In terms of the impact on science, the Australian budget, released 9 May, is “very bland,” says Les Field, science policy secretary at the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra, the nation’s leading scientific association. “There are no big spending initiatives but no major cuts,” he adds.
It’s a “business-as-usual budget for science and technology,” agrees Kylie Walker, CEO of Science and Technology Australia in Canberra, which represents scientists.
Overall spending on science for the fiscal year beginning 1 July and in later years, called the forward estimates, is not yet clear because support is spread across several ministries. But the plan does reveal some winners and losers.
Field notes that there will be “small decreases” in years to come for the publicly funded science agency, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO), which in recent years has been hit with massive cuts that resulted in extensive job losses. “I’m profoundly disappointed at the missed opportunities” to restore support, says Kim Carr, the opposition Australian Labor Party’s shadow minister for innovation, industry, science, and research.
And the government is making it difficult for the private sector to pick up the slack. The budget cuts an R&D tax incentive by $810 million over the next 3 years, Carr notes. The incentive is one of the government’s biggest programs to stimulate business investment in research and development. But the budget also includes an outlay of $74 million to promote innovation in Australia’s manufacturing sector, something Field welcomes.
Higher education is also suffering, says Belinda Robinson, chief executive of Universities Australia, an advocacy group based in Canberra. She was referring to $2 billion in cuts to higher education announced separately from the federal budget last Monday. Large numbers of overseas students make higher education the nation’s third-largest export sector. “Universities contribute more than they receive,” she says. And although the government plans to invest heavily in air, road, and rail transport infrastructure, it has cut a program designed to support big national research facilities at universities.
Astronomy, meanwhile, was a real “policy win,” Field says. The budget includes $19 million to support an Australian partnership with the European Southern Observatory, meaning “Australian astronomers will be involved in the major astronomy initiatives around the world.” The commitment also includes ongoing funding of $9 million a year over the next decade.