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  Science and unis are winners in the budget
Science, innovation and education have been given a historic boost by the Australian government, say commentators, who are surprised given the tough economic environment.

The 2009 Federal Budget unveiled last night has been welcomed by the scientific community, for taking up many of the recommendations of recent government reviews of innovation and higher education.

"This is an historic budget for science, education and innovation, with a record spend in this area representing a 25% increase on last year, the highest annual increase since records began," says Professor Ken Baldwin, President of the Federation of Australian Science and Technological Societies.

"The new funding measures are worth $5.7 billion over four years, including $3.1 billion for science, innovation and research and the balance in education."

Professor John Foster, of the University of Queensland, who was on the panel of the Cutler innovation review, says Australia is still below international average performance in science and research, but the budget investments will help Australia in its recovery from recession.

"It's pretty good. It's a lot better than I expected it would be given the economic circumstances," says Foster.
Funding the full cost of research

Foster says new commitments in the budget make sure university block grants will in future be indexed at the same rate as inflation.

Last year the actual increase in costs to universities was about 3% higher than the indexation they got, says Foster, which has been identified as a major problem for universities in the Cutler review.

"It doesn't sound like much, but when you accumulate that over a decade it is the number one problem," he says.

Foster says another big win is that the government will fund 50% of the costs for research overheads, usually borne by universities.

"That will release a lot of pressure on research programs in universities," he says.
Super Science

Foster also welcomes the government's $1.1 billion Super Science Initiative, which will fund infrastructure to support research in astronomy, climate change, marine and life sciences, biotechnology and nanotechnology.

"That will get things rolling in these frontier areas," he says.

Foster says overall funding for science will be positive, especially because of a huge increase in funding for climate change research, but the national research agency CSIRO may face problems.

He says, while CSIRO is getting a $43 million increase in funding, this does not make up for a drop of $350 million projected due to reductions in funding from private and other non-government players.
A long-term framework

Professor Kurt Lambeck of the Australian Academy of Science also welcomes the budget.

"I think what the budget statement provides is a long term framework for Australian research and development," he says. "I think that's important. It's something we haven't had for a long time."

"I think it will go a long way to repairing what is essentially decades of neglect."

Like Foster, he is pleased with the support for research infrastructure and reforms to university funding, adding the cost of research overheads to date had largely been subsidised from teaching budgets.

"I think we'll see real returns coming out of this in the years ahead," says Lambeck.
Human infrastructure?

But, Lambeck says although the Super Science Initiative will fund 100 post-doctoral fellowships, there is still a critical lack of support for mid-career researchers.

"All the focus is on material infrastructure. The human infrastructure doesn't get a great deal of attention still."

He says support for mid-career researchers is needed to ensure the next generation of university teachers and scientists.

"We do need people in the future who can make effective use of the new state-of-the-art facilities [funded by the Super Science initiative]," says Lambeck.

He says he would also like to see more attention given to support for international scientific collaboration.

The Super Science Initiative includes;


* $504.0 million for biological and biotechnology research facilities including a European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Australia Partner Laboratory; a new National Enabling Technologies Strategy; ANSTO nuclear science facilities; nanotechnology research; and advanced ICT platforms.

* $387.7 million for a new marine research vessel; extensions to the Integrated Marine Observing System network; infrastructure at the Australian Institute of Marine Science; upgrading climate change computing; as well as distributed infrastructure for terrestrial ecosystems, groundwater depletion, sustainable energy and water, and energy use in built environments.

* $160.5 million for a new Australian National Centre of Square Kilometre Array Science in Perth; the Anglo-Australian Observatory; an Australian Space Research program; and a Space Policy Unit.

Other science and technology related budget items include:


* $4.7 billion for a national broadband network.

* $4.5 billion for a Clean Energy Initiative to help increase clean energy generation and new technologies, reduce carbon emissions and support new green-collar jobs. This will include $2.4 billion on low emission coal technologies; $1.6 billion on solar technologies; and $465 million to establish Renewables Australia, which will support leading-edge technology research.

* $560 million to build a network of regional cancer centres.

* A $196.1 million Commonwealth Commercialisation Institute and a new R&D Tax Credit, to encourage venture capital funding of industries such as biotechnology.

* $60 million allocation for a world-class brain research centre at the John Curtin School of Medical Research and $39 million for the Florey Institute for brain research.

* $94.7 million for the Bureau of Meteorology.

* $36.9 million for the Antarctic program.

* $31.1 million for an Australian Climate Change Science Program.

* A four year extension for Australia's ICT Research Centre of Excellence.

* No additional funding for the Co-operative Research Centres program.
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