Australian government ups science and innovation spending by 25 per cent in latest budget

The Australian government has surprised the science community with a major increase in spending on science and innovation in its 2009 budget, despite tough economic conditions.

The 2009-10 spending on science and innovation will be Aus$8.6 billion (?4.3 billion), 25 per cent up on the previous year, with additional funding worth Aus$5.7 billion over four years for higher education. Ken Baldwin, president of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies (FASTS), describes the budget as exceptional and well above expectations.

It puts Commonwealth spending on R&D at 0.73 per cent of GDP, up from 0.57 per cent last year, although some of this rise is because GDP will contract next year. These figures don’t include state or business funding. The latest internationally comparable data is from 2006-07, which shows gross expenditure on R&D   in Australia was 2.01 per cent of GDP, behind the new US target of 3 per cent but above the UK’s current 1.8 per cent.

A total of Aus$1.1 billion is being spent on the Super Science Initiative to boost areas the government sees as critical - space and astronomy (Aus$160.5 million), marine and climate (Aus$387.7 million), future industries (Aus$504 million), fellowships, and support for Questacon, the government’s initiative to bring science to children. The bulk of this spending (Aus$901 million) is for infrastructure. 

A further Aus$4.5 billion will go to the Clean Energy Initiative to support the growth of clean energy generation and new technologies, and to reduce carbon emissions. Other initiatives include establishing a Aus$196.1 million Commonwealth Commercialisation Institute to turn university and publicly funded research into commercial realities.

Business will benefit from an overhaul of tax incentives for R&D. The new tax credit will provide a 45 per cent refundable credit to small companies with a turnover of less than Aus$20 million and a 40 per cent non-refundable credit to larger companies with a turnover greater than Aus$20 million or those with the intellectual property outside Australia. 

The promised reinvigoration of higher education has also been addressed with changes to the way it operates and is funded, along with Aus$5.7 billion of funding over four years. 

The government wants more people to go to university, so is moving to a system based on student demand, underpinned by a new national regulatory and quality agency. Also, using a system similar to that in the UK, more indirect research costs will be funded, provided there is cost transparency. 

’The preparedness to get some sort of structural reform is more significant than the dollars in the short term,’ says Bradley Smith, executive director of FASTS.

One criticism, says Smith, is that the investment is heavily skewed towards infrastructure. 

Elektra Spathopoulos, executive director of the Australian Institute of Science and Policy, is not surprised by the focus on infrastructure. ’But the level of increase and the statement that makes about the importance of science and innovation to Australia’s future is a bit stronger than I expected in this budget,’ she says.

Karen Harries-Rees

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