Science and technology

Budget Review 2018–19 Index

Dr Hunter Laidlaw

A number of budget measures affect the science and technology sector and these have generally been met with stakeholder enthusiasm. Support for many of the main programs is relatively steady or modestly improved, while a number of new initiatives are funded—perhaps most notably the establishment of a domestic space agency. Many of these initiatives fall under the Australian Technology and Science Growth Plan; this will also be discussed under the ‘Innovation Incentives’ topic.

Space agency

The Budget provides $26.0 million over four years to establish a national space agency to oversee and coordinate domestic space activities.[1] An additional $15.0 million over three years from 2019–20 is also allocated to an International Space Investment initiative to generate opportunities for strategic space projects; however the design of this initiative has not yet been finalised.[2] These expenditures are designed to boost Australia’s involvement in the space sector and to help break further into the global space market. This funding secures the commitment made by the Government in September 2017 to establish a space agency.[3] A review of Australia’s space industry capabilities commenced in 2017 and the report was delivered to the Government on 29 March 2018; it has not yet been released.[4] A number of states and territories have expressed interest in hosting the agency and additional details are eagerly anticipated.[5]

Science and research funding

Funding for Commonwealth research agencies appears to be relatively stable across the sector, although the overall picture will become clearer when the Science, Research and Innovation Budget Tables are released later in the year. The Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) received a 5% increase in funds.[6] The Australian Research Council (ARC) received higher than expected funding for key programs including the Discovery program (2.5% increase) and Linkage program (2.7% increase) compared with the 0.2% increase indicated in last year’s forward estimates.[7] There are no unexpected changes to total appropriation for the ARC or the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) compared with previous forward estimates. A Bill to amend and update the funding caps for the ARC was introduced into Parliament on the 10 May 2018.[8]

The Antarctic Gateway Partnership will be extended and an Antarctic Science Collaboration Initiative will be established with $35.7 million over four years through the ARC, however this will be met using existing funds from the ARC and the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science. Approximately $4.5 million over four years has also been allocated to encourage more women into science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and careers.

Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF)

Accumulation of capital in the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) remains on track for the fund to reach $20 billion by 2020–21. Budget papers indicate a 2017–18 balance of $7.1 billion, with the fund to increase to $9.5 billion next financial year.[9] Disbursements are still expected to rise each year. Two broad announcements for the MRFF were in the Budget: investments in health and medical research, and an Industry Growth Plan for the sector. The Growth Plan aims to ‘improve health outcomes and develop Australia as a global destination for medical sector jobs, research and clinical trials’ by providing $1.3 billion over ten years. Specific initiatives include $500.0 million over ten years for precision medicine and genomics (the Genomics Health Futures Mission) and $248.0 million for an expanded clinical trial programs. Research programs were also announced that will receive $275.4 million from the MRFF, including $75.0 million over four years to extend the Rapid Applied Research Translation program.

In contrast to most other science grant funding mechanisms (such as those administered through the ARC and NHMRC), the government determines the programs and funding amounts to be disbursed from the MRFF, following advice provided by the Australian Medical Research Advisory Board and taking into consideration the Australian Medical Research and Innovation Strategy (set every five years) and the Australian Medical Research and Innovation Priorities (set ever two years).[10] The sector is looking forward to more details on the competitive processes to be used when allocating these research funds.[11]

Technology

Besides funding for the space agency, the Budget also provides support for space-related technologies, particularly GPS and satellite imagery. Improvements to GPS through more comprehensive positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) data received significant funds: $160.9 million over four years for PNT data to the resolution of ten centimetres across all of Australia, and $64.0 million over four years to the resolution of three to five centimetres in near real-time for regional and metropolitan areas with mobile phone coverage. Additional ongoing funding is also provided from 2022–23 (total of $50.9 million across both initiatives). More reliable and standardised satellite imagery data will also be developed with $36.9 million over three years from 2019–20 (and $12.8 million ongoing) through Digital Earth Australia.

Advanced computing technology received a boost with $70.0 million to assist with upgrades of supercomputing infrastructure at the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Western Australia, to help the Centre maintain its position in the Top500 global supercomputer list and attract international research. Australia’s capabilities in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning will also be strengthened through investment of $29.9 million over four years. The funds will support projects through the Cooperative Research Centres Program, additional postgraduate scholarships and school-level programs, and additional planning for AI technology including a national ethics framework.

