Science’s big budget chance

The government should seize on pandemic-driven community support for science and establish a $2.4bn fund to translate research into practical applications

“With the crucial role of science front and centre in the public mind, it’s time to secure the science capabilities we need to face the crisis after COVID – and the ones after that,” says Misha Schubert from peak-lobby Science and Technology Australia.

STA’s budget submission says such a commercialisation fund, “would drive deeper collaboration between universities and business, create new local jobs, and boost sovereign capability.”

“As we come out of the pandemic, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enable science and technology to boost our economy, secure Australia’s intellectual property rights, and prepare us for whatever crisis comes next. A research translation fund would do all of this and more.”

STA points to the Abbott Government established, Medical Research Future Fund which has reached its $20bn target, as a successful precedent. The lobby suggests funding a much more modest science version either from savings to the Research and Development Tax Incentive or via an endowment.

It’s a proposal that may suit the budget times. The government kicked $1bn into university research last year, to compensate institutions for the collapse in income from international student fees – former education minister Dan Tehan was a big supporter of research. But it will not be enough to keep labs open until or if, the internationals come back. And so university lobbies and now a peak research organisation, are asking for more research money.

Which could be an opportunity for the government. Creating a commercial-focused research fund would make a plausible case for the government to claim to be supporting universities, without actually increasing their overall funding. There is no need for an political microscope to notice that universities in general are not especially popular with all coalition MPs.

There was a hint a translation fund come happen in last year’s budget, $5.8m for scoping a University Research Commercialisation Scheme, “to better translate and commercialise university research outputs.”