Science

Australian scientists welcome boosts in in new federal budget

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The new budget provides $399 million to protect the Great Barrier Reef, an amount scientists call “a small step” toward what is needed.

Ingo Oeland/Alamy Stock Photo

Scientific infrastructure and health research in Australia will both gain in the new federal budget, unveiled yesterday evening in Canberra. “This is a good budget for science,” says Andrew Holmes, president of the Australian Academy of Science and a chemist at the University of Melbourne.

Holmes particularly points to a 12-year, AU$1.9 billion (US$1.4 billion) National Research Infrastructure Investment Plan. Details are yet to be worked out, but priorities were outlined in a road map produced by an expert group last year. The road map recommended supporting the development of advanced microscopes, new types of instrumentation, and device fabrication techniques to support research in materials science, biology, medicine, and the environment. For astronomy, the investment plan will likely cover continuing support for Australian institutions to participate in international consortia operating large optical and radio telescopes.

The road map pointed to the need to modernize the Australian Animal Health Laboratory in Geelong for its research supporting the livestock industry and for studies of emerging diseases that affect humans. Following a road map recommendation to upgrade computing facilities, the budget announcement specifically provides AU$140 million for upgrades to two existing national high-performance computing centers.

Health research is another big winner, getting AU$1.3 billion over 10 years, including AU$500 million for a genomic health initiative covering basic research through to clinical trials for rare diseases and cancers. The initiative is an opportunity to “take a truly strategic approach to the development of genomic medicine,” says Christopher Goodnow, an immunologist at the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney, Australia.

Funding to establish a space agency, at AU$26 million over 4 years, turned out to be half of what had been rumored to be coming. There is an additional AU$15 million over 3 years to support applied space projects. “This is all reasonable and a good start,” says Matthew Colless, an astrophysicist at Australian National University in Canberra. He adds that the language in the budget announcement seems to acknowledge “there will need to be more funding in due course.”

The budget also provides AU$4.5 million for new measures to encourage girls and women to pursue education and careers in science, engineering, and mathematics. And an artificial intelligence initiative is getting AU$25 million. 

Not everyone is happy, however. The budget allocates AU$536 million to protect the Great Barrier Reef by reducing pollution in agricultural runoff, developing coral restoration techniques, and combating outbreaks of crown-of-thorns starfish, which feed on corals. The appropriation, “while certainly welcome, is a very small step” toward tackling a “wicked problem,” says Albert Gabric, a marine biogeochemist at Griffith University near Brisbane, Australia. Environmentalists were also disappointed. “Once again, [the budget] failed to address climate change,” says environmental scientist Martin Rice, head of research for the Sydney-based Climate Council of Australia. The council projects that spending related to climate change is dropping from AU$3 billion this year to AU$1.6 billion next year. Rice notes that the nation’s emissions of greenhouse gases have risen for three consecutive years. And the planned phaseout of a renewable energy target and other measures “could bring Australia’s renewables boom grinding to a halt,” he says.

The budget covers the year starting 1 July.

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