celebration.

“While the Academy applauds the range of new initiatives, it was hoped that there would be more focus on science and innovation in the budget given the Government’s emphasis on knowledge and skills,” Professor Shine said.

“It is counterintuitive to seek to produce a surplus by cutting the knowledge economy and by cutting funding to Australia’s key science and research agencies such as the Australian Research Council.”

Update (April 3): The released statements from leaders of the science industry misread reductions in CSIRO funding, so their statements have been corrected to reflect this was incorrect. See their statement here.


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