Science research spared the axe

7 May 2015

The Australian, 7 May 2015

By Sarah Martin

Science research infrastructure that was threatened by the government's controversial higher education reforms will receive a $300 million lifeline in next week's budget.

The Australian can reveal that funding for the National Collaborative and Research Infrastructure Strategy will be given a two-year reprieve, with funding until 2017.

Education Minister Christopher Pyne faced fierce lobbying from industry and academia last year when he threatened to end the program if the higher education reform package was rejected by the Senate.

In a last-ditch attempt to win over the crossbench, Mr Pyne said he would "fix" the legislation and remove $150m in NCRIS cuts from the bill and a proposed 20 per cent cut to course subsidies.

The move guaranteed the scheme's operation for another 12 months and prevented the loss of up to 1700 jobs supported by NCRIS's 27 active projects.

The total commitment of $300m now allocated to the strategy is expected to be offset by cuts to other higher education research grants, most likely so-called "block" funding.

However, it is understood that funding for the grants program will continue to grow in value each year over the forward estimates.

A decision on long-term funding for NCRIS will be made after a review into research infrastructure being led by business leader Philip Clark and Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, due to report mid-year.

As revealed in The Australian on Monday, the government will bank about $3 billion in savings next week by continuing to budget for the 20 per cent cut, along with about $1bn in efficiency dividends, both of which have been blocked by the Senate.

Universities Australia chief executive Belinda Robinson said she was concerned the government would seek to recover funding for NCRIS through grants used to fund research costs and training.

The cost of research block grants is about $1.8bn a year, with $7.3bn allocated over four years.

"Given the funding cuts already made in recent years to research by governments, we don't imagine the government would seriously consider further eroding Australia's critical research capability," Ms Robinson said.

Vicki Thomson, chief executive of the Group of Eight organisation, representing the nation's most research-intensive universities, said she understood the government would pursue a "zero-sum game" to offset any new spending. "If they cut research bulk grants that would be a concern," she said.

While NCRIS will receive a reprieve from Mr Pyne, the government is not expected to increase funding to the Future Fellows program for mid-career researchers, which remains tied to savings measures contained in the Higher Education Reform Bill.

The government has said it will reintroduce the bill to deregulate university fees in the winter sitting of parliament, and will deal with the 20 per cent cuts to course funding in separate legislation.

Opposition higher education spokesman Kim Carr called for more investment in research and innovation in the budget.