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Budget 2014: there’s more to science than medical research

It’s hard to ignore the irony. The 2014 federal budget will “better target innovation and research funding to areas of national and strategic priority” but funding cuts of more than A$111 million to CSIRO…

While funding medical research has been given a boost, other facets of science such as astronomy face deep cuts. AAP/Paul Miller

It’s hard to ignore the irony. The 2014 federal budget will “better target innovation and research funding to areas of national and strategic priority” but funding cuts of more than A$111 million to CSIRO – the federal government agency for scientific research – have today resulted in up to 420 jobs to go by mid-2015 and possibly a further 80 in the years following.

This time last year I wrote about how the government funnelled money from the university sector to fund schools, and now the government has generously arranged for the sick and infirm to subsidise a new future fund for medical research to the tune of A$5 out of each A$7 co-payment when they visit their doctor, or get a prescription.

Almost all other news for research and education is bleak with at least A$420 million cut from forward estimates of five science organisations:

  • Australian Research Council (ARC)
  • CSIRO, which has resulted in up to 500 jobs to go
  • Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO)
  • Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO)
  • Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS).

Funding for the Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program – which supports research collaborations across disciplines and industry sectors – will also be cut.

I might add that the cuts are typically reported in absolute dollars and as such tell you nothing about the impact.

The Conversation

National ICT Australia (NICTA) will have two more years of government funding before it must find its own investors.

Of course, other changes such as charging fees for PhD students will put direct pressure on shrunken university budgets and indirect pressure on individual research budgets for researchers like me who are lucky enough to hold ARC funding.

While deregulating university fees may seem like a way of introducing competition, there is little evidence that the Group of Eight universities really do a better job of preparing students – especially undergraduates.

The success rate for the primary ARC Discovery Project grant program is already only around one in five. Many of the “failures” represent very good and useful science.

As with the unemployment rate, this rate does not take into account those who have already stopped trying. The rate is now sure to drop further.

Budgeting for human capital

Budgets come and budgets go. The 2014 federal budget, intrusive and destructive as it may be, will be no exception.

At least for the moderately well-to-do, economic, personal and intellectual life will for the most part go on, but think of the opportunities lost when, by international standards, Australia’s debt and unemployment levels are far from alarming.

I studied in Oxford in the 1970s (during the UK miner’s strikes and three day weeks) and worked at Carnegie-Mellon in Pittsburgh during the early 1980s' Reagan recession (when the mortgage rate for my house peaked at 22%).

I worked at Waterloo, Ontario, during the Rae days of the early 1990s Ontario recession, and I spent a long time at Dalhousie in Halifax Nova Scotia in Maritime Canada – an area wealthy in the 19th century – where the good times look worse than any low point seen in Australia since World War II.

These represented experience of real crises, if perhaps avoidable ones, unlike the hyperbole-driven Hockey-Abbott budget unveiled last night.

Tony Abbott likes to talk about the profligate sins of paying on a credit card, but he should be talking about the flinty virtues of taking out a loan for his grandchildren’s future.

I know from experience – as a grant administrator for Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and National Research Council (NRC), the US National Science Foundation (NSF) and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) among other bodies – that any lower grant success rate than at present replaces measured assessment with a lottery.

This destroys most of the value of peer review while alienating almost all scientists in the process – and all researchers need long-term stability to undertake anything ambitious and path-breaking.

Michael Knowles/Flickr, CC BY

Suppose one grants the current government the dubious assertion that medical research is so much more important than, say, marine science or astrophysics. It is still worth remembering that basic science leads to medical breakthroughs.

Think of Watson and Crick’s discovery of DNA structure, medical imaging, the treatment of HIV/AIDS, the Human Genome Project. Not one of such projects relied on funding only directly from medical research councils.

It is sadly ironic that the current government’s disavowal of global warming and attacks on related research are certain to substantially increase our medical bills down the road. Diseases will migrate, crop yields will change and so on.

If 80% of doctors recommend a course of treatment for Joe Hockey, he would follow their advice. When 97% of climate scientists do likewise for the environment, Tony Abbott knows better.

Throughout my career, the research universities I worked at survived, and in most cases flourished – largely because of their “human capital”. French economist Thomas Pikkety observes at the end of the first chapter of his much discussed new book Capital in the 21st Century:

Above all, knowledge diffusion depends on a country’s ability to mobilise financing as well as institutions that encourage large-scale investment in education and training of the population while guaranteeing a stable legal framework that various economic actors can reliably count on.

Earlier, Pikkety comments of Korea, Taiwan, Japan and now China that:

In essence, all these countries financed the necessary investments in physical capital and, even more, in human capital, which the latest research holds to be the key to long-term growth.

It is a pity that the current Australian government does not understand this message.

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15 Comments sorted by

  1. Edwina Laginestra
    Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Jack of all trades

    Thanks Jonathon for a clear article. I think most people see the funding of medical research within this budget as a sop for the $7 co-payment and that perhaps the members of Cabinet think medical research might be needed for when they all get cancer or Alzheimers. It is certainly not because they believe in science or using evidence-based knowledge.

