Australia's New Budget Hard on Nonbiomedical Science

Australia’s scientific community could be forgiven for thinking the country’s new conservative government isn’t keen on nonmedical research. Not only did it decline to appoint a science minister—the first time since the portfolio was created in 1931—but its first federal budget, released in Canberra on 13 May, contains major cuts to science funding outside of biomedical research.

Overall, the budget released by Prime Minister Tony Abbott's conservative government, elected this past September, is aimed at slashing the federal government’s long-term spending deficits. The budget represents “pain with a purpose,” Abbott has said. It cuts or slows the growth of spending in an array of areas, including education, social welfare programs, and staffing at government agencies.

In science, the big losers will be Australia’s lead research agencies. Spending at five major agencies will be at least AU$420 million less than envisioned by previous government projections (called “forward estimates” in Australia). The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) would lose AU$111.4 million, the Defence Science and Technology Organisation AU$120 million, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation AU$27.6 million, and the Australian Institute of Marine Science AU$7.8 million.

Furthermore, the Cooperative Research Centres Program linking industry and science loses AU$80 million and the Australian Research Council, which funds nonmedical scientific research, faces a chop of AU$74.9 million over 3 years.

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy—which supports major research infrastructure like telescopes and high-end computing facilities—survives, but will receive AU$150 million following the expiration of existing funding. That’s down from an anticipated AU$185.9 million in the 2013 to 2014 budget.

All of the cuts come after an overall decline in the science budget of AU$470 million since 2011.

The budget calls for the elimination of about a dozen agencies dealing with science and environmental matters, including the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and the $10 billion Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC), which supports early-stage startups. (Critics of the move note that the CEFC has been profitable.)

One bit of good news for the scientific community is the announcement that the Future Fellowships program, which supports promising up-and-coming researchers, will continue for 4 years with spending of AU$139.5 million

The big winner in the 2014 to 2015 budget is medical research. The government will establish a Medical Research Future Fund to provide additional funding for medical research. In a move expected to spur controversy, the funding will come from increased charges paid by patients to visit a doctor and for diagnostic procedures and will include AU$1 billion from the Health and Hospitals Fund. The goal is to provide AU$20 billion for the fund by 2019 to 2020.

New funding of AU$42 million will be provided to expand the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine at James Cook University. And the government committed $95.9 million over 4 years to finalize Australia’s National Bowel Cancer Screening Program.

“While the new Medical Research Future Fund provides a positive vision, the rest of Australian science is left substantially weakened,” says Australian Academy of Science President Suzanne Cory.

It will take time to unravel details of all the budget measures. They’re spread over several government portfolios, from science and environment to education, and the positive spin the government is putting on some moves may be offset by less apparent moves likely to make science advocates unhappy.

For instance, the government announced an “additional” AU$65.7 million over 4 years to operate a new marine research vessel, the RV Investigator. But some AU$21 million will come from the CSIRO’s existing funding. The government also announced that the National Environmental Research Program and the Australian Climate Change Science Programme will be folded into the new National Environmental Science Programme; the combined budgets, however, will AU$21.7 million less than existing funding.

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