Australian research grants escape government cutbacks

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But universities face cuts to overheads support.

Australia's science minister Chris Evans (pictured at the Sydney Institute of Marine Science). Credit: TORSTEN BLACKWOOD/AFP/GettyImages

Australia’s research grants have been left untouched in mid-year spending adjustments aimed at maintaining a budget surplus. But scientists are not entirely happy with the figures, which were announced on 23 October. Over the next four years, the government will remove around Aus$499 million (US$514 million) from funds that help universities to meet the overhead costs of research, such as equipment and infrastructure.

The cuts affect the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) initiative, a scheme announced by the Australian government in its 2009–10 budget to help cover the indirect costs of university research that is supported by competitive grants from the government. Figures announced by treasurer Wayne Swan freeze SRE spending for 2013. That is equivalent to trimming Aus$79 million, or 40%, from the government’s previous SRE spending plans for the 2012–13 financial year. The SRE budget will then grow to reach Aus$300 million by 2016, three years later than initially planned.

But the main sources of government funds for scientific research, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) programme, have been left alone. “Close to Aus$880 million in ARC Discovery and Linkage grants and Aus$154 million in CRC grants will support the research effort, ensuring continuity for ongoing projects as well as new investment in key scientific and research priorities,” said science minister Chris Evans in a statement.

The news has been welcomed by Suzanne Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science in Canberra. “This is an investment in Australia’s long term prosperity and security,” she says. “The academy is encouraged that the Gillard government has ensured many diverse and important areas of research will be allowed to continue.”

Cory says that she is concerned that SRE funding will not reach planned levels for several years, but that “the academy recognizes that this is a time of significant fiscal pressure and is grateful that in this climate much of the research budget has been preserved”.

Research-focused Australian universities (known as the Group of Eight, or Go8), which will be hit hardest by the SRE budget cut, are more critical of the government’s decision. “We are alarmed by its decision to erode the research fabric that enables top researchers to do excellent work efficiently,” Go8 chair Fred Hilmer says. “Given that universities had already included the SRE funding in their budgets, the cuts can be expected to result in research staff being laid off,” he adds.

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Mitchell Crow, J. Australian research grants escape government cutbacks. Nature (2012) doi:10.1038/nature.2012.11641

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