Science and research funding

Budget Review 2015–16 Index

David Brett

The full state of science and research funding will not be clear until the release of the Department of Industry and Science’s Science, Research and Innovation Budget Tables (Tables) later this year. When the figures from last year’s Tables were calculated as a share of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the 2014–15 science and research spending was seen to be the equal lowest since records started in 1978–79.[1] Looking at the current budget, it appears that overall science and research funding, as a share of GDP, is likely to be the lowest on record.

National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and Sustainable Research Excellence

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) supports major research infrastructure and previously had its funding tied to the passage of the higher education reforms. However, in March 2015 Minister Pyne announced that funding for NCRIS would instead be found from offsets within the Education and Training portfolio.[2] The 2015–16 Budget reveals that funding from the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) program has been redirected to fund the extension of NCRIS into 2016–17, pending the completion of a review of research infrastructure funding arrangements.[3] The SRE program is intended to support the indirect costs of research - therefore this funding redirection is essentially transferring money that was for researchers and using it to support research equipment and infrastructure.[4] This leaves a noticeable gap in the SRE funding profile, which raises questions about how such a large variation in funding for the SRE program will be managed.

Program
2014–15 Estimate
($M)[5]
2014–15
Estimated actual
($M)
2015–16 Estimate
($M)
2016–17 Estimate
($M)
2017–18 Projection
($M)
2018–19 Projection
($M)
NCRIS
100.1
100.1
150.0
150.0
-
-
SRE
185.4
185.4
238.7
137.1
255.7
225.2

National Health and Medical Research Council and the Medical Research Future Fund

Research grants administered by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) are the second largest area of spending for the Australian Government in science and research. Funding for medical research in 2014–15 is now estimated to be $74 million less than was expected in the 2014–15 Budget, with a further $10 million reduction of funding in 2015–16.[6] NHMRC research grant funding is not expected to exceed the 2014–15 funding level in any of the years in the forward estimates.

The anticipated establishment of the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) is expected to add $10 million in support of medical research in 2015–16; this funding has been brought forward from earnings that would otherwise not be available until 2016–17.[7] Legislation is expected to be introduced to parliament to enable the MRFF to be established on 1 August 2015. Until the legislation is passed, it is unclear whether the MRFF will need to establish its own grant assessment infrastructure or if it will provide funds for the NHMRC to disburse; only in the latter case is the MRFF likely to be able to provide medical research funding in 2015–16. If the MRFF is able to provide funding in 2015–16 as specified in the Budget, it will only provide an additional $22,000 for medical research once the reduction in NHMRC research grants is factored in. The Treasurer’s claim of $400 million distributed from the MRFF over the forward estimates is supported by the Budget papers ($417 million). However, if the revised 2014–15 funding level is used as a baseline, the net medical research funding will be reduced to $349 million by cuts to NHMRC grant funding, with most of the additional funding unavailable until 2018–19.[8]

Program
2014–15 Estimate
 ($M)[9]
2014–15
Estimated actual
($M)
2015–16 Estimate
($M)
2016–17 Estimate
($M)
2017–18 Projection
($M)
2018–19 Projection
($M)
NHMRC Research Grants
930.1
855.8
845.8
834.4
832.3
842.9
Funding from the MRFF
0
0
10.0
53.0
130.0
224.0

Australian Research Council

Australian Research Council (ARC) grant funding in 2015–16 has been reduced by $86 million (9.8%) from 2014–15. There is a $35.6 million reduction in funding for the ARC Discovery program, which funds Australian Laureate Fellowships, Discovery Early Career Researcher Awards, Discovery Indigenous, Discovery Projects and Future Fellowships. $50.4 million has been cut from the ARC Linkage program, which supports ARC Centres of Excellence, co-funded research centres, Industrial Transformation Research Hubs, Industrial Transformation Training Centres, Linkage Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities, Linkage Learned Academies Special Projects, Linkage Projects and Special Research Initiatives. Funding for both of these programs remains below 2014–15 levels over the period of the forward estimates.

Program
2014–15 Estimate
 ($M)[10]
2014–15
Estimated actual
($M)
2015–16 Estimate
($M)
2016–17 Estimate
($M)
2017–18 Projection
($M)
2018–19 Projection
($M)
ARC Discovery
549.9
549.9
514.2
488.8
515.2
517.5
ARC Linkage[11]
325.8
325.8
275.4
262.4
268.4
274.8
The Budget papers do reveal some additional funding is to be provided, including:
  • $13 million to the Australian Synchrotron in 2016–17;
  • $49.1 million over the forward estimates to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation;
  • $9.4 million for Antarctic research in 2015–16; and
  • $15.3 million over the forward estimates for research into tropical diseases.

However, the Cooperative Research Centres program will be cut by a further $26.8 million over the forward estimates.

The Australian Academy of Science welcomed the extension of NCRIS funding to 2016–17, the anticipated establishment of the MRFF, and additional funding for the Australian Synchrotron, ANSTO, Antarctic and tropical medical research, but was critical of the cuts to university block grants and Cooperative Research Centres. It argued that, with the slowing of the mining boom, it was appropriate to direct additional funds into science, but that instead Australia’s future prosperity was at risk.[12]

Science & Technology Australia described the 2015–16 Budget as “a mixed budget for science”, welcoming the anticipated establishment of the MRFF and the confirmation of the additional funding for NCRIS but disappointed that the funding was found by redirecting it from the SRE program. It described the cuts to the Cooperative Research Centres as “difficult to understand” and the budget as having “mixed and confusing messages ... for Australian science”. [13]



[1].          Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), Fact check: Science, research and innovation spending cut to 'historic low', ABC Fact Check, 7 October 2014.

[2].          D Speers, ‘Interviews with Education Minister Christopher Pyne MP and Senator Nick Xenophon’, PM Agenda, Sky News, 16 March 2015.

[3].          Department of Education and Training, National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), Department of Education and Training website.

[4].          The budget figures in this article have been taken from the following document unless otherwise sourced: Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2015–16: budget related paper no. 1.5: Education and Training Portfolio.

[5].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2014–15: budget related paper no. 1.5: Education and Training Portfolio, p. 81.

[6].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2014–15: budget related paper no. 1.10: Health Portfolio, p. 426.

[7].          Australian Government, Budget strategy and outlook: budget paper no. 1: 2015–16, p. 5-26

[8].          J Hockey (Treasurer), Budget speech 2015–16.

[9].          Budget paper no. 1: 2015–16, op. cit., p. 5-26.

[10].       Portfolio budget statements 2014–15, Education and Training Portfolio, op. cit., p. 178

[11].       Includes ARC Research Endowment special account

[12] Australian Academy of Science, Federal Budget 2015 – Deep science funding cuts on the horizon, media release, 12 May 2015.

[13] Science & Technology Australia, Some cuts, some lifelines in a mixed budget for science, media release, 12 May 2015

 

All online articles accessed May 2015. 

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