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Science and the Coalition

Mathew Bailes, Swinburne University of Technology, ‘Science and the Coalition: two big policies, one year and no minister’, The Conversation, 28 August 2014

 

On science and technology, the Abbott government is somewhat of a paradox.

On one hand, the government passionately believes that deregulating the university sector is essential. By taking caps off fees it hopes this will generate the necessary income to transform the higher education sector into an international powerhouse.

The government also floated the idea of developing a A$20 billion investment fund for medical research based upon a Medicare co-payment.

These two signature policies could represent seismic shifts to the sector, the results of which are difficult to predict. Even the most passionate left-winger would have to concede that this is hardly the action of an anti-science government.

But here’s the catch. The funding of these new sources of revenue for research are, in effect, new “toxic taxes” that will hit “working families” at a level that will make the carbon tax look like a bargain.

Extra costs draw the ire of Palmer United Party senators, and the Abbott government is facing the problem that its two signature policies may end up in the shredder.

So if that happens, what’s left?

Research funding

The government’s first budget was not otherwise kind to science. The Australian Research Council (ARC), CSIRO, Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO) and Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) all received significant cuts from forward estimates. The Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program was scaled back by A$8 million, and NICTA has had its funding cancelled altogether after 2016.

There’s real pain at the CSIRO and success rates for ARC grants are not about to get any better.

On the plus side, the budget did make provision to (slightly) extend the National Collaboration Research Investment Scheme (NCRIS) and ARC’s Future Fellowship schemes, albeit for one year only. In a slightly xenophobic move, the Future Fellowships are now reserved for Australians.

Prior to the 2013 election, the Coalition produced two research-related policy papers: one to boost dementia research and another to protect and streamline health and medical research funding.

Both of these promises have been largely kept. The streamlining of the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) – and the ARC – application processes are desperately needed. All too often researchers spend far too much time telling the funding body what they should already know, or being ruled ineligible for trivial reasons. Medical research funding is largely protected.

Read more here.