AUSTRALIA: Likely research cuts trigger alarm

Rarely have Australia's academic and research communities responded so rapidly and vigorously to rumoured threats of a US$400 million cut over the next three years to the major medical funding council.

University leaders, education and health unions, medical bodies and science organisations warned of a mass exodus from the country of top scientists if the savaging of the National Health and Medical Research Council's budget occurred. The council allocates $700 million a year to support health researchers around the country.

What appears to have been a high-level leak from the federal government, which is preparing its annual spending allocations to be announced next month, triggered the widespread reaction. The government is facing a multi-billion dollar reduction in its revenues because of the impact of cyclones, massive flooding in Queensland and Victoria, and falling income from business and personal taxation.

The federal Treasury's latest figures show business tax collections are $3 billion lower than expected while personal income tax collections are down by about $1 billion. The figures come a week after it was revealed that the floods and cyclones will cost the economy $9 billion, with a further $2 billion cut to export earnings because of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, Australia's second largest export market.

As thousands of protesters expressed their concerns about the cut at rallies in the capital cities last Tuesday, Australian Nobel Prize winner Professor Peter Doherty warned that the impact would be disastrous for Australian science, and for the intellectual health and international stature of leading universities, hospitals and research institutes.

"And for the personal futures of that bright cadre of young, enthusiastic researchers that has been nurtured here since the significant increases to funding that occurred under recent governments," Doherty said.

He contrasted the threatened cuts to the situation in Britain and the US, noting that President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were trying to protect research funding, although they faced much more difficult budgetary circumstances.

The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute in Melbourne, one of Australia's leading medical research organisations, strongly promoted the protests. Its director, Professor Doug Hilton, said there appeared to be a sentiment in government "that somehow medical research has been dining out for 10 years, has been doing exceptionally well, and that it's time we felt some pain.

"The cost of doing research is going up and up. It's taken us 10 years to get to the point where we are somewhat competitive internationally. Anything other than maintaining the budget in real terms would be disastrous," Hilton said, adding that any cuts would probably not target a particular research field but would make things difficult across the board.

In an open letter to Prime Minister Julia Gillard, the vice-chancellors' lobby group, Universities Australia, said a vigorous national research and innovation effort was critical to the strength and dynamism of Australia's economy and society.

"Bold public and private investment in its innovative people and institutions is critical if Australia is to keep up with the accelerating pace of growth of new knowledge and its application around the world. We should not limit our ambitions, but recognise, reward and build on our existing strengths - and develop new ones," wrote UA chair Professor Peter Coaldrake.

"Australia will risk weakening its place in the global knowledge economy if we do not sustain and continue to grow investment in our research endeavours, and in improved granting opportunities, and incentives encouraging collaboration between educational disciplines and across sectors of the economy.

"A plethora of formal evidentiary studies find that the real rate of return on publicly funded research has been conservatively estimated at 20% or more. The most recent assessment in this regard is provided by the US National Bureau of Economic Research. It is also becoming clear that the transaction costs required to generate and evaluate grant applications is disproportionate to the number and size of grants currently permitted by present funding," Coaldrake said.

* An error occurred during production of this story, and a letter from Universities Australia to Prime Minister Julia Gillard was wrongly attributed to the Group of Eight universities. This has now been corrected. We apologise for the mistake.