The Federal Government has released its Budget 2022-23, a roadmap of its spending commitments over the coming years, in advance of a looming Federal election.
But what’s in it? And what does it mean for science?
This year’s budget sees some key investments in science, including $1.3 billion for Australia’s space sector, $83 million for Australia’s circular waste economy, $37.4 million for research translation at CSIRO, as well as funding for mRNA manufacturing (critical to COVID-19 vaccines), medical research and extra funds for the University Research Commercialisation Fund.
The budget also includes an additional $6 billion for the government’s COVID-19 response, including a winter response plan.
But John Shine, president of the Australian Academy of Science, says the budget falls short of the kind of investment he’d like to see, not least because Australia lags behind the rest of the world in science investment.
“Despite one-off funding for research and science during the pandemic, in 2021 the Australian Government’s investment in science was 0.56% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – which is lower than comparable nations, and less than R&D investment in 2010,” he says.
“This at a time when science is at the heart of every major issue being faced by our nation: the pandemic response; national security; mitigating and adapting to climate change; and recovering from flood and other extreme events.”w
Shane Keating, senior lecturer at the School of Mathematics and Statistics, UNSW Sydney, agrees, though he welcomes increased space commitments.
“Australia is still playing catch-up with the rest of the world in developing capability in space,” Keating says. “Space-based observations of our lands, rivers and coasts have an economic benefit of more than $5 billion per year. The lack of sovereign capability in space represents a critical risk to Australia’s economy, safety, and national security.”
The food and fuel crisis and the cost of living
The government has made a number of cost-of-living commitments in light of soaring food and fuel prices as a consequence of the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The Feds have promised a $420 million cost-of-living tax offset for low and middle-income earners, and a $250 cost-of-living payment for pensioners, welfare recipients, veterans and concession card holders. The petrol and diesel excise will be halved for six months, and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Schedule (PBS) Safety Net threshold will be reduced to lower out-of-pocket costs for medicines.
Energy and the environment
The 2022 budget includes an extra $1 billion for the Great Barrier Reef, as well as a $1.3 billion allocation for developing hydrogen fuel, carbon-capture and storage technology, and low-emission steel.
But in fact the Morrison government plans to cut climate spending if returned to power at the next election, slashing funding for clean energy agencies and other climate initiatives by 35% over the next four years.
Moreover, there’s no new direct funding in the budget for renewable energy generation projects, or for electric vehicles.
While hydrogen fuel can be produced and burned cleanly, experts note that hydrogen will not be the only, nor the most important, fuel of the future; renewable electricity generation is critical if we’re to move away from coal and gas reliance.
“We welcome funding for green energy infrastructure and expanding the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) workforce,” says Kylie Walker, CEO of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE).
“However, this budget doesn’t represent a comprehensive and evidence-based investment to decarbonise, or develop the essential foundational skills required for the aspirational technology-forward economy the government has envisaged.
“As Australia seeks to transform to a net-zero emissions economy and evolve traditional industries, applied science is fundamental to actualising the ideas, technologies, systems and processes needed.
“The $12 billion investment in roads is a missed opportunity to fast-track electrification of the transport system and achieve Australia’s emission reduction commitment.”
Gail Broadbent, a researcher at the Digital Grid Futures Institute at UNSW Sydney, agrees.
“The Australian government has promised it will deliver net-zero emissions by 2050 for the road transport sector,” Broadbent says. “Unless there is a considerable increase in spending on infrastructure to enable the electrification of road transport, our recent research has demonstrated that promise could not be achieved by 2050.”