Australian science and technology sectors talk of ‘revival’ as Federal Government splashes the cash in Budget

It was 2013 and the Coalition, under the leadership of Tony Abbott, had just taken power.

The new prime minister unveiled his cabinet, what he called one of the most experienced in Australian history.

But one portfolio was missing.

For the first time since 1931, there was no minister for science.

The CSIRO, and the country’s climate science body was significantly watered down.

A year later, the science portfolio would be reinstated, but for many in the science community, the damage was done.

Fast forward to today and it’s a different story: the Morrison Government is winning widespread praise from the science and technology sectors.

As soon as the Budget landed this week the praise started flowing from science bodies across the country.

The Budget would spur a “research revival”, according to Science & Technology Australia, Australia’s peak body for science and tech industries.

It said it was a “shot in the arm for Australia’s job-creating research capability”.

The Australian Academy of Science described the Budget as “a significant response to the crisis facing Australia’s scientists”.

Scientists focused on climate change were less supportive, with some enraged by new subsidies for fossil fuels including coal and gas and little additional funding for renewable energy or electric vehicles.

But when it comes to research and development, the Government has delivered much of what scientists were asking for.

Take CSIRO, for example.

About 40 per cent of its funding comes from commercial arrangements, much of which it is worried will disappear as the economic impacts of COVID-19 start to bite.

As a result, the science agency warned it could lose as much as $100 million this financial year.

So in the Budget the Government increased CSIRO funding by $459.2 million over the next four years.

“CSIRO is this incredible national asset because it lets us generate the intellectual property that creates jobs for Australians,” Science & Technology Australia chief executive Misha Schubert said.

“So keeping that asset safe through a crisis like COVID is really important.”

More cuts scrapped

A backdown on another issue also had these bodies singing the Government’s praises.

For years, Ms Schubert’s organisation was one of several arguing against Government plans to cut back on the so-called R&D (research and development) tax incentive.

It gives a tax break to companies — high-tech manufacturers, start-ups and venture capital firms — that choose to invest in research and development.

In the 2018 budget, then-treasurer Scott Morrison flagged a plan for “saving taxpayers $2 billion over the next four years” by putting a cap on the amount smaller companies could claim under the scheme.

For two years, the industry has called for that to be dropped, and in this week’s Budget it finally came.

And in a surprise additional move, another $1 billion was injected into the university system through the research support program, to help the sector weather the drop in international students and the impacts of the controversial revamp of university funding that passed the Senate this week.

Budget praised but calls for more funding certainty

In addition to these big-ticket items, the Budget was peppered with other sweeteners for science and technology.

These included $47 million extra for cooperative research centres; $25.1 million to create a women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) industry cadetship; $35.9 million to support women-founded start-ups; and $27 million to boost curriculum resources for STEM education in schools.

Ms Schubert was effusive about the measures.

“Minister Karen Andrews is clearly passionate about science and technology,” she said.

“She speaks regularly about the key enabling role it can play across Australian industry and the research sector to treat new possibilities for our country.”

Anna-Maria Arabia, chief executive of the Australian Academy of Science, was similarly full of praise.

“It really is to be commended,” she said.

But Ms Arabia said the Government now needed to do more.

She said the emergency cash injection was needed to get the science sector through the crisis, but a longer-term vision — and sustainable funding model — was needed for the future.

A history of clashing with science

In 2014, a $110 million cut left CSIRO with a fifth of its staff facing the axe.

And the gutting of climate science bodies — the scrapping of the Climate Commission, neutering of the Climate Change Authority and attempted axing of the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and Clean Energy Finance Corporation — left another rift between the Government and researchers.

Under Malcolm Turnbull and then Scott Morrison, the Government had fewer fights with the sector, but this year seems to have marked a turnaround.

“There is no doubt that in 2013 there were some dark days for science,” Ms Arabia said.

“But under both Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison we have seen an increased focus on science and research [and] this response to the pandemic builds on that,” she said.

Ms Schubert said because of the pandemic, everyone — governments and the public — was witnessing how crucial science was to Australia and its economy.

“I think the lived experience of COVID-19 has focused the mind of everyone across Australian society about the foundational importance of science,” she said.

“This is a moment where science has been our salvation.”

What about climate science?

Lesley Hughes is a professor of biology at Macquarie University and a member of the Climate Council.

She said she would “like to think” the Government has changed its approach to the sciences, but remained sceptical.

“It’s very clear that the countries around the world that have done better with COVID are those countries where the decisionmakers consulted and trusted scientists and listened to experts and acted accordingly,” Professor Hughes said.

But she said that was not happening when it came to climate science.

Energy and Emissions Reduction Minister Angus Taylor has emphasised a number of measures the Government is taking, including continuing to fund the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, investments in hydrogen and assistance for industry to lower emissions.

“The Morrison Government will continue to deliver practical measures that guarantee reliable and affordable energy, stimulate jobs and reduce emissions, without imposing new costs on households, businesses or the economy,” Mr Taylor said as the Budget was released.

The Budget included $50 million for carbon capture and storage, which is seen by many environmentalists as a way of supporting fossil fuels, as well as $53 million of support for the “gas-led economic recovery”, announced ahead of time.

It also included an as-yet undisclosed amount to be given to the ageing coal-fired power station at Vales Point, owned by Delta Electricity.

“There are some things that are going in the right direction but they’re clinging with their fingernails to fossil fuels,” Professor Hughes said.

“Listening to experts, acting early and prioritising evidence — those are all the things that should have been done with climate change and they haven’t.”

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