Science funding down under – a tale of opposites

By Siouxsie Wiles 16/05/2014

This week has seen budget announcements from both Australia and New Zealand and it is a story of opposites when it comes to science funding. The fabulous Keith Ng (@keith_ng) has produced a great dynamic infographic if you want to see where New Zealand is going to be spending it’s money and how this has changed from the previous budget.

Science in NZ is doing pretty well under the current government, even if the focus is skewed towards innovation and advances now, rather than the slow burn ‘outside the box’ stuff from which real game changers come. There has been a boost of NZ$58.6 million for contestable science funding, although the increase to the Marsden fund was not an increase in real terms.

The big surprise was the announcement of a further NZ$53 million over the next four years to support the Centre’s of Research Excellence (CoREs). Just last week the 6 new CoREs that will be funded for the next six years were announced. This new money isn’t to further support these 6 centres but to help establish another four. One of these will be a dedicated Māori Centre of Research Excellence, which is good news and important for New Zealand.

The three new CoREs will be funded from 2016 and this is where it gets interesting. In the recent contestable round to select the new CoREs, 27 applications were whittled down to a shortlist of 8 which included only three of the current CoREs and led to press releases from a couple of those left out in the cold, expressing their surprise and disappointment, including this one from Gravida, the National Centre for Growth and Development. There were even whispers of the decision being challenged.

Yesterday Steven Joyce announced that the three new CoREs will be selected through a closed tender of the remainder of the unsuccessful 21 applicants. This is curious. Why has the government not chosen to fund the 2 unfunded shortlisted applications, which went through a transparent, contestable process, and were selected for their excellence? Now suddenly everyone is back in the game, and that raises eyebrows. The science community is going to want the government and Tertiary Education Commission to be able to fully justify their choice of the next three CoREs. If the new CoREs plug huge gaps in the NZ science landscape, like the ‘One Health’ infectious diseases proposal or the Allan Wilson Centre, then we can see why this might be justified. However, if Gravida, which fits well with one of the National Science Challenges and has the government’s Chief Science Advisor Distinguished Professor Sir Peter Gluckman listed as one of it’s Principal Investigators, is one of the three funded then questions will be asked.

On the other side of the Tasman science funding has taken a hammering, although this was sweetened with the creation of a new AUS$20 billion Medical Research Future Fund. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency will be abolished saving AUS$1.3 billion, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) will lose more than AUS$111.4 million, the Australian Research Council (ARC) will lose AUS$74.9 million, the Defense Science and Technology Organization will lose AUS$120 million, the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organization will lose AUS$27.6 million and the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences is down AUS$7.8 million.

The Medical Research Future Fund is a curious new beast. It will be made up of a $7 payment each time people go to the GP and will operate like a kind of investment trust. Once the fund reaches $20bn, the profits will go to fund medical research. John Pickering muses about what this fund might mean to NZ over on his blog. I find this proposal a very curious way to fund medical research. In essence what the Australians will be doing is ‘taxing’ the sick. While this might seem equitable to some, I think its very backwards thinking. If we think about those who got to the GP most, its the elderly and young kids. I would worry that this would stop those on limited incomes from going to the doctor when they need to, which in the long run could mean a bigger burden on health services as presumably potential health problems wouldn’t be caught as early.

The Australian governments attitude to science is perfectly summed up by this little gem in the budget: there is AUS$5 million for science in primary schools but a staggering AUS$245 million to put chaplains in schools! I’m lost for words.

0 Responses to “Science funding down under – a tale of opposites”

  • It’s not just that the 2 short-listed CoREs aren’t being funded, there is another issue with the proposed CoRE funding – why limit it to those that have already applied and been unsuccessful, why not do a properly open and transparent call? Those that have previously applied have done the leg work already and will not be disadvantaged and if new and excellent proposals come forward, isn’t that for the good of the country?

  • It’s inconceivable that the world’s least corrupt administration would override a transparent process to hand out $$$ to mates, right?