Australian Federal Budget 2015 – Expert reaction

Australia’s Federal Government has delivered the latest federal budget, which includes funding top-ups and cuts to various scientific programmes.

3598113750_17f79faeac_oA summary of the impact on science, compiled by the Australian Academy of Science, can be viewed below – along with expert reaction collected by our colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre on how the budget will impact research, health and science.

Summary of major Federal Budget announcements:

Australian Consensus Centre:  $4.0 million over four years from 2014-15 to help establish the Australian Consensus.

NCRIS:  The Government will provide $150.0 million in 2016-17. $150 million had already been allocated for 2015-16.

University research block grants:  The Sustainable Research Excellence component of the university block grant will be cut by $260 million over the forward estimates, and by $150.0 million in 2016-17 alone.

Antarctic science: $9.4 million in 2015-16 to maintain functions that support Australia’s presence in Antarctica.

Tropical health: $15.3 million over four years to invest in research into exotic disease threats to Australia and the region.

Australian Synchrotron: $20.5 million in 2016-17 to ANSTO to meet part of the $30.0 million cost of operating the Australian Synchrotron in 2016-17.

ANSTO: $22.3 million over three years from 2015-16 to able ANSTO to rationalise existing radioactive waste.

Cooperative Research Centres: There was no announcement on the future of the program which is currently under review. A further $26.8 million has been cut from the program over the four years from 2015-16.

Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme: Savings of $27.3 million over five years from 2014-15 from the programme.

Industry grant programmes: Further savings of $31.7 million from commercialisation, enterprise connection and the industry innovation precincts. These programs were already closed to new applicants.

Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF): The Government continues with plans to establish a $20 billion fund, the capital of which will be reserved and investment returns used to fund research. The first payment from the fund will occur in $10 million in 2015-16, with more than $400 million expected to be provided to researchers over the forward estimates.

Square Kilometre Array Radio Telescope: No announcement, funding set to end at the end of 2015/16.

Defence Science Technology Organisation: There is no significant change until 2017-18 when there will be a reduction of $22,783 million.

Australian Astronomical Observatory: Slight reduction in funding over the forward estimates.

Australia-China/India Fund: These funds will continue over the forward estimate period.

CSIRO, ARC, NHMRC, Rural Research and Development Corporations, AIMS, Geoscience Australia: No significant change in the forward estimates.


Commentary from Australian experts:

Professor Andrew Holmes AM, President of the Australian Academy of Science, comments:

“Australia needs long-term investment in science to develop its economy and to maintain our living standards in the future. However, as last year’s reduction to Australian science funding continues to be felt, this Budget brings more bad news with new cuts to science and research programs.

“It is great that NCRIS facilities will continue to be supported for the next two years but cutting block grants to researchers in universities is like taking engines off the jumbo jet. You need to fund the scientists as well as the tools they need to do their work, it can’t be one or the other. NCRIS needs a long-term sustainable funding model.

“It appears that Future Fellowships, a program that provides Australia with our future scientists, has been spared. We should end the uncertainty for these young scientists and announce the next round of Fellowships.”

Comments from Professor Doug Hilton, President of the Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes (AAMRI), as part of the Association’s official statement:

Association of Australian Medical Research Institutes President, Professor Doug Hilton, said the health and medical research sector was delighted to learn the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) would be legislated and operational by 1 August 2015, soon delivering its first disbursement of $10 million.

“Without doubt, the MRFF was the highlight of last year’s budget, especially for the health and medical research sector, and while it has taken a year to get to this point, we are very pleased that the government has stood by this nation-changing policy,” Professor Hilton said.

“This visionary fund couldn’t come at a better time, delivering renewed confidence to the health and medical research sector, knowing that within a decade we will have a doubling of funding for medical research via a safe-guarded future fund, while giving some immediate relief through the $10 million of disbursements in 2015-16, and a further $390 million to come in the next four years.”

Professor Hilton said that health and medical research supported by the MRFF would not only improve life expectancy and quality of life for Australians, it would also deliver financial returns to the nation.

“With an ageing population and more than seven million Australians already living with chronic illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, cancer and mental health issues, we cannot afford not to invest in health and medical research to find new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent these debilitating diseases,” he said.

“Every dollar invested in health and medical research generates more than two dollars in health and productivity gains by reducing the burden of disease on the health system and productivity, and through the creation of new innovative businesses and jobs in the health industry.”

The budget also included $15.3 million over four years to tropical health research through the Northern Australian Growth Plan, including $8.5 million for the Australian Tropical Medicine Commercialisation Grants Programme and $6.8 million for collaborative research projects in tropical diseases such as dengue, malaria, Hendra virus and tuberculosis.

“This $15.3 million investment will boost Australia’s research capacity in this increasingly important area for Australia’s health, bring new treatments and diagnostics to market for those afflicted by tropical diseases here and in neighbouring countries, and boost our economy,” Professor Hilton said.

Michael Moore, Chief Executive Officer of the Public Health Association of Australia, comments:

“Last year’s Budget foreshadowed $197.1M in cuts to the ‘Health Flexible Funds’ over 3 years. This year, that figure has turned into $500M worth of cuts. There is still no clarity in relation to how these savings are to be achieved. Among the 16 Flexible Funds apparently to be affected are those supporting the provision of essential services in rural, regional and remote Australia; working to Close the Gap in health outcomes for Indigenous Australians; managing vital responses to communicable diseases; and delivering substance use treatment services around the country. Obviously it’s of great concern to all the services and organisations potentially affected.

