Research funding falls victim to short-term politics

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans says it’s a “ridiculous proposition” to suggest funding freezes are driving research overseas. AAP

The Federal Government’s freeze on research grants is damaging investment and recruitment by universities, and is part of a broader trend making funding predictability a thing of the past says Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson.

“This short-term, stop-go approach to funding and public investment decisions is becoming an increasingly alarming feature of the modern budget process and is seriously eroding confidence in the policy-making process,” Ms Robinson said in a statement.

Questioned during Senate Estimates hearings yesterday, Australian Research Council chief executive officer Aidan Byrne said the Council had not been able to progress linkage program grants, with programs that were meant to have closed, not yet able to be opened.

Tertiary Education Minister Chris Evans, under questioning from Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, argued it was a “ridiculous proposition” that the funding freeze had sent research overseas. “To suggest that there is an outflow of researchers is just wrong,” Mr Evans said.

However University of New South Wales vice-chancellor Fred Hilmer told Fairfax top researchers lured to his university from overseas were close to leaving the country and not coming back as a result of the funding uncertainty.

The government is expected to release its Mid Year Economic and Fiscal Outlook (MYEFO) next week, at which time the sector is hoping to gain some clarity on the issue.

“Clearly universities are worried about this particular MYEFO process, but there is a deeper issue around the recent and concerning trend towards ever diminishing budget certainty. Unfortunately, forward estimates are becoming progressively meaningless and funding predictability a thing of the past,” Ms Robinson said. “We are now at the point where not only is everything up for grabs once a year through the budget process, but every six months through MYEFO.”

The government had created a rod for itself by promising it would return to surplus, said Graeme Wines, accounting professor at Deakin University.

Professor Wines said it was a continually reoccurring thing for the government to manipulate spending patterns in order to meet political commitments.

“You get a short-term budget benefit but adverse effects down the track such with ongoing research programs being put into jeopardy,” Professor Wines said.

“It’s not like you can just turn the tap off and on and expect there not to be consequences.”

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