Science in the 2018 Federal Budget
The Federal Government has announced funding for $3.7 billion worth of projects in science, technology, health and research over the next 12 years.
A space agency, genomic medicine, supercomputers, and Women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) are just a few examples of the areas that will be supported by the 2018 Federal Budget.
Although the Budget appears to be based on a long term strategy, there are two areas in particular which may not have been given full capacity to truly thrive: The Australian space agency, and Women in STEM.
These are two of the top five scientific areas to receive funding in the 2018 Budget.
1. The Australian Space Agency- $26m in seed funding, and $15m for space investment fund
A dedicated national space agency has been proposed and rejected several times since the first launch of Britain’s Skylar sounding rocket program from Woomera, SA, in 1957.
Australia is uniquely qualified to assist with space exploration and astrophysics because it points at the centre of our galaxy, the Milky Way, and has extensive areas with little or no light pollution.
This is why Siding Springs Observatory and the Parkes Radio Telescope play such important roles in studying the observable universe.
The global space industry is worth $420 billion a year. At present, Australia has captured just 0.37% of that market.
Other countries have seen a return of five to ten times what was invested in their space agencies. Australia stands to gain considerable revenue by taking a more active role in this lucrative global market.
2. Women in STEM- $4.5m invested over four years in projects and programmes encouraging more women and school girls to pursue STEM education and careers
The majority of this funding, $3m of it, will be spent on hiring an Ambassador for Women in STEM, who will raise awareness, advocate for gender equity and drive change.
In Australia, the proportion of women in STEM roles is low, forming 20% of engineers, and 17% of STEM professors at Australian Universities.
The 2018 Budget aims to change this, spending the remaining $1.5m on a decadal plan for women and girls in science from the Academy of Science, and toolkits which will assist teachers and parents in encouraging school girls to continue STEM subjects.
The important questions
1. Is $41m over four years for a space agency enough?
In 1987, the Keating Labor government funded The Australian Space Office (ASO) with a similar budget. It was closed down in 1996 by the Howard Coalition, because it could not deliver on the goals set by the government, due to inadequate funding.
2. Will there be enough STEM graduates?
STEM graduates are a vital resource required for a space agency to work, and for the Women in STEM drive to be successful.
The freeze on commonwealth funded undergraduate places is set to continue, cutting $2.2b out of the sector, and making universities more reliant on international student places.
Graduates will also have to start repaying their HELP debts sooner, with the repayment threshold lowered to $45,000.
This could threaten the graduate rates of STEM subjects, the very people needed to make the new Australian space agency viable in the long term as researchers, mathematicians, programmers, and engineers.
Without female STEM graduates, the Women in STEM programmes targeting school aged girls become moot.
3. Are these programmes funded for long enough?
The four year funding term leaves both the space agency and the Women in STEM programme open to defunding by the following government, just like the ASO.
Other areas in science, such as funding for research infrastructure, are to receive 12 years of funding, which will assist Australia to be a world leader in innovation and research long after a new government is voted in.
Needless to say, Orangepeel will be watching the progress of the Australian Space Agency and Women in STEM Ambassador closely and with great interest.