Article—Science and the 2003-04 Budget

On 19 May 2003, the following article on Science and the 2003-04 Budget was published in Campus Review. It was written by Professor Kurt Lambeck FAA, FRS, Foreign Secretary of the Australian Academy of Science and Professor of Geophysics at the Australian National University.

Science and technology continue to have a prominent place in the Federal Government's agenda, as seen in the 2003-04 Budget. In Australian political circles it is now understood that science and innovation, together with their national and international networks, underpin the nation's prosperity.

The 2003-04 Budget continues to deliver Government promises made under Backing Australia's Ability, with the planned increases for science and innovation delivered in full. The big surprise in the Budget was deferment of CSIRO's new triennial funding, although CSIRO has gained an additional $20m for its flagship programs that are aimed at partnering with industry and universities in key priority areas of research. The outcome of triennial funding for CSIRO awaits the outcome of a study on Mapping Australia's Science and Innovation System and on two new high-level, strategic reviews to be undertaken by the Department of Education, Science and Training (DEST).

There is a strong emphasis in this Budget on seeking to introduce significant reforms to higher education. These reforms reflect the greater priority placed in the final stages of the 'Crossroads' Review upon teaching and training relative to research. Despite some concerns within the research community over this imbalance, it is important to recognise that the Government is now embarking on the lead-up to the second phase of Backing Australia's Ability. Various statements made in the Budget about what will happen next year are consequently far more important to the future of Australian science than the specific budget allocations announced on 13 May.

There are already a number of reviews aimed at providing inputs to the second phase of Backing Australia's Ability. A major study to map Australia's science and innovation system and an evaluation of the Cooperative Research Centres program are already underway. And of course the impact of the first phase of Backing Australia's Ability will also be assessed in the coming year. In addition, Ministers have used the Budget to announce a raft of additional reviews that will influence the second phase of Backing Australia's Ability. These are the development of a National Strategy on Research Infrastructure, the establishment of a high level taskforce to examine the scope for closer collaboration between universities and the major publicly funded research agencies, and a comprehensive evaluation of the formulae used to allocate university research funding under the 1999 Knowledge and Innovation reforms. These reviews are aimed at ensuring that the policy framework for Australia's competitive research funding is effective.

The forward-looking issues highlighted by the Federal Government in this Budget go to the heart of researchers' concerns, as the Academy of Science has been arguing for some time (Priorities in Research and Innovation for the Next Australian Government, October 2001). The capacity to build 'critical mass' in research, fixing the current problems relating to universities' capacity to fund the indirect costs of research, adequate funding for infrastructure and fostering collaboration between institutions are all firmly on the policy agenda.

Under the 2003-04 Budget reforms, one publicly funded research agency, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, has been affiliated with James Cook University in Townsville. The Academy supports the affiliation of these two organisations, both with international stature in marine biology. Both stand to benefit significantly from the sharing of resources, collaborative activities and an enhanced profile that will attract and retain eminent researchers. There will be increased opportunities for research training following the affiliation. The affiliation, underpinned by a plurality of funding mechanisms which range from competitive Australian Research Council project grants, Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) funds and block-funding, will be watched with interest. The plurality of funding mechanisms should lead to a robust institution with a strong sense of purpose, and alert and responsive to new opportunities.

In recent years, publicly funded research agencies and universities have forged closer affiliations through co-location, shared facilities, CRCs, joint supervision of PhD students and joint commercial ventures. The political message to scientists in this year's budget is that the Government has recognised the strengths and advantages of these affiliations and may be tempted to play a more interventionist role in ensuring they take place. The publicly funded research agencies, including not only CSIRO and ANSTO, but perhaps parts of DSTO as well, and the universities, have been put on notice that it is indeed a matter of 'partner or perish'.

In this Budget, the Government has been cognisant that the corporate world has said good-bye to mergers and acquisitions and that partnerships and alliances, with a plurality of funding mechanisms and management practices, are the new strategies of business. Similar strategies may well strengthen the science base in Australia. This Budget marks the end of one phase of policy deliberations and the start of another. The year to come is where the real action will be for Australian science.

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