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Universities gear up to stave off research cuts

Last year’s “Discoveries Need Dollars” campaign saw the research sector directly target the 2011 federal budget. AAP

Australia’s Group of Eight universities are preparing a campaign against cuts to health and medical research grants after Treasurer Wayne Swan refused to rule them out during Question Time last night.

Last month the Group of Eight responded to a report in The Australian that the government planned to put on hold grants worth $2 billion, arguing such a funding freeze would result in the loss of 1,700 jobs from the sector.

Shadow Minister for Health and Ageing, Peter Dutton, yesterday asked Treasurer Wayne Swan to rule out cuts to health and medical research grants.

“The treasurer refused to rule out the cuts,” Mr Sutton said in a statement.

Vice-chancellors from the Group of Eight have written to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, according to The Australian, arguing any freeze on funding would see job losses at the ARC and NHMRC and lead international companies to take their innovation effort overseas.

“I think there’s a risk some programs will be cut or delayed,” said Douglas Hilton, Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.

Even a small delay in funding can be devastating for jobs, Professor Hilton said, given around 70% of funding is typically spent on jobs.

“The community and some in the government think these are grants for a boffin to write a book. What they don’t realise is these grants are directly related to jobs. It’s not pocket money to allow us to pursue our hobbies.”

Group of Eight chair Fred Hilmer last month warned funding cuts would harm the reputation of Australia’s universities, particularly at a time when countries such as the US and UK have deliberately protected research funding despite the global financial crisis.

“The Government should not allow short-term financial objectives to trump long-term efforts to build a more resilient and productive nation,” Professor Hilmer said.

The Opposition has argued the government is looking to gut health and medical research in order to deliver the budget surplus.

Last year the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research mounted a campaign called “Discoveries Need Dollars”, which led to a government rethink on proposed health and medical research cuts.

“I would hope that last year’s campaign said to the government we’re really passionate about what we do and the community is passionate, so please think twice before making cuts,” Professor Hilton said.

“I trust the government on what they said last time when they said they were supporters of medical health and research.

"We look forward to them doing the right thing.”

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