After much speculation about its contents, the 2018 budget has been revealed, and it did not disappoint in terms of infrastructure and STEM spending.
The next few years are set to be good ones for infrastructure projects around the country. Infrastructure spending emerged relatively unscathed from the federal government’s 2018 budget announcement, with no explicit cuts but plenty of new spending to the tune of $24.5 billion as part of a 10-year, $75 billion infrastructure package.
This new spending is spread across the states and territories, and the majority of funding will be funnelled into road and rail projects. These include major projects to bring urban and intercity rail networks up to speed, as well as new road networks and highway expansions to make some areas of the country less remote, and to address concerns about congestion in cities like Perth and Sydney.
However, eagle-eyed individuals might notice that infrastructure spending has declined since 2014. Although cash allocations for infrastructure projects appear to be going down, according to Engineers Australia there is another side to this story.
Engineers Australia National Manager of Policy Jonathan Russell stated that while there appears to be declining investment, this represents the government shifting away from purpose grants to state governments and towards more seed money for private corporations to create projects and find investors to support those projects.
An example of this is the Melbourne to Brisbane Inland Rail project, for which the Federal Government committed $593.7 million in equity to the Australian Rail Track Corporation.
“Looking at previous allocations in the budget and looking at them now, we would be hasty in saying that the government is walking away from its infrastructure investment,” Russell said.
He added that while Engineers Australia supports this tactic, the government should be more transparent about its approach in subsequent budgets.
The future of STEM
STEM, according to Science and Technology Australia CEO Kylie Walker, was a standout winner in the 2018 budget announcement.
Several areas will see investment influxes off the back of the reveal, which made major commitments to the country’s technology infrastructure.
This includes increased support for major research organisations such as the Australian Research Council and CSIRO, among others. And $1.9 billion was pledged to support the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap for the next 12 years, starting with $393 million to kick off the Research Infrastructure Investment Strategy.
The two most powerful supercomputing centres in the southern hemisphere will share $140 million for upgrades. The Pawsey Supercomputing Centre in Perth and the National Computational Infrastructure facility at Australian National University perform high-speed calculations to support medical research, mining, nanotechnology, urban planning, construction, transport and energy.
The government also set its sights on boosting Australia’s artificial intelligence and machine learning performance by pledging $29.9 million to this industry, with particular emphasis on the energy, mining and cybersecurity sectors.
But beyond building technical capabilities, this funding will also contribute to the development of standards and an AI ethics framework to identify future opportunities and help us navigate this brave new world.
Biotechnology and medical research could also see growth thanks to a 10-year, $1.3 billion commitment through the Medical Research Future Fund for new projects, with a special focus on those that strengthen the sustainability of the healthcare system and increase collaborations between researchers, healthcare professionals, biomedtech firms, government and the community.
Gender diversity in STEM gained support as well thanks to a four-year, $4.5 million investment in several programs to increase women’s involvement in STEM disciplines. This includes support for a Women in Science strategy, a new Women in STEM Ambassador, and more resources for education to spark an interest in STEM in school-aged girls.
And after months of teasing, the government finally revealed a total of $41 million pledged to support our homegrown space industry and establish a national space agency. Read more about that here.
However, it wasn’t all good news. The 2018 budget included cuts to research and development tax credits for businesses, accompanied by tightened restrictions for eligibility. According to an analysis by PwC, this runs contrary to recommendations made by Chair of Innovation Australia Bill Ferris, Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel and Secretary to the Treasury John Fraser in the 2017 R&D Tax Incentive Review.
Universities were also hit, as funding freezes announced during the Mid-Year Economic Financial Outlook were extended. This “short-term saving will be a loss to future generations”, said STA’s Walker, and it could hamper Australia’s ability to compete internationally.
“Universities will need to find ways to meet growing demand while dealing with stagnant funding in the years to come,” she said.
“As STEM degrees are some of the most expensive to run, we don’t expect universities will have the capacity to increase the number of STEM-skilled graduates.”