Research infrastructure

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) will be expanded and receive an additional $393.3 million over five years from 2017–18. The NCRIS provides partial funding for national research infrastructure projects that are intended to generate maximum benefit to the research sector and broader community. This brings total funding under the Research Infrastructure Investment Plan to $4.1 billion over 12 years ($1.9 billion of this total is announced in the Budget). A 2015 review proposed that $6.6 billion ($3.7 billion from government) was required to support long term investment in national research infrastructure.[12] The National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, completed in 2016, identifies nine focus areas as priority sectors for investment.[13] The Roadmap specifically identified the Pawsey Supercomputing Centre (noted above) as an immediate priority.[14]

Capital works within CSIRO have been allocated $341.5 million over nine years; this will be met from existing resources and the planned disposal of part of CSIRO’s property portfolio.[15] Property, plant and equipment sales are expected to generate $141.4 million over the forward estimates.[16] The only specifically noted capital works relate to maintaining regulatory requirements at the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong, Victoria, the highest level biosecurity containment laboratory in the country.

Reaction

The science and technology measures announced in the Budget have received a relatively enthusiastic reception from sector representatives.[17] This contrasts with previous budgets that have been met with a mixed reaction.[18] Establishment of a space agency has been welcomed by both industry lobby groups and the broader scientific community, although some have questioned whether the level of funding for the new agency will be sufficient to boost the local industry into the highly competitive world market.[19]



[1].          The budget figures in this brief have been taken from the following document unless otherwise sourced: Australian Government, Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2018–19, 2018.

[2].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2018–19: budget related paper no. 1.13A: Jobs and Innovation Portfolio, p. 44.

[3].          M Cash (Acting Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science), Turnbull Government to establish national space agency, media release, 25 September 2017.

[4].          Department of Industry, Innovation and Science (DIIS), ‘Review of Australia’s Space Industry Capability’, DIIS website.

[5].          A Wicht, ‘Budget 2018: space agency details still scant – but GPS and satellite imagery funded’, The Conversation, 8 May 2018; SBS, ‘Australia will explore a new frontier with the establishment of a national space agency’, SBS News, 9 May 2018.

[6].          Increase calculated using 2017–18 Estimated Actual total funds from Government compared to 2018–19 Estimate from Portfolio budget statements 2018–19, Jobs and Innovation Portfolio, op. cit., p. 115.

[7].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2018–19: budget related paper no. 1.5: Education and Training Portfolio, pp. 120-121; Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2017–18: budget related paper no. 1.5: Education and Training Portfolio, p. 149.

[8].          Parliament of Australia, ‘Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2018 homepage’, Australian Parliament website.

[9].          Australian Government, Portfolio budget statements 2018–19: budget related paper no. 1.7: Finance Portfolio, pp. 32.

[10].       Department of Health (DoH), ‘How does MRFF funding work?’, DoH website; DoH, ‘How is the MRFF governed?’, DoH website.

[11].       Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), $2 billion MRFF investment secures Australia’s future as medical research leader, media release, 8 May 2018.

[12].       Research Infrastructure Review, Final report, September 2015, DET website.

[13].       Australian Government, 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap, February 2017.

[14].       Ibid., p. 43.

[15].       Portfolio budget statements 2018–19, Jobs and Innovation Portfolio, op. cit., p. 116; Budget measures: budget paper no. 2: 2018–19, op. cit., p. 205.

[16].       Portfolio budget statements 2018–19, Jobs and Innovation Portfolio, op. cit., p. 131.

[17].       Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), 2018-19 Federal Budget – what’s in it for medical research?, media release, 8 May 2018; Australian Academy of Science, Good outcomes for science in Budget 2018, media release, 8 May 2018; Research Australia, Budget 2018-19: Budget analysis, media release, 8 May 2018; Science & Technology Australia, STEM a standout winner in this year’s budget, media release, 8 May 2018; Universities Australia, Budget boosts for research infrastructure & regions a downpayment on future prosperity, media release, 8 May 2018.

[18].       Science & Technology Australia, From the 2017/18 Federal budget lockup, media release, 9 May 2017; D Brett, ‘Science and research funding’, Budget review 2015–16, Research paper series, 2014–15, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2015; K Loynes, ‘Science and innovation’, Budget review 2016–17, Research paper series, 2015–16, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2016; A St John, ‘Science, research and innovation’, Budget review 2017–18, Research paper series, 2016–17, Parliamentary Library, Canberra, 2017.

[19].       Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA), Space funding in the 2018 budget, media release, 9 May 2018; D Sadler, ‘Just $26m for new space agency’, InnovationAus.com website, 8 May 2018.

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