Budget 2019: pet projects hide deep cuts

By on 3 April, 2019

Photo: ABC News.

Morrison and Frydenberg hand down a boldly politically-motivated budget which includes nominal spends on new science initiatives while slashing funding for key institutions.  

In a budget boldly aimed at funneling spending towards at-risk seats and issues of perceived inaction, $9 billion for science and tech initiatives seems like a good result, on its face.

There are some welcome splash-outs: chief amongst those is $19.5 million on a Space Infrastructure Fund, which comprises the $6 million already announced for a Mission Control Centre in Adelaide, and $2 million for space manufacturing infrastructure in New South Wales, with spending priorities guided by the newly-released Australian Civil Space Strategy 2019-2028.

Adam Gilmour, CEO of Gilmour Space Technologies, welcomed the investment but raised concern with the amount of the allocation and timing of activities in the strategy, with initiatives under the ‘Access to Space’ pillar slated to begin from 2021.

“We’re happy to see the renewed focus on the space industry with the new budget and agree with most of the principles, strategy, and vision of the Australian Space Agency. We’re also happy to see that access to space is now a National Civil Space priority area,” he said.

“However, the 2021+ timeline is a concern as we would be needing launch infrastructure before that, and the work really needs to start now. It’s also our belief that the Space Agency will not be able to achieve its vision and strategy outcomes with the current state of funding.”

A new ‘coasts, environment and climate science research and education centre’ will be built at Point Nepean in Victoria, for which the University of Melbourne and Monash will receive $25 million over four years. The centre will include an interdisciplinary research facility on marine and coastal ecosystems, climate science and environmental management.

Also announced was $70 million per year in cuts to the climate solutions fund by quietly elongating the rollout of greenhouse gas abatement projects over 15 years rather than a previously announced decade.

Australia’s Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation will receive $56.4 million over four years to continue its research, in areas such as nuclear waste disposal and nuclear medicine research.

Other highlight measures include $3.4 million tipped to promote greater participation of women in STEM disciplines, set to be channeled into the existing Science in Australia Gender Equity (SAGE) program, and towards a new awareness initiative led by the Women in STEM Ambassador, Professor Lisa Harvey Smith.

That’s about the end of the good news for science and research. The government has been liberal with its razor blade on science and research programs, relative to forward estimates.

In a broadside to the higher education sector, the $3.9 billion Education Investment Fund (EIF) will be abolished, and its capital used to create a new Emergency Response Fund.

$345 million has been bled from university research funding through the research support program, above existing cumulative cuts in successive federal budgets, and the abolishment of the EIF.

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Distinguished Professor Jenny Graves, AO is vice chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University, and the 2017 winner of the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science. She welcomed the commitment to gender equality-focused STEM programs, but questioned its effectiveness given the severity of cuts for research and higher education overall.

“It’s good that they are offering $3.4 million in tonight’s budget, including $1.8 million to keep SAGE going for another year, but it’s nowhere near enough. SAGE is a terrific program because it encourages institutions to make really practical changes that encourage women to take on STEM roles and stick with it. I would have liked to see a much broader commitment to keep SAGE going into the future,” she said.

“But mainly I worry that the recent withdrawal of fifty times this amount in research funding from universities is making it impossible for them to achieve SAGE targets anyway. A lot of things that would really help women cost money (top of my list is technical assistance to tide research over when a woman is on family leave). Universities have fewer and fewer resources to improve their support of women in STEM. Further shrinking of university funding exacerbates problems in the workplace and makes it even more unfriendly for women.”

Science and research initiatives’ suffering doesn’t end there. $6.73 million in funding to the Australian Research Council has been stripped, reversing the return to indexation announced in the 2018 budget.

The National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Scheme (NCRIS) will be $16.45 million worse off, and the CSIRO will have $21.5 million less to conduct its groundbreaking research and technology commercialisation work, relative to figures projected in forward estimates.

Chief executive of Universities Australia, Catriona Jackson, didn’t mince her words. “In tonight’s budget, the government has missed a prime opportunity to reverse its previous $2.1 billion freeze on student places and $328 million cuts to university research,” she said.

“These cuts are the wrong decision for Australia’s future and they will deny Australians access to university, and to life-changing and life-saving research breakthroughs.”

Dr. Phillippa Carnemolla, senior research fellow at the University of Technology Sydney, recently produced a research report for the National Association for Women in Construction (NAWIC), focusing on high school girls’ perceptions of the construction industry.

Dr. Carnemolla said that her findings revealed that school girls do not have a broad understanding of the breadth of careers in STEM, that few considered construction a STEM career, and most don’t have a clear understanding of the range of construction opportunities out there — also calling for a more robust and nuanced approach to tackling gender representation in male-heavy sectors.

“In order to attract young women into male dominated industries, like the construction industry, attention is required at all stages in career development lifecycle. We need to provide better knowledge about the diverse career opportunities available and their benefits.  But we also need to improve the rates of progression and retention for women already in the industry – as they become the visible champions and spokespeople for younger women developing their career aspirations,” she said.

In a boon for the big players of the AEC industries however, a $100 billion transport infrastructure splurge will be drip-fed to the states and territories over a decade.

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