On 14 May 2008 Professor Kurt Lambeck, President of the Australian Academy of Science, made the following response to the 2008/09 Budget.
As promised, the budget focused on election promises and contained no rabbits from hats. The Academy welcomes many of the new spending announcements from last night’s budget, but has some concerns as well, particularly in relation to stretched funding time lines and cuts to Australian research institutions. It makes some sense to defer new funding until the myriad of review committees announced by Government these past six months have reported back. But it makes no sense if in the meantime our R&D capabilities have been strangled.
In terms of science and technology, we are not surprised that these words blended into the background noise for this budget as we have been told to wait the reviews are in. But in view of the emphasis placed by the Rudd Government on innovation it is surprising that the ‘I’ word is only mentioned in three places: in connection with the Future Fellowships, with new energy solutions, and in the context of new Enterprise Connect Innovation Centres.
The three new funds, the Building Australia Fund, the Education Investment Fund, and the Health and Hospital Fund, are signs of a Government developing long term goals for Australia, and of a willingness to place today’s returns from the resource sector into long term national investments.
National infrastructure is, however, more than ports, road and rail. There must also be intellectual infrastructure developed so that we are equipped to produce the new technologies required by future generations. The Education Fund of $11 billion has the potential to provide that in part, but only if the other research and development sectors such as CSIRO, Geoscience Australia, ANSTO etc. are kept strong.
On education, the important new initiatives are the funding for increased undergraduate scholarships, for the 100% increase in Masters and PhD scholarships, and the creation of the 1000 mid-career fellowships, the Future Fellowships. Together they go a long way towards meeting the needs for creating an innovation-rich society.
The 50% HECS cut for maths and science graduates who become teachers is strongly supported by the Academy. The question that needs to be asked is what improvements will occur in the secondary school system to enhance science literacy in the community and generate well trained students for our universities who can take up the scholarships and fellowships of the future. Innovative secondary school programs such as CSIRO’s ‘Scientists in Schools’ or the Academy’s own ‘Science by Doing’ programs have not been mentioned.
For run-down universities the promised spending of $500 million on capital investment in facilities before the end of the fiscal year will be very welcome, as is the creation of the Education Investment Fund. However, the latter is tempered by the fact that the Higher Education Endowment Fund has been rolled into it and that the new fund is also available for vocational education and training institutions. With the new name there is also the possibility that its applications will not be restricted to the tertiary sector in the future. If this occurs, the foreshadowed additional funds would be essential.
The Government moderated its pre-election rhetoric and deferred spending of around $900 million, however it has signalled potential for significant increase next year in preparation for implementing the emissions trading scheme.
$2.3 billion funding over 5 years has been identified for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, adapting to climate change, and developing renewable energy resources. These are welcome commitments.
They include the $500 million Renewable Energy Fund and $500 million Clean Coal Fund although it must be noted that $400 million has been deferred to a second term. Likewise, the Green Car Innovation Fund has a start date of only 2011, after completions of reviews.
The $150 million Energy Innovation Fund may have an important impact in maintaining interests in Australia and in keeping technological developments on shore. But it is put into some perspective if this expenditure is for five years, and there are at least five competing new technologies that warrant closer investigation and development.
Taken together they do represent a major source of new investment but they do not fully reflect a sense of urgency in addressing the climate change challenges.
Initiatives to help consumers conserve energy and water raise awareness as well as promoting useful practical measures and saving consumers money.
The announced investment of $150 million to help Australia’s neighbours adapt and respond to climate change is a welcome recognition that Australia is prepared to play a regional leadership role in living with climate variability.
The Academy considers the government’s cuts to ethanol projects are justified until the consequences of large scale production on food and water are better understood, and supports the Government’s continued investment in second generation technologies.
The announced funding initiatives for education, climate change, education, health and hospitals, and infrastructure are a first step in the development of an innovative Australia that can survive the post-resource boom. There are many challenges ahead. The principal one is for the Government to get the outcomes of its reviews in place in time to see the results in the second Rudd Government budget.
This places all the more emphasis on the importance of the conclusions from various innovation and research reviews, announced to be completed well in advance of the next budget preparations, if we are not to lose another year in what, by the Government’s own recognition, is an urgent task.
© 2020 Australian Academy of Science