29 May 2013

Federal budget a “missed opportunity” for Australian science

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The Australian Academy of Science has criticised the government's handling of research investment in the 2013 federal budget, lamenting the inability of Australian scientists to collaborate internationally due to a lack of specific funding.
Australian_banknotes_in_wallet

Credit: Martin Kingsley/ Wikimedia

SYDNEY: The 2013 federal budget was, overall, a disappointment for the Australian research sector, according to Bob Williamson, secretary for science policy at the Australia Academy of Science, who argued that a country’s economy, health care and industry is reliant upon strategic research expenditure.

“The 2013 federal budget has to be a disappointment to researchers who are interested in Australian science and our place in the scientific world effort,” he said, in light of the recently introduced spending cuts – in particular the transfer of $900 million away from universities to fund primary and secondary education under the Gonski reform school plan.

Considering the strength of the Australian economy, Australia was in a position to have a more strategic approach to science investment, he said.

“We are disappointed the Australian government hasn’t done what the United States government [did] in protecting the science budget. President Obama commented that spending on science is a key to building the economy. It’s an investment in the future, not a cost on the present.

“We think that it will make things harder for our very best students to think of a career in science research. Young scientists will feel that a career abroad is a much more attractive proposition,” he said.

Williamson also criticised the lack of a strategic international engagement programs, since funding for the Science International Linkage Scheme ceased in early 2009. Williamson described the move as a “lost opportunity”, adding that it compromises the ability of Australian scientists to participate in the world scene, and for Australia to maintain its competitive edge in international university rankings.

The Academy did acknowledge the new funding the budget provided, however. For example, the government will renew the ARC Future Fellowship scheme with $135.3 million over five years, which Williamson described as important for the support of researchers in the early stages of their career. The new budget will also extend the National Collaborative Infrastructure scheme with $185.9 million for two years, which is valuable for facilities such as the Australian Synchrotron in Melbourne, which benefits Australia nationally, but cannot be funded by only one university or state.

Williamson said he was especially pleased with the government’s commitment to Geoscience Australia, Australia’s national geological research agency in Canberra, which received an additional finding of $34 million for 2013–14 with $40 million in following years, for the promotion of research exploration.

Nonetheless, Williamson echoed the sentiments of Academy President Suzanne Cory. “While the Academy welcomes short-term investments in researchers and research infrastructure, this budget unfortunately represents a missed opportunity to support a strategic long-term vision for Australia’s future,” Cory said in a statement earlier this month.

“Australia’s economy is strong in global terms: now is the time to invest in knowledge-building and innovation, to ensure we are economically competitive and able to meet our health, economic and environmental challenges for decades to come.”

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