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SYDNEY—A high-level advisory panel has recommended that Australia reorganize and spend more on its system of public funding for university-level research. The government has not yet responded to the report, which is shaping up as a test of the political influence of the nation's university and research communities. The Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC), which reports to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, said in its report that research at Australian universities is hampered by limi

By | April 20, 1987

SYDNEY—A high-level advisory panel has recommended that Australia reorganize and spend more on its system of public funding for university-level research. The government has not yet responded to the report, which is shaping up as a test of the political influence of the nation's university and research communities.

The Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC), which reports to Prime Minister Bob Hawke, said in its report that research at Australian universities is hampered by limitations on flexibility, diffusion of effort and lack of discretionary funding. As a partial solution, it recommends the creation of an Australian Research Council, which would combine the Australian Research Grants Scheme (ARGS) and four smaller government funding schemes.

The agencies that would be combined in the new body now spend about $50 million Australian ($35 million U.S.). ASTEC proposed an annual research council budget of $93 million in current dollars, to be obtained by boosting spending by $20 million in 1987-88 and adding annual increments of $10 million to $15 million in each of the next three years.

The report by ASTEC, an advisory group of 13 part-time advisers from academia, industry and labor unions, said spending on university research in Australia totaled $666 million in 1984, about one-third of the national R&D total. The greater part of this money goes for salaries; in real terms, the figure has shown virtually no growth during the past eight years.

ASTEC also points a critical finger at the small share—16 percent—of government funds to universities that go specifically to support research. University research funds also must be spread thin; the ARGS, for example, has $32 million this year to disburse among 1,451 projects in all academic disciplines.

Biologist Ralph Slatyer, chairman of ASTEC, expressed confidence that the proposed funding increase will be approved, despite a proposal due next month to reduce government spending overall.

"In an election year, the establishment of a long-term research strategy would reflect well on the government," Slatyer said. "There is hardy anything more important for the nation than this proposal."

Behind the scenes, the higher education bureaucracy in Canberra is maneuvering to retain the small fraction of its funds that would go to the research council. The Department of Education is understood to be lobbying for the council to be placed under its wing, rather than under the Department of Science.

Pockley has covered science policy in Australia since 1964.

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