Dr Alex St John
Support for science, research and innovation (SRI) is relatively
stable overall in the 2017–18 Budget, with little change for most programs. The
fanfare of the Turnbull Government’s signature National Innovation and Science
Agenda has faded somewhat, with the initiatives announced in 2015 and 2016
having moved into the implementation phase. Although the overall picture for
SRI will become clearer when the Science, Research and Innovation Budget Tables
are released later in the year, most stakeholders will regard 2017–18 as
business as usual. However, there are still a number of budget measures that
will affect the SRI sector.
Higher education research
As part of the Government’s proposed higher education
reforms (for further information see the article on higher education reform in
the education section), universities are set to receive 2.6–2.9% less funding
under the teaching block grants (the Commonwealth Grant Scheme), as the
Government argues that universities’ growth in student revenue has greatly
outpaced growth in costs of teaching degrees. Although this appears
unrelated to research, universities have historically relied on using some of
their teaching block grant to cross-subsidise their research and infrastructure
programs. University groups have
expressed concern that these reductions will reduce universities’ capacity to
undertake ‘core activities’ of engagement and research as well as teaching.
The Budget also announced that a Research Infrastructure
Investment Plan would be developed on the back of the 2016
National Research Infrastructure Roadmap process.
No funds have been earmarked for new research infrastructure, and research
sector lobby groups are continuing to campaign against uncommitted money in the
Education Investment Fund being repurposed to the National Disability Insurance
Scheme. However, $26.1 million
over four years has been earmarked to maintain optical telescopes in Australia,
including moving ownership of the Anglo-Australian telescope from the
Government to the research sector, and becoming a partner in the European
Funding to Commonwealth research agencies has remained
relatively stable for the 2017–18 Budget, with no significant increases or
decreases to overall funding. Funding for the rural research and development
corporations (RRDCs) should slightly increase, as the Budget introduces
research and development levies on exported cotton, tea tree oil and
thoroughbred mares. The Budget also confirms continued
funding for the year-round operation of the Antarctic research base on
The Budget contains a small number of highlights in medical
research. New funds are made available for two targeted research areas –
fighting childhood cancer and mental health. Under the Prioritising Mental
Health initiative (for further information see the article on mental health in
the health section), an additional $7.5 million will be provided in both
2017–18 and 2018–19, split between the National Centre for Excellence in Youth
Mental Health, the BlackDog Institute and the Thompson Institute. This will add
to the amount spent on mental health research by the National Health and
Medical Research Council, which was $71.7 million in 2016.
Cancer Australia will receive $5.8 million over four years to accelerate two
clinical trials of brain cancer treatments in Australia, and to increase
capacity in diagnosis, treatment and research in childhood cancer.
Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF)
The MRFF, a sovereign endowment fund announced in the
2014–15 Budget, will make its first disbursements in 2017–18. These initial
disbursements will amount to $65.9 million over four years, and will target
cancer in teenagers, preventative health, and initiatives for rapid translation
of research into treatment. The level of
disbursements is smaller than the initial projections of earnings from the fund;
this reflects the delay in establishing the fund, which occurred in late 2015.
Budget papers indicate that the fund currently has a capital balance of $4.4
billion, with an additional $2.6 billion to be transferred to the fund this
year. If the fund is to
achieve full capitalisation of $20 billion in 2020–21, transfers
totalling approximately $13 billion must be made between 2018-19 and 2020-21.
A new initiative, the Advanced Manufacturing Fund, will be
established with $101.5 million in funding over four years. The scope of the
fund will be relatively narrow, with the following actions foreshadowed:
- $24 million in grants to stimulate advanced manufacturing
- $47.5 million in matching funds for establishing and expanding
high value manufacturing in South Australia and Victoria
- $10 million to establish ‘Innovation Labs’ in South Australia and
- $5 million to invest in student research to encourage continued
training of automotive engineers
- Reductions in import tariffs on prototype motor vehicles.
The focus on South Australia and Victoria in these programs
suggests that their intent is to offset the withdrawal of the car manufacturing
industry in Australia, which will be completed in 2017.
The science, research and innovation measures announced in
this year’s budget have received a relatively muted reception. Automotive and
industry groups generally welcomed the advanced manufacturing package,
although some commentators have highlighted a lack of linkage to broader
innovation and manufacturing policy. Science and technology
lobby groups welcomed the commencement of disbursements from the Medical
Research Future Fund, tempered with disappointment that funding increases for
the Australian Research Council and the National Health and Medical Research Council
did not match inflation.
S Birmingham (Minister for Education and Training), A
stronger, sustainable and student-focussed higher education system for all
Australians, media release, 1 May 2017.
J Lomax-Smith, L Watson and B Webster, Higher
education base funding review: final report, October 2011, pp. 82-84; Universities
facts on university funding, April 2017.
Innovative Research Universities, Why
universities need annual surpluses, media release, 3 May 2017; Group of
Eight Australia, Go8
disappointed by Government’s response to Universities’ strong contribution to
the Australian economy, media release, 2 May 2017.
Department of Education and Training (DET), 2016
National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, DET website, 12 May 2017.
Universities Australia, Uni
cuts counter to jobs, growth & global competitiveness, media
release, 9 May 2017.
The budget figures in this brief have been taken from the following
document unless otherwise sourced: Australian Government, Budget
paper no. 2: Budget measures.
Australian Government, Portfolio
budget statements: budget related paper no. 1.17 Environment and Energy
National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Research
funding statistics and data, NHMRC website, 28 March 2017.
Department of Health, First
disbursements from the Medical Research Future Fund, Department
of Health website, 9 May 2017.
See D Brett, ‘Science
and research funding’, Budget review 2015–16, Research paper series,
2014–15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2015.
Australian Government, Budget
paper no.1: Budget strategy and outlook, p. 7-17; Australian
paper no.4: Agency resourcing, p. 112.
Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), Increased
investment in advanced manufacturing, DIIS website.
I Willox (CEO, Australian Industry Group), Budget
2017: Clearing the decks for new tilt at growth, media release, 9 May
2017; Australian Automotive Aftermarket Association, AAAA
welcomes Australian manufacturing development funding announcements in federal
budget, media release, 10 May 2017.
D Evans, ‘Budget
2017: a glimmer of support for innovation and advanced manufacturing’, The
Conversation, 11 May 2017.
Science & Technology Australia, From
the 2017/18 federal budget lockup, media release, 9 May 2017;
Australian Academy of Science, What
the Budget means for science and research, media release, 9 May 2017;
Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, Elation
as first MRFF payments announced in budget, securing health and medical
research, media release, 9 May 2017; Research Australia, Federal
budget 2017-18 | First grants issued by MRFF, media release, 9 May
All online articles accessed May 2017.
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