Blink and you missed it. Science got barely a mention in Australia’s 2016–17 federal budget released yesterday. Total spending won’t be known until someone tallies the line items scattered across government departments. But there is little to suggest any recovery from the $2.2 billion decline in support for science, innovation, and research since 2014. It was “no surprise that there is little new for science in [the] budget,” says Catriona Jackson, CEO of Science and Technology Australia in Canberra, the country’s top scientific society.
It was cautiously crafted, being released days before Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is expected to call a federal election. The one big-ticket item for science in the budget, announced in Canberra last night by treasurer Scott Morrison, is $820 million for the National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA), launched last December. Designed to enhance innovation and entrepreneurship and promote science, math, and computing education, few details were revealed beyond tax breaks to encourage investment in research and development by small and medium enterprises and tax incentives for angel investors.
But there are no NISA initiatives to boost cooperation between industry and public research labs, an area where the country performs poorly. Australia ranked last out of 33 countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development for public-private collaborations in 2013.
Leaders of Australia’s scientific community were unusually quiet about the budget. Chief Scientist Alan Finkel declined to comment to ScienceInsider. Only the Australian Academy of Science’s president, Andrew Holmes, offered some support, “warmly” welcoming an initial ramp up in funding for polar science as part of a $1.6 billion Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan announced last week.
On the environmental front, the Great Barrier Reef Plan and Trust receives a small $128 million boost to extend its program on reef resilience. In contrast, the resources industry will benefit from an $86 million grant to Geoscience Australia to model mineral, groundwater, and petroleum resources. There will also be yet-to-be-specified support to the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation to process spent fuel.
Budget support for fundamental research is mixed, with funds taken from the well-established public-private Cooperative Research Centers Program to add $9 million in support for the Australian Astronomical Observatory. Threatened plans to ax the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy, which supports high-end equipment like supercomputers and imaging facilities, are on hold.
The nation’s troubled national research agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) got scant mention. “We are backing coinvestment in new spin-offs and startsups created by Australia's research institutions, through the CSIRO,” Morrison said. There is also support for CSIRO to assist other public labs to commercialize their research. The government appears to support CSIRO head Larry Marshall’s drive to refocus on industry-oriented research.
The budget includes previously announced funding of $77 million over 4 years for agencies developing clean and renewable energy. But there is no mention of the support, if any, for research into climate change.