R&D critical to economic recovery in 2020–21 Budget

By Lauren Davis
Wednesday, 07 October, 2020

R&D critical to economic recovery in 2020–21 Budget

Five months later than originally scheduled, and in the midst of a global pandemic, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg finally delivered the 2020–21 Budget last night. So what were the big announcements for the STEM sector?

There was good news for the big science organisations, with an additional $459.2 million in funding announced for CSIRO over four years to address the impacts of COVID-19 on its commercial activities and ensure it is able to continue essential scientific research. The Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) will also receive an additional $238.1 million over the next four years.

One of the most significant pieces of investment, originally announced last week, was $1.5 billion over four years for the Modern Manufacturing Strategy, to allow Australian manufacturers to scale up, compete internationally and create more jobs. The centrepiece of the Strategy is the $1.3 billion Modern Manufacturing Initiative, which will see the government strategically support projects within six National Manufacturing Priorities: resources technology and critical minerals processing; food and beverage; medical products; recycling and clean energy; defence; and space.

The government also made clear its commitment to realising the potential of women in STEM, with several Budget items dedicated to this area. These include:

  • $25.1 million over five years from 2020–21 to create a Women in STEM Industry Cadetship program, which will offer 100 places a year to women working in STEM to complete an advanced diploma through a mix of study and on-the-job experiences;
  • $35.9 million over five years for the Boosting Female Founders initiative to support women-founded start-ups;
  • $10 million to extend the successful Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship (WISE) grants program;
  • $2 million to extend the Women in STEM Ambassador initiative, with Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith having last month been reappointed as the Women in STEM Ambassador for an additional two years.

Other highlights are as follows:

  • A $1 billion boost to university research in 2020–21 through the Research Support Program.
  • Dropping proposed cuts to the R&D tax incentive, keeping $2 billion in the nation’s R&D system over the next four years.
  • $5.8 million this year for the Department of Education, Skills and Employment for a scoping study of options to accelerate the translation and commercialisation of research.
  • $47 million more than previously estimated in Cooperative Research Centre funding.
  • A reaffirmation of the 12-year funding commitment to the 2016 National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) Roadmap.
  • A $41 million research and development program to support regionally based industries.
  • $27.3 million to boost curriculum resources and STEM education for primary and high school students.
  • Continued delivery of the 2020 Research Infrastructure Investment Plan, with $36.3 million to upgrade the Sea Simulator at AIMS; $8.3 million for new synthetic biology infrastructure; and $7.6 million to upgrade the Australian Community Climate and Earth System Simulator (ACCESS).
  • $41.6 million for a Strategic University Reform Fund.
  • A further $36.6 million provided over two years from 2020–21 to maintain the timeliness of environmental assessments and undertake further reforms under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

In a statement, the Australian Academy of Science said the 2020–21 Budget is a significant response to the crisis facing Australia’s scientists as a result of the pandemic.

The additional $1 billion of funding to support research at Australia’s universities hit badly by the pandemic is welcomed by the Academy, as is a proposed increase in 505 jobs in a cross-section of government science agencies.

The Academy particularly applauds the strategic decision to back proven STEM school education programs by injecting $27.3 million over five years as an investment in the future workforce. This includes $9.6 million to support programs delivered by the Academy.

Additional refinements to the R&D tax incentive are positive, according to the Academy; however, given that non-mining investment will fall by over 14.5% in 2021, they say more is needed to transform Australia’s business investment in R&D.

“In the coming years more work will need to be done to fix Australia’s fragmented research funding system,” said Academy President Professor John Shine. “The funding injection for university research will retain capability in 2021 and goes some of the way to cushioning the blow to the research sector as a result of the pandemic.

“The Academy calls upon the government to engage all stakeholders to develop a comprehensive roadmap for Australian science and research funding to place it on a sustainable footing over the long term.”

The Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) meanwhile said the Budget includes welcome investments in creating a clean energy economy and improving environmental resilience, including $1.4 billion over 10 years for the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and $70.2 million over five years to activate Australia’s first regional hydrogen export hub.

Recognising the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on women in the STEM workforce, ATSE is also pleased to see ongoing support for programs designed to build better gender balance in the sector.

“The Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) overall welcomes the federal government’s investment in the higher education sector, Women in STEM, and [a] low-emissions and clean energy economy,” said ATSE CEO Kylie Walker.

“The $1 billion investment into the higher education sector is critical in building a STEM-skilled workforce, which has been significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“This investment will go a long way to rebuilding Australia’s research sector with a range of measures to build the STEM workforce and increase greater industry-research collaboration, and we look forward to hearing how this investment will be applied.

“It’s [also] good to see investments being made toward the important transition to a clean energy and low-emissions economy, including a much-needed boost to Australia’s renewable energy agency.”

Finally, Science & Technology Australia (STA) CEO Misha Schubert said the Budget’s “research revival” highlights the crucial role of STEM in the nation’s economic recovery, claiming that research and development “must be central to the recovery strategy”.

“The billion-dollar boost for university research this year is an immediate lifeline to a sector under enormous pressure with the loss of international students during the pandemic,” Schubert said.

“It’s a wise call to drop the proposed cuts to the Research and Development Tax incentive, which STA urged the government to rethink when COVID-19 hit Australian industry hard.

“We are also pleased to see the bridging boost for CSIRO and a recommitment to a 12-year funding pledge for major research infrastructure projects through the NCRIS scheme.

“A $5.8 million promise to scope options to accelerate the translation and commercialisation of research can be a crucial step towards our long-term goal of a Research Translation Fund. A Research Translation Fund to turn more cutting-edge Australian research into products, services and jobs was the centrepiece of STA’s pre-Budget submission.”

Schubert also commended the introduction of new funding to support the upskilling of women in STEM through an Industry Cadetship program. “Women are still only one in four STEM workers in industry, so further measures to boost women’s participation in the private sector are needed and welcome,” she said.

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/kritchanut

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