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Scientists unimpressed by Australia's funding plan

Naturevolume 409page123 (2001) | Download Citation

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Australian scientists have reacted ambivalently to the conservative government's plan to inject new funding into research.

A dozen programmes would be started or expanded under a plan released late last year by Robin Batterham, the government's chief scientist. He proposes adding A$1.8 billion (US$1 billion) to government spending over five years, most of it for university-based research.

The largest expansion would be a doubling of grants through the Australian Research Council, costing A$660 million, a A$150 million expansion of the Cooperative Research Centres, and A$400 million of extra funds for major new research facilities.

Batterham believes business must invest more in research. Credit: PETER POCKLEY

The plan would try to leverage more industrial research, which has been in decline in Australia. Batterham says the country's competitive position has been “reasonable” in the past, but admits that it must now be improved. “Finland and Ireland over ten years have more than doubled their business investment” in research and development, he says. “We haven't . . . the case presented is too powerful to ignore.”

Australian government expenditure on research and development (GERD) has fallen sharply. Credit: AUSTRALIA BUREAU OF STATISTICS

The government is expected to respond to Batterham's proposal in a statement on innovation to be issued early this year. Although universities and research bodies are urging the government to implement Batterham's plan in full, they are separately calling for larger boosts in general support to restore Australia's investment to previous levels (see chart).

Barry Osmond, a plant biologist who is leaving Australia to head Columbia University's Biosphere 2 facility in Arizona (see Nature 408, 396; 2000), is unimpressed by the plan. Australian science “had a tremendous reputation”, he laments.

“Government or the bureaucracy have just let science run down to the point where it's on the verge of irredeemable damage. The current proposals are peanuts. It needs billions of dollars per year. Compared to our competitors in this field, we're doing nothing,” Osmond says.

An analysis by Australia's top eight research universities says it would take A$9.4 billion over five years to raise the country's research spending to the developed world's average of just over 2% of gross domestic product (GDP).

Since the middle of last year, the plight of Australian science has attracted considerable media coverage, putting pressure on the government to support it as it enters an election year.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/35051766

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