Good in parts – Science and the Federal Budget

| May 9, 2018

Academics and scientists have praised some aspects of the newly announced Federal Budget, while drawing attention to other areas of concern.

Andrew Holmes, the President of the Australian Academy of Science, said “This is a good budget for science. It reflects the long-term and strategic approach that is needed for Australia to benefit from science and innovation at a global scale.”

He welcomed funding for new computing capacity as “Australia’s national supercomputers give scientists across government, industry and universities the processing power for the complex scientific computations needed in an advance society including accurate weather forecasts, drug development, and large-scale astronomy.”

He warned that “We have a long way to go as a nation, particularly on big issues like STEM education and training at school and university and climate change”. However he was optimistic that “we are moving forward together and the Government has made a clear commitment in this Budget to working collaboratively with the science sector to maximise the benefits for all Australians.”

Kylie Walker, the CEO of Science & Technology Australia, agreed that “The 2018 Budget indicates the Government has listened to the need to restore support for major science agencies and invest in research infrastructure to position Australia as a leader in global science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) research and innovation.

“The new commitment to $1.9 billion in research infrastructure – $1 billion over forward estimates –  following the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap is very welcome, and major commitments medical research, the Great Barrier Reef, technology infrastructure and space science further strengthen the positive investment for the future of Australia’s STEM sector. The Government has also committed to refocusing the R&D Tax Incentive in line with recommendations made in the recent review.

“A return to keeping pace with CPI is very welcome for the Australian Research Council and other research agencies like the CSIRO. We’re also pleased to see a boost for measures to engage and inspire all Australians with STEM, as well as specific measures to support greater participation by girls and women in STEM.

“However we note the future STEM workforce still requires attention – STEM graduate rates are threatened by continued capping of commonwealth support for undergraduate places at Australian Universities. Australia will need many more people equipped with STEM skills in our workforce to compete internationally. This short-term saving will be a loss for future generations.”

Professor Tony Cunningham, the President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes, said “This is a great Budget for medical research, with around $2 billion now committed through the Medical Research Future Fund for new medical research projects. This is exactly where the Australian medical research sector should be heading.”

Professor Nalini Joshi, the Payne-Scott Professor of Applied Mathematics and ARC Georgina Sweet Australian Laureate Fellow at The University of Sydney, warned that “Budgets enable the future. To have a future-proof progressive, technologically sophisticated society, Australia needs a workforce that is educated and trained to think logically, analytically and quantitatively.

“A society with only a handful of mathematically trained workers cannot be expected to support the extraordinarily important developments expected in modern life such as precision medicine.  Australia is that society: only 0.4% of entering university students study Mathematical sciences, in comparison to the OECD average of 2.5%.

“To barely reach that average, we would need to multiply the current cohort of senior high school students who are mathematically prepared for University by a factor of 6. The budget contains no action or stimulus to help meet this challenge.”

Professor Joshi therefore called for additional funding for mathematics specialists to mentor teachers in mathematical skills in every school or every regional group of schools and tax incentives for teachers to pursue professional development and further training in mathematics.  Greater incentives, including merit salary, preferred placement or advanced recognition of years served should also be given to graduates trained in the mathematical sciences to enter and remain in the teaching profession.

There should also be a program to encourage a flow of talent from from school to university, graduate study and on to postdoctoral work or industry.  Unfortunately the initiatives recommended in the Decadal Plan for Mathematical Sciences: a vision for 2025 required an agile, pro-active budget focused on developing a future workforce, rather than the budget the Treasurer delivered.

John Fischetti, the Head of School and Dean of the School of Education at The University of Newcastle, noticed that “The Budget 2018 presentation by the Treasurer implied, but went silent on several items related to education.

“An increase in the child care means-tested subsidy was included in the budget and already planned. No mention was made of the crucial role of high quality early childhood education to allow carers to participate in the economy, while having confidence their children are prepared with the fundamental skills and dispositions to be successful in the innovation age.  There is a larger investment needed there. Each child deserves the highest quality early childhood experience from the learning sciences, not from babysitting.

“The government reiterated its commitment to the new Gonski report recommendations to provide teachers the tools needed to “lift student performance.”  No mention of the costs of the new Gonski report’s called for assessment schemes was included. While last week’s report is spot on about current schools’ obsolescence, it contradicts itself on the assembly line assessments that have already failed in New Zealand.

“That’s a huge cost not discussed, a major reworking of NAPLAN. And, while the need- based funding was mentioned, what wasn’t discussed is that the amounts included are actually significantly less than the first Gonski report recommended. This is actually a cut disguised as an increase.

“No mention of the vital role of providing access to higher education, including TAFE and Universities. Recent years’ cuts have put at risk Australia’s future, which is developing the minds and research outputs to innovate our future rather than dig our future out of the ground.”

Professor Margaret Gardner, the Chair of Universities Australia, said that “Just like a deposit on a home, this extra $393 million for major national collaborative research facilities is an instalment on owning our own research future as a country.

“Investing in these facilities is like laying the rail and road networks of the 19th and 20th centuries – it’s productive infrastructure to deliver tomorrow’s discoveries, industries, start-ups and jobs.  The good news on research infrastructure is tempered by the ongoing university funding freeze, which will cut $2.1 billion from universities over the next few years.”

Associate Professor Albert Gabric of Griffith University, drew attention to the vital importance of environmental issues.

“The Great Barrier Reef is under threat from multiple local stressors including, declining water quality, coastal zone development, and periodic invasions by the crown of thorn starfish. Compounding these local threats are a host of climate change related global problems, including bleaching and acidification and extreme weather events, viz. marine heat waves and cyclones.

“These threats to the reef have been the subject of several major government studies in the last 20 years, including the Industry Commission Report (2003) and Reef 2050 Long-Term Sustainability Plan (2017).

“The latter report stated: The main source of the primary pollutants – nutrients, fine sediments and pesticides – from Great Barrier Reef catchments is diffuse source pollution from agriculture. These pollutants pose a risk to Great Barrier Reef coastal and marine ecosystems. Progress towards the water quality targets has been slow and the present trajectory suggests these targets will not be met.

“Queensland has the largest area of agricultural land of any Australian state and the highest proportion of land area in Australia dedicated to agriculture. Agricultural industries contribute more than $10 billion to the state economy each year. Researchers have recognised for over 25 years that poor water quality due to land use change and farming in the coastal hinterland is fundamentally incompatible with a healthy coral reef ecosystem.

“The language in recent reports mentions maintaining and improving the reef’s resilience, even though the general concept of ecosystem resilience is difficult to define and even more difficult to measure. The proposed budget allocation of $500 million, while certainly welcome, is a very small step in confronting a classic “wicked problem”, which is by definition extremely difficult or impossible to solve.”