Published online 11 May 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.280

News

Science escapes cuts in Australian budget

No news is good news for science in 2011–12.

SwanAustralia's treasurer Wayne Swan announcing the 2011-12 budget.Ian Waldie/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Despite cuts of about Aus$22 billion (US$24 billion) in the 2011–12 Australian budget, announced on 10 May, scientists are relieved that spending on the major research agencies has been maintained.

Federal treasurer Wayne Swan promised to eliminate the deficit and return the budget to surplus in the next two years. Reconstruction expenses following major flooding and a cyclone earlier this year, combined with ongoing effects of the global economic crisis, combined to give a budget deficit of Aus$49.4 billion. In this environment, science has come off well.

In March this year, Australian medical researchers heard rumours of a proposed Aus$400-million cut to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) budget over the next three years. A vigorous protest campaign was mounted (see 'Australian medical researchers on the march') — which the campaigners claim was successful. The NHMRC budget of Aus$850 million is being maintained. "Our campaign was an effective reminder of what medical research means to the Australian community," says Doug Hilton, director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research in Melbourne, who represented the Discoveries Need Dollars campaign during meetings with government ministers in the lead-up to the budget.

The reprieve was also appreciated by scientists funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC), which will have a flat budget of Aus$845 million. "It's business as usual now for the ARC," says Hans Bachor, director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Quantum-Atom Optics in Canberra, "but in a positive way — now that we know our budget is not being cut, we can continue with programmes already in place."

Snakes and ladders

But some scientists are dissatisfied. "In the short term this is a budget that has protected research, but there is no serious investment for the future of the proceeds that are coming from our current mineral resources boom," says Bob Williamson, secretary for science policy at the Australian Academy of Science.

In other announcements, the Cooperative Research Centres budget will have Aus$34 million taken from its annual Aus$180 million budget over the next three years. The 42 centres conduct research in agriculture, forestry, mining and manufacturing. The Collaborative Research Network, designed to support research in regional universities, will have its budget of $114 million over six years cut by Aus$20.7 million, despite funding only commencing last year.

But the government is providing $40.2 million for the joint Australia–New Zealand bid to host the Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. Australia is competing with South Africa to host the telescope, with the winner expected to be announced next year.

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The government also announced Aus$9 million to establish a collaborative science and research strategy with China, and Aus$21 million for the Inspiring Australia programme, which is designed to increase public engagement in science and encourage students to study science. Regional universities received a Aus$500-million injection to be spent on infrastructure over the next 5 years.

A proposed carbon tax that has been the subject of u-turns from both major parties in recent months was not mentioned in the budget. Treasury documents released in April gave carbon in Australia a potential price tag of Aus$30–$40 per tonne, but exact values, and who would be subject to the tax, have not yet been revealed.

The government asked the defence department to save Aus$4.3 billion from its budget over the next three years, followed the department's failure to spend all of its allocation last year. But although science has not suffered the funding cuts that were feared, Australian researchers can only dream of having more money than they can spend. 

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  • #61853

    I really don't think that it's overly aggressive considering the geopolitical situation facing the U.S. The U.S. has shown some remarkable restraint in many instances recently.

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