“Other programs to be subjected to cuts include: health assessments for children; the Child Dental Benefits Schedule (with cuts of $125M to be achieved by freezing indexation); cuts to scholarship programs; and a range of others. On top of the $1.7 billion in cuts to funded programs, a further $96 million in internal Departmental cuts will be applied over the forward estimates. So the cuts to service delivery and community capacity will be mirrored by reduced capacity within the Department itself.

“These drastic cuts to funding for NGOs in the Health portfolio will only lead to worse public health outcomes and increasing expenditure on the acute care sector over time. Support for preventive health care and timely interventions reduces the likelihood of expensive hospitalisation and makes good economic sense. Services provided by the community sector are integral to the achievement of key health and economic goals.

“Maintaining funding to the NGO sector within the Health portfolio is vital to achieving key targets for Closing the Gap in health outcomes for Indigenous Australians. Likewise, alcohol and other drug services would be severely impacted by any funding cuts. On the one hand, the Government has announced that $20 million will be spent over two years on a community awareness campaign as part of the National Ice Action Strategy. On the other hand, funding to the services helping individuals, families and communities to address addiction are now up for the chop. To think that funding for these vital services is currently under threat beggars belief.

“If these drastic cuts go ahead it could decimate NGO sector responses to many of the key challenges in public health and leave Australian families and communities without the support they need.

“What adds insult to injury is the lack of transparency around these measures. Organisations attending this year’s Health Budget Lock-Up received only a press release on arrival that made no mention of any cuts to funding. The Government can’t hide the impact of this slash-and-burn approach. Unfortunately Australians will find out soon enough the impact of these measures.”

Conor King, Executive Director of Innovative Research Universities (IRU), comments:

“IRU supports the Government’s determination to continue with its plan for major reform of higher education. This requires a major change in approach to develop a package that can gain the needed parliamentary support. This will not be possible for introduction in 2016.

“The forward estimates provide a hypothetical base against which to construct a new approach. We need the Government to support the constructive discussions required to find a viable way ahead.

“The budget is otherwise a holding pattern, waiting on the resolution of the reform impasse.

“The need to resolve national research infrastructure drifts a further two years with the confirmation of annual funding for National Research Collaborative Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) to support current facilities through to 2017. The funding does not address the ever growing need for significant medium term certainty of investment that ends the annual frenzy to keep the facilities functioning.

“Further the NCRIS funds have come from Sustainable Research Excellence (SRE), reducing university level capacity to support researchers. The Government is showing a worrying short term willingness to whittle away at research, retaining plans to reduce funding for research students and continuing Future Fellows via internal reallocation of ARC funds. Meanwhile the big issues remain: expanding research block grants, the fundamental basis for our research effort, and growth in the major competitive grant programs in line with the increasing number of valuable projects.

“The Budget reveals little of the Government’s plans to strengthen industry driven research. If anything the savings from the recently created Entrepreneurs Infrastructure Programme go in the opposite direction. IRU looks forward to Mr Macfarlane and Mr Pyne outlining a way ahead.

“The budget also has many particular decisions affecting universities.

  • The IRU leads universities in responding to the need to educate Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in the same way as all Australians and to build up understanding of Indigenous Knowledges across university activities. The Government’s Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) has so far been a step backwards, forcing universities to defend one complicated scheme to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students rather than reforming them. The decision not to renew Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Higher Education Advisory Council (ATSIHEAC) is consistent with having a national approach as IAS – an approach that so far has not found a place for higher education, research and knowledges.
  • The gain from the transformation of the Office of Learning and Teaching into a university led body is not clear, with problems of conflict of interest for which ever group oversees it, unless all universities together do so.
  • HELP recovery from graduates living internationally is a useful tightening of responsibility to repay HELP when income is earned.
  • The reduction in HEPP, for the preservation of Indigenous artefacts, links two unrelated needs. The future direction for HEPP is one important issue for resolution.
  • Increases in charges to Aged Care regulator point to constant pressure for those regulated to pay for the benefit which has implications for universities and TEQSA.”

Comments as part of a statement from the Australian Medical Association:

AMA President Associate Professor Brian Owler said tonight that the modest positive measures in the 2015 Health Budget failed to overcome the lingering profound negative effects of the 2014 Budget.

A/Prof Owler said the AMA was surprised and disappointed that the review of the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) – with the clear inference that this would be a Budget savings exercise – was the centrepiece of the 2015 Health Budget.

“The GP co-payment may be gone, but the health system is still struggling with the impact of the freeze on Medicare patient rebates,” A Prof Owler said.

“There is nothing in tonight’s Health Budget to indicate that the Government will restore public hospital funding, which was savagely cut in last year’s Budget.

“Instead, we were told tonight by the Secretary of the Department of Health that the MBS review would build on considerable savings already made by MBS review processes.

“The MBS exists to provide patient rebates and access to services.

“This move is against the Government’s assurances that the MBS review was not about Budget savings.”

A/Prof Owler said the AMA would be seeking urgent clarification from the Health Minister and Prime Minister about the objectives of the MBS review.

A/Prof Owler said the AMA was also concerned about the apparent lack of preventive health measures and funding in the Budget.

The AMA welcomes a range of other measures, including:

  • e-health changes, including the myHealth Record, particularly the opt-out component;
  • mental health plan;
  • support for the National Critical Care and Trauma Response Centre;
  • funding for Aboriginal Community Controlled health organisations;
  • organ donation programs; and
  • the Ice Action strategy.

A/Prof Owler said it was evident tonight that the health sector was not impressed with the withholding of Budget detail in the Health Budget lock-up.

“It was insulting to have the leaders of Australia’s health organisations locked in a room with no Budget detail,” A/Prof Owler said.

The AMA will make a more detailed response when full details of the health Budget are made available.