Australian research and development spending ‘at 40-year low’

Universities beg government to cancel cut planned for mini-budget

December 13, 2018
Drought in Australia

Australia’s government investment in research and development has fallen to its lowest level in more than four decades, universities claim, as they launch a last-ditch effort to prevent a further cut in next week’s mini-budget.

A Universities Australia analysis of recently published budget figures has concluded that government R&D spending will slump to 0.5 per cent of gross domestic product this financial year, after hovering between 0.75 per cent and 0.55 per cent for the past 40 years.

Things are set to get worse, with the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook – scheduled for 17 December – expected to reveal the extent of a cut to the Research Support Program, which helps universities cover the indirect costs of their research.

The government last month said that it would freeze the scheme to pay for increased higher education provision in regional areas, but it did not say how long the freeze would last.

Industry department projections estimate government R&D spending in 2018-19 to be about A$9.6 billion (£5.5 billion), down 8 per cent on last year’s figure.

Universities Australia says that business R&D investment is at its lowest level in two decades, with the latest figures showing that it has declined in absolute terms. The representative group says that Australia’s overall R&D investment is 1.88 per cent of GDP, compared with an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development average of 2.36 per cent.

In a statement, UA chief executive Catriona Jackson urged the government to rethink the freezing of the Research Support Program and to “make the right decision for Australia’s future”.

“It’s folly for the government to cut uni research funding again when its own budget data already forecast a plunge to a four-decade low,” she said. “Cuts to university research funding are cuts to Australia’s ability to deliver desperately needed research breakthroughs, cures, treatments and life-changing programmes.

“Every patient group, every family with a child falling behind at school, every farming community – indeed, every single Australian – has a stake in keeping the uni research breakthroughs coming.”

To underline the point, UA is launching a video campaign to highlight universities’ “life-changing” research. It features cervical cancer vaccine developer Ian Frazer, brain repair researcher Richard Williams and domestic violence specialist Becky Batagol, together with potential beneficiaries of their research.

Meanwhile, the government said that it was maintaining Australia’s “cutting edge” with a series of scoping studies into research infrastructure needs for synthetic biology and climate and environmental change forecasting.

Dan Tehan, the education minister, said that Australian advances such as wi-fi and black box flight recorders demonstrated that the country’s researchers had been at the forefront of innovation. “We need to ensure that we continue to invest in research that improves lives and grows our economy,” he said.

“Because our government has overseen continued strong economic growth, we can pay for the infrastructure to support our world-class research.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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