  2. Peter Fraser


    The question I'd like to know, as a dad with a child almost finished her PhD in science: What party did you scientists vote for in the last election? Apart from medical doctors, of course, whose vote we all know goes to the conservatives (and got paid handsomely for their loyalty with an extra $20B)

    1. Peter Campbell

      Scientist (researcherid B-7232-2008)

      In reply to Peter Fraser

      Well this scientist takes preferential voting seriously. I started with The Greens, ahead of Labor (though we have an excellent local labor member for the reps, who I am happy to see elected on green preferences), ahead of a few others with Liberals put almost last but ahead of miscellaneous other right-wing, climate change denying fruit loops. Same in the senate where a high enough primary vote for The Greens had some prospect of giving the ACT one labor and one Greens candidate rather than the usual one each of Labor and Liberal.

    2. Edwina Laginestra
      Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Jack of all trades

      In reply to Peter Fraser

      Now "scientists" is a pretty generic term, but I'm guessing that any environmental or climate scientists wouldn't be voting LNP no matter how badly Labor behaved. Some of the geologists and physicists could have voted differently (many are employed in mining remember); hydrologists (possible?), marine scientists (nope couldn't see them voting LNP), chemists (it will depend on field), ...this is quite fun but weight of evidence would not be supportive of a large bloc of scientists (in the real meaning…

      Read more
    3. Paul Prociv

      ex medical academic; botanical engineer at University of Queensland

      In reply to Edwina Laginestra

      No matter whom you vote for, Edwina, it's always a politician who gets in. And scientists don't make up a significant part of the population, anyway.

  3. Brad Farrant

    logged in via email

    Great piece, thanks Jonathan. I completely agree that "It is sadly ironic that the current government’s disavowal of global warming and attacks on related research are certain to substantially increase our medical bills down the road. Diseases will migrate, crop yields will change and so on." It is very depressing how keen they are to pass the costs of current behaviour onto the kids of today and tomorrow.

  4. Matt King

    Professor, Surveying & Spatial Sciences, School of Land and Food at University of Tasmania

    Hi Jon

    I think the ARC number needs to increase by $24M since the promise of that amount to get Hobart-based researchers "back on the ice" is not new money but taken from ARC. That's over 3 years. At least it is for research (although a significant slice could go back into AAD for logistics).

    Of course, the Future Fellows scheme was renewed, although at half the previous rate. But otherwise it was a nasty night.


  5. George Naumovski

    Online Political Activist

    This $7 GP co payment is a trial to see how people react to it as the LNP hide it with a health fund but in reality will eliminate Medicare!

    The CSIRO is a threat to Conservatives because it produces evidence, knowledge and facts which is exact opposite to what Abbott and gang want.

  6. Ken Taylor

    Research Scientist at CSIRO

    Sad to see science funding reduced

    Having been involved in ARC grant applications, both successful and otherwise it seemed to me that the one in five success rate would remain the same if you doubled or trebled ARC funding. The pay off with ARC funding is getting the grant, not from the research outcome, so from an applicants point of view the trade off is the opportunity cost of the substantial effort to prepare applications versus the probability of winning a grant. One in five is where the market has settled. "Many of the 'failures' represent very good and useful science" and there is many more good projects with proponents that choose not to apply or seek funding elsewhere. I don't know how to do it better but it is a wasteful process.

  7. John Roddick

    Dean, School of Computer Science, Engineering and Mathematics at Flinders University of South Australia

    One thing that worries me in all this is that, assuming Universities maintain the income they receive for each discipline steady (I acknowledge this is far from a safe assumption), looking at the new cluster funding tables, science and engineering together with social sciences represent the disciplines where the fees will have to rise the most - by 55%. By contrast, fees for law, accounting and commerce students will be largely unchanged.

    1. Edwina Laginestra
      Edwina Laginestra is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Jack of all trades

      In reply to John Roddick

      ...and yet lawyers, accountants and commerce can all charge way more than scientists can. A bit (more) of a disincentive to study science. I suppose if you are motivated by money, then you get your reward. If you are motivated by other things, like gaining knowledge or social equity or culture, well, ...could be a bit of a bummer as we still all have to eat.

  8. Anthony Guttmann


    A generous summary. This is only one example of a shameful budget of lost opportunity and pandering to those sectors of the community that need help the least at the cost of those who need help the most. Cutting foreign aid, increasing fuel excise while leaving untouched diesel fuel subsidies which support the mining industry etc. And the fuel excise increase will pay for more roads, rather than any improvements in public transport. The only stone left unturned in slugging the weak is that they haven't yet worked out a way to charge rent to asylum seekers on Manus Island!

  9. David Conley

    agricultural scientist

    In medical research, Australia is most often at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to the commercialisation of that research. We struggle to resource global activities and most often license out the technologies, not capturing the Lion's share of benefits. Other areas of scientific research offer much better opportunities.

    Again, somewhat ironical given the National Party presence in the government, Agriculture, for example, offers better returns on investment historically because it strengthens an existing competitive advantage as evidenced by our agricultural exports.

    Populist governments run by scientific Luddites rarely see the big picture.