Australian science has been “left behind” as federal funding for research and development sinks to a 30-year low, a leading technology organisation has warned, with concerns that the shortfall is leaving the nation open to economic shocks and shortages of critical items like vaccines.
Department of Industry, Science and Resources officials confirmed that direct government spending on R&D in 2022-23 was only 0.49% of GDP, “the lowest in the last 30 years”.
Dr Katherine Woodthorpe, the president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, said federal research funding had been on a “steady decline” for more than a decade under the Coalition, and called on the Albanese government to “align its actions with its commitments” on science, saying further research could help address the cost of living.
“This not only represents a decline in funding, but a missed opportunity for economic growth and technological advancement,” Woodthorpe said. “We see this as a crucial moment for the government to step up and reverse this decline.”
The Morrison government delivered its 2022-23 budget in March 2022, with the Albanese government releasing its updated 2022-23 budget in October that year, after the May election.
The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering had raised alarm at the research funding in 2022-23 being less than half a per cent of Australia’s GDP. Asked by the Greens senator David Shoebridge about the R&D spending figures in a June budget estimates hearing, industry department officials admitted that funding was down from 2021-22.
In a written response to questions taken on notice, the department confirmed the Australian Academy of Science’s figures that 0.49% of GDP spent on R&D in the 2022-23 financial year was the lowest in the last 30 years, and added that figures for the 2023-24 were still being finalised.
Woodthorpe pointed out that nations like South Korea and Germany spent closer to 3% of GDP on R&D.
“This makes us more vulnerable to economic shocks and more reliant on other countries for essential goods, like vaccines,” she said. “Australia cannot rely on other countries to do our research for us. We need Australians conducting research in Australian conditions to solve Australian problems.
“Australia is being left behind. Australia is already the least complex economy in the developed world and productivity is stagnant.”
Woodthorpe said government funding alone wouldn’t solve the problem. She said the authorities should be looking to create more attractive policy settings and incentives to encourage private investment.
She pointed to a 2022 report from the CSIRO, the chief federal science body, that every dollar invested in R&D returned $3.50 to the wider economy, and that there was a 10% average annual return on investments.
In the report, the CSIRO said attracting investment in Australia “remains a challenge”, citing Bureau of Statistics figures that Australia’s business expenditure on R&D was half the OECD average and that government expenditure in 2022 was at its lowest since 2005.
“Research is the bedrock of future innovations – without adequate funding in fundamental research, Australia risks missing out on breakthroughs like advanced digital technologies and next-generation medical treatments,” Woodthorpe said.
“The cost of living challenges Australia faces today can be alleviated through strategic R&D investments, which are key to long-term economic stability and growth.”
Government sources claimed the funding drop had occurred under the Coalition, and that Labor was looking to address the trend, pointing to R&D benefits they said would flow from policies including the $15bn national reconstruction fund, the $50m Critical Minerals Research and Development Hub, and the $392m industry growth program.
A spokesperson for the science and industry minister, Ed Husic, said the Albanese government was focused on “lifting overall R&D expenditure across all sectors, including government”.
“The government recognises the importance of research and development in powering industry and creating secure long jobs,” they said.
The government also noted that direct federal cash was only one aspect of R&D funding, and that the government was also seeking to foster private investment through tax incentives.
Shoebridge, the Greens’ spokesperson on science, said the government could do more. “Despite all the photo opportunities about STEM and R&D, the funding is steadily being pulled from essential research,” he said. “It’s not good enough to leave this to the private sector and hope for the best, especially when the most recent data on private R&D also shows us going backwards.
“We urgently need publicly funded scientists doing essential research for overall public benefit and a nice social media strategy doesn’t make that happen – funding does.”