No cuts to CRCs
The Government has recognised the importance of the Cooperative Research Centres Program and left it intact following a "funding pause" and review of programs leading up to yesterday's mid-year economic outlook. The 15th selection round is expected to resume shortly. The major research councils, the NH&MRC and the ARC were also unaffected. The ARC opened its delayed Linkage Program within minutes of the announcement and applications are due 3 December.
Lower tax revenues and the Government's commitment to a budget surplus in 2012-13 meant that all programs have received scrutiny over the past weeks to find possible savings. During this period, the CRC Program was put on a "pause" increasing nervousness of the nine syndicates currently vying for CRC funding. Short listing of those proposals going to interview was expected in the last week of August.
Government research funding was not left untouched.
Universities are disappointed at a $499 million saving from the Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE) program, part of the University Block Grants. Minister for Tertiary Education, Skills, Science and Research, Senator Chris Evans said "The SRE program will continue to provide a significant contribution to the indirect costs of competitive grant research. This year's SRE funding will remain unchanged. In 2013, the funding will be indexed from the 2012 level and will then steadily increase at a more sustainable level over three years to reach the planned peak of $300 million in 2016."
Commentary from Tony Peacock, CRCA
The research community in Australia has just had a couple of things reinforced. Firstly, we cannot expect the benefits of R&D to be self evident and we are as vulnerable to Government budgeting processes as any other area of expenditure. Secondly, we are lucky to be represented in Cabinet by a senior Minister.
The recent demonstration that the CRC Program is delivering a $14.5 billion benefit to the nation, making significant contributions to productivity and GDP, did not put us on an "untouchable" list in the MYEFO process. By and large, Federal politicians know and like the Program. But that didn't save us from the end of the "Backing Australia's Ability Program" or cuts in the 2010 election campaign and 2011 budget. We need to keep increasing our efforts to have the general community and our industry supporters appreciate the value of CRCs and how they are delivering real differences to the lives of Australians. After two decades of CRC delivery, I doubt any Australian could go through a full day without being impacted by the outcome of at least one CRC, but relatively few would recognise that fact.
Science and research has not always been directly represented in Cabinet. And never at such a senior level as it is currently represented. Minister Evans is the Leader of the Government in the Senate and in the May budget his portfolio was the only one not to suffer some trimming. Under the Government's fiscal circumstances and a determination to deliver a surplus for the year, to avoid any cuts in the MYEFO process was never on. The slowdown in indexing the SRE is obviously not ideal, but that program is largely spent on infrastructure and Universities were given infrastructure boosts during the height of the GFC. I don't know how much staring down the Minister had to do, but we should acknowledge he has been able to largely hold the line. Cuts to ARC or CRC Programs would have directly led to less researchers employed in the system next year, and we can't afford to be mucking around with the careers of early career researchers.
The research system in Australia already mucks around far too much with the early career of researchers and it is an area that needs attention over the coming years. At a recent Early-Mid Career workshop in Canberra, Nobel Laureate, Brian Schmidt said that he appointed all his postdocs for five-year terms (despite receiving maximum of three-year funding), allowed any of them to work part-time and offered jobs to partners if it meant he could attract good people to Canberra. Brian should be applauded for facing up to the realities of modern family life and making life a bit easier at a stage where many researchers are on their first mortgage and first child and they need support. No doubt he gets a performance benefit as a result. It's a pity that the research system in Australia makes Brian unusual in this regard - it seems every other sector has discovered we are in a fight for talent, except science.
There is one part of the sector that can very simply make life easier for early career scientists: CRCs. Cooperative Research Centres can offer extended postdoctoral terms; they can headhunt the best and brightest and they can help build the careers of our researchers to maximise the impact they make. Let's not squander that advantage.