The Australian science and technology sector has been left “perplexed and disappointed” by the federal government’s “ram raid” cuts to research grants, with up to 500 PhD scholarships to be scrapped.
The mid-year economic financial outlook report, revealed by the government on Monday morning, includes a cut of nearly $330 million over four years to the research block grants, which provide funding to education providers for research and research training.
The scale of the cuts has shocked researchers, who were expected cost-savings of about half the amount.
The cuts would have a major impact on Australia’s R&D capability and the broader technology sector, according to University of Technology Sydney special innovation advisor and Innovation Council chair Roy Green said.
“It’s a setback for any attempt to transition to our post-mining boom, knowledge-based economy,” Professor Green told InnovationAus.com.
“Next year will be the first year in 15 years that mining will no longer make a net contribution to Australian GDP growth, and that means we have to diversify our sources of export income. We know that a key potential source of income is knowledge-based products and services,” he said.
“But that requires an investment in our research and innovation system, not funding reductions. We now spend a total of 1.88 per cent of GDP in both public and private sectors, which compares with between 2-4 per cent among other comparable economies.
In both our public and private investment [into R&D] in Australia, we’re going backwards.”
The funding freeze would have an immediate impact on Australian research and on jobs, Prof Green said.
“There will be less for PhD research, less for research support, and it may result in redundancies for research staff. It’s a completely unjustified and almost vindictive measure which is counter-productive to the Australian national interest,” he said.
“The irony is that the government wants to apply a national interest test to research – how about applying a national interest test to its own policies?”
Professor Michael Biercuk, the director of the University of Sydney’s Quantum Control Laboratory and founder of quantum computing company Q-CTRL, said he was left “highly disappointed” by the cuts, which would have a very real impact on Australia’s future.
“The future economy that this government really wants to support is built on public sector research. Q-CTRL is based on the last two decades of publicly-funded scientific research in quantum physics, and that’s now being turned into commercial activity,” Prof Biercuk said.
“We’re a small company and 90 per cent of our expenditure goes into creating new jobs in Australia,” he told InnovationAus.com.
“If one has to trim, it makes almost no sense at all to trim in science. That’s an area where investment makes a huge difference in economic activity. If we’re really going for jobs and growth, then this is a key area in which to invest.”
The funding freeze would make it difficult for researchers to plan for the future, Prof Biercuk said.
“Research organisations need to perform workforce planning, and the idea of constantly doing re-budgeting is a huge challenge. We need certainty as we try to build long-term projects and high impact projects. The whole community needs certainty,” he said.
The cuts would lead directly to fewer PhD scholarship being offered, he said, and would hamper Australia’s ability to attract overseas talent.
“In Australia we look at these potential students as cash cows. The research support programs help pay for PhD scholarships,” Professor Biercuk said.
“We’ll be more constrained in our ability to support these scholarships, and it will make Australia a less attractive destination for higher education.”
“If we are not able to compete in the market for PhD students then we’re really in a tough spot, and that’s a real driver of the academic science and innovation that goes into the public sector.”
The new freeze in research funding was barely mentioned in Education Minister Dan Tehan’s MYEFO press release, and was only addressed in two short paragraphs.
“The decision to pause indexation of research block grant programs for 12 months, along with adjusting growth for the Research Support Program, will allow the government to prioritise education spending, including on regional higher education,” Mr Tehan said.
“We have invested over $350 million since the 2018-19 budget to support students in regional and remote Australia,” he said.
But Professor Biercuk said this move amounted to “robbing Peter to pay Paul”.
“It seems like there’s a conflation of two things that really should be separate. It should be about how we support higher education and training across Australia and in regional areas, and how we support cutting-edge research,” he said.
“We’re robbing Peter to pay Paul and it’s an example of how the change in structure of higher education to call every institution a university has led to some really negative outcomes,” he said.
‘They should prioritise it as a separate budgetary item – it’s clear the goals of these two parts are not the same.”
Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson said the cuts amount to a “ram raid on Australia’s future economic growth, prosperity, health and development”.
“Every day, Australians right across the country – from farmers to families with young children – benefit from research breakthroughs,” Ms Jackson said.
“These cuts are the wrong decision for Australia’s future – and they will rob Australians of life-saving treatments, research to help prevent floods and bushfires and advances in almost every aspect of people’s lives.”
“The budget is forecast to return to surplus and yet the government has decided to cut funds to research which drives economic growth. This makes no sense.