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Muted Reaction to New Science Budget in Australia

24 October 2012 11:30 am
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Government of Australia

The Flag of Australia

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA—The limbo is over for Australian researchers: Research grants are flowing once again. Over the past several rather tense weeks, the federal government froze all science grants while seeking to balance the nation's budget. But the midyear budget released on 22 October had welcome relief: AUS $1.686 billion for the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council, and the Cooperative Research Centres.

University officials are not popping the champagne corks. One disappointment is that the government is reneging on a pledge to increase allotments for indirect costs. The 2012 budget had originally included long-anticipated Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) grants from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research that would have raised overhead funding from 20% to 30% by 2012 then 50% by 2014, approaching the rates paid in the United States and the United Kingdom. "Universities thought the battle had finally been won," says Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia.

But the mid-term budget will effectively cap the overhead funding rate at 30% over the next 4 years, trimming AUS $499 million from the original SRE budget. University officials say they were counting on that money. "People will lose jobs and infrastructure will be underfunded," predicts Simon Marginson, a policy expert at University of Melbourne. "We can expect to struggle to provide our researchers with the level of support they require and we will start losing them," adds Jim McCluskey, deputy vice-chancellor of research at the University of Melbourne. Moreover, just 2 weeks ago a government review recommended plowing more funds into research overhead costs at hospitals and medical research institutes. "Yet the first signal we get is a cut to research funding through the SRE. This sets a worrying precedent that research is seen as a soft target," says Brendan Crabb, president-elect of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes.

Government officials point out that they have delivered AUS $370 million in overhead funding since 2009 and will ramp that up to AUS $300 million per year by 2016, for an overhead rate of close to 40%. "Saying that a rephasing of the growth of SREs is a blow to research is just wrong," says Chris Evans, minister for tertiary education.

To Marginson, the latest budget marks the end of a run of good fortune for Australian universities. Over the past 5 years, riding a wave of ample government support, many schools improved their international research rankings; this year, for example, the number of Australian universities in the top 100 Times Higher Education rankings rose from four to six. "The promised SRE was central to that success; it was really important psychologically," Marginson says. The next 5 years, he says, are going to be much rougher sledding.

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