Oz has 'urgent' need for fresh thinking

May 21, 1999

Australia needs Pounds 49 million more in research funding this year just to stand still. Geoff Maslen reports

The Australian Academy of Science has called on the federal government to back a five-year programme of public support for basic research.

The academy said that funding would be divided between research grants, through the Australian Research Council and the Health and Medical Research Council, and restoring university research infrastructure.

Academy president Brian Anderson said additional expenditure of about Aus$120 million (Pounds 49 million) was required this year "to stand still".

An investigation is needed over the next year to identify the requirements for a more effective science base for innovation.

"If Australia were to increase support for basic research at the same rate as Britain, in proportion to the size of our national economies, we would need to spend an additional Aus$1 billion over three years," Professor Anderson said.

The need to boost Australia's "appallingly low rate of innovation" was urgent, he said, and was greater than the government's efforts at tax reform. "We need a long-term commitment from all strata of society and all parties, or as a nation we face a future impoverished by economic and social backwardness.

"Australia simply cannot have a prosperous and secure future at the current rate of innovation in our economy," Professor Anderson said. He noted that the United States and the United Kingdom had both moved to establish "innovation-friendly" policies, some of which were introduced many years ago. Both countries had kept tax rates low and had supported a strong research base, and they were now making substantial increases in public spending on basic scientific research.

"Governments and opinion-makers of the leading economies know that basic research is an essential foundation for innovation and it is innovation which has brought them their leading positions," Professor Anderson said.

Last year, the UK allocated Pounds 1.5 billion in extra funding for research grants and infrastructure. By comparison, Australia's total support for basic research in 1998-99 is less than Aus$2.4 billion (Pounds 975 million).

In the US the budget of the National Science Foundation, which provides a large part of basic research funding, has been increased by 7.1 per cent this year with a further rise of 6.9 per cent proposed in 2000.

Meanwhile, the National Institutes of Health had its 1999 budget increased by 15 per cent this year, with a further 2.1 per cent rise proposed for 2000.

Japan plans to double its investment in basic research over the next two years and, despite Japan's economic troubles, the plan is on track, Professor Anderson said.

He said that if Australia increased investment in basic research grants at about the rate for the US, this would entail additional spending of more than Aus$160 million each year just on its research granting programmes.

"If we matched Britain's 1998-99 increase in basic research funding, we would spend an additional Aus$1 billion on research grants and university infrastructure over three years."

But he said that Australia was under-investing in innovation and should take stronger action. "There is no longer any reason to doubt what we need to do. The evidence is in, and the example of the leading economies is compelling," Professor Anderson said.

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