There is little doubt that 2015 is going to be an interesting year for Science.
The National Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda has been released with priority Industry Growth Centres identified and a strong focus on maximising collaboration between industry and the research sector, and growing commercial returns from research. The CRC Program Review reports back in early 2015 with recommendations arising from that as well as the input to the Boosting Commercial Returns from Research Consultation likely to be reflected in the May Budget.
While getting science and industry working more closely together and creating incentives for commercialisation provide the potential for significant economic returns and jobs, it’s critical that Government maintains a balance between commercialisation incentives and other performance indicators in universities to protect the integrity of our university system. It’s also important that while the Government focuses on maximising linkages between industry and researchers and incentivising applied/industry-driven research, it’s not at the expense of publicly-funded blue skies/curiosity-driven research which can yield unanticipated commercial savings and gains.
Changes to education remain central to the Abbott Government’s policy agenda with the most recent development being the delay of the more controversial elements of its higher education reforms to secure support from Senate cross-benchers to allow fee deregulation.
Figures released by Universities Australia show that the cuts to funding in the form of fee deregulation announced in the Budget are likely to result in an increase in tuition fees for STEM students of 58 per cent. This compares to an average increase in tuition fees across disciplines of around 26 per cent. It is of course a major concern that the proposed changes may act as a disincentive to future STEM students – and a possible threat to ensuring a strong pipeline of scientists to form the basis of our STEM workforce. A committed, coordinated and strategic approach to investing in and incentivising STEM education is critical for Australia as we look to our future as a modern knowledge-based economy.
These proposed changes sit alongside a likely revamp of the Higher Education Block Grant Scheme to realign it with the push for greater industry/research sector collaboration. The Government’s Working Group on Funding Research Infrastructure reports back in May (post-Budget) and the Higher Education Infrastructure Working Group – which is looking at new ways to fund general university infrastructure – reports back in August. Following the extra $150 million found to keep the.National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy going in 2014 and expiring in 2016, we may also get some understanding of how the strategy will be funded into the future. The fate of the $20 billion Medical Research Future Fund in the face of the proposed Medicare co-payments not proceeding in their original form is not clear.
The Abbott Government’s Inquiry into Australia’s Innovation System also reports back in early August – just in time for Science Week which this year runs from 15-23 August.
Industry Minister Ian Macfarlane now has Science formally included as part of his title and the PM’s Commonwealth Science Council is of course in place. At the same time though, Professor Ian Chubb’s tenure as Chief Scientist expires at the end of May with no confirmation yet on any ongoing role he may have or who might be in line to replace him.
All this against a backdrop of the Harper Competition Law Review which reports back mid-March and the Productivity Commission Inquiry into Workplace Relations Laws reporting back in November – together likely to result in the Government proposing broadranging changes to the workplace relations system in the name of business flexibility and improved competitiveness.
Professional Scientists Australia will keep members up-to-date on developments throughout 2015 and continue to ensure our Professional Scientist members are well-placed to take advantage of future opportunities.
Together we need to ensure decision-makers understand the importance of positioning Australia for a future as a science and innovation leader without losing sight of the need for a stable sustainable approach to research funding, evidence-based policy development, and a commitment to investing not only in STEM education to attract the future generation of scientists but also the existing STEM workforce which drives industry innovation. This is the only way to improve Australia’s global competitiveness, grow our economy and successfully transition to a knowledge-based economy in 2015 and beyond.
President, Professional Scientists Australia