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Outline of budget cuts to science and technology and their impact on research and development facilities

ROBYN WILLIAMS: We begin, of course, with the Budget we had to have. The journal Nature this week comments that the cuts to science, which look at first like increases, will put us behind some of our Asian neighbours, such as Singapore, and be a turn-off for young people, says Nature too.

Here with a summary of what the Treasurer did is Dr Peter Pockley.

PETER POCKLEY: This was a Budget in which everybody dependent on government support for public programs measured their success or failure against how deep were the cuts. A winner would mean you either stood still or got only a very modest increase. There were few real winners in science.

Overall, the Government presented this as a good result for science and was greeted with one immediate comment of being 'fair'. Here's the Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Peter McGauran, summing it up in Parliament House, after the Budget speech.

PETER McGAURAN: At a time of a very stringent deficit reduction strategy, science and technology, indeed, research and development, comes out of it pretty well. The agencies have maintained and, in some cases, increased their funding. The Co-operative Research Centre's program has expanded; rural research RD corps have maintained their funding. We already know that research funding for university sector, even though it got drowned out the other day, has increased to $130 million extra over three years. So, all in all, a good result.

PETER POCKLEY: But when you add it all up, and this is the table in the Budget papers, there has in fact been an overall reduction of $272 million in government support of RD.

PETER McGAURAN: That's when you take out the changes to the 150 per cent tax incentive down to 125 per cent.

PETER POCKLEY: The Government hid the bad news skilfully. If you look closely across all portfolios, science and technology collected a cut of between 5 and 7 per cent, depending on which table you look at. This is over one year. Compare this with universities, over which there's been so much fuss, where the operating grants are being cut by 5 per cent.

The big element, the Minister said, is the drop in the tax concession for research by industry from 150 to 125 per cent. It doesn't sound so huge, but in dollar terms the cut is immense: $449 million or 57 per cent for the current year.

This saving has been only partially returned to lessen the pain in other areas of research. Some has been diverted to a new scheme for industrial research called 'Start', replacing the Syndication scheme axed last month. The support for Start, though, is about half that for Syndication.

Budget table C.2 shows the net cut in research funds is $272 million, bringing government expenditure down to $3,546 million for 1996-97.

One major newspaper headlined that CSIRO had been 'reprieved with an increase of $115 million over four years', and claimed that all told science funding was almost unscathed. In fact, CSIRO has at best stood still and may well end up down several million. Sure, the Government met its pre-election promise of increasing operating funds by $60 million spread over three years, but in the documents you find that CSIRO has had to agree to pay the Government back the very same $60 million by selling off assets.

CSIRO was fearful that the so-called 'efficiency dividend' would be imposed on its research as well as its administration. This is a creeping cut of 2 per cent each year. Well, it does have to pay that back, but CSIRO successfully argued for a one-off grant to balance it.

Not so lucky for the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation and the Australian Institute of Marine Science - both ANSTO and AIMS have to cope with cuts in their operating expenses of 2.9 per cent and 1.2 per cent respectively. They lose 2 per cent for the efficiency dividend and they lose access to their cash reserves - the buffer for unforseen payments like the costs of replacing a pump on the ageing research reactor at Lucas Heights.

CSIRO has managed only temporarily to stave off the raid on their cash reserves.

Why the cuts to ANSTO?

PETER McGAURAN: It's mostly centred around the cost of the transportation, the spent fuel rods to Dounreay reprocessing plant in Scotland. That's not yet a settled matter. At the moment, the Government has required ANSTO to bear that first transportation cost, but there's many more such transportation expenses ahead for ANSTO and the matter has to be settled, whether it is a whole of government expense, or whether or not it falls upon the agency itself or my department of Industry, Science and Tourism.

PETER POCKLEY: While the detail took some digging out on Budget night, you can now find some of it in the annual science and technology statement tabled by Mr McGauran on Thursday. Nobody in the media noticed.

In two other portfolios, education and health, research did relatively well. The Australian Research Council was boosted by $50 million to help universities catch up with modern equipment, sorely needed for research, and to increase the number of post-graduate awards, though one is left wondering how many academics are going to abandon the system because of Senator Vanstone's refusal to fund the long overdue salary claims. And how many students will opt for science and engineering courses when they are slugged with huge increases in the HECS fees?

In health, the National Health and Medical Research Council maintained its level of funding and profits from the British pharmaceutical industry, would you believe, have to come to our aid with a grant for research equipment from the very wealthy Wellcome foundation, headed, incidentally, by an Australian, Dr Bridgette Ogilvie. This will be matched by the Government. The figure was not declared, but I understand it's $8 million each - a boost of 16 million.

Two schemes started by Labor are genuinely unscathed: the Co-operative Research Centres and the seven major national research facilities announced in the Innovation Statement last December. The high performance computing centre seems to have sunk without trace.

Labor's three innovation flagships, however, have been slashed from three to one, with a saving of $20 million. Out go the Minerals Research Lab in Perth and the hydro-dynamics facility in Tasmania. The survivor is the Magnetic Resonance Research Institute for cancer diagnosis in Sydney.

And although it was not truly a cut, Australia's invitation for membership of the European Southern Observatory - our chance to keep up with the world in optical and infra-red astronomy - will not be supported. The space council and space office have been closed; $2 million of the former and very meagre $6 million allocation for space, has been transferred to a new co-operative research centre in which CSIRO will play the leading part.

Eleven per cent has been cut out of the Defence, Science and Technology organisation and transferred to other defence purposes. The Australian Geological Survey Organisation has been slashed.

Under Senator Robert Hill, environmental research, such as on climate change has suffered a big cut, and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority has become so strapped for cash that it immediately announced a hike in fees for tourists visiting the reef, from one dollar to $6 a head. Antarctic research went down, but rural research is up slightly.

The Science, Engineering and Technology Awareness program survived with $2.5 million a year, but that won't be able to do much for promoting the better understanding of science through the media. The $55 million annual cut to the ABC now appears to be going on for three years, and is already affecting the future of science programs on both television and radio where there are big losses in staff and numbers of programs coming up.

So, is this Budget just lean or mean? Dr Joe Baker, President of the science lobby group, FASTS, said science is still afloat but where is the vision? What then is the vision for science under Peter McGauran that wasn't there under Peter Cook?

PETER McGAURAN: The first thing is to preserve the funding base, the infrastructure. We've boosted it in a number of areas, particularly the university sector which hasn't received the recognition it rightly deserves. This first phase of the Howard Government which has been centred around fiscal imperatives - cutting government expenditure. Now we can do so many of the things we want to, to improve the standing and the importance of science and technology, improve the teaching standards and involve business investment in RD to a far greater extent. There's a great many challenges that lie ahead of us, and none of which I'll overcome quickly or in my whole term as Science Minister, but I can assure the Government is going to tackle them in the same way we did the pressing budget deficit problem.

PETER POCKLEY: Are there any commitments you made in the election which you haven't kept?

PETER McGAURAN: Good question. None to my knowledge. It may be around the edges. There's been some adjustments, if I can use that political talk, but none that leap out and hit you between the eyes.

PETER POCKLEY: So, that's the Budget for 1996-97. This is Peter Pockley for the Science Show.