The main benefit of political stability, and the portfolio stability that comes from it, is continuity of policy and program funding. Tweaks to program and/or funding changes can be managed if there is a clear strategic vision over multiple electoral and Budget cycles that is reinforced and clearly communicated. Long term planning allows research institutions and their ecosystems to develop projects, allocate funding, and deliver translational outcomes that create value. It allows time for transparent evaluation of program outcomes and ROI.
The 2019-2020 Federal Budget tries hard to satisfy everyone, recognising that Tony Abbott, Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison and their respective Treasurers and Ministers have had very different ideas about the role of science and innovation in building a world competitive economy. Programs are started, stopped, refunded, moulded, squeezed or defunded at will. The program range on offer has never been disciplined into a coherent strategic logic defined by a clear vision and a set of enduring implementation principles that anyone can understand. This challenge is bigger than a single Budget.
A supplicant frenzy
In a policy free zone, it is a free-for-all. Universities, CSIRO, ANSTO, research institutions, dark matter advocates, anyone with a ticket to play ends up knocking on the Ministerial door for a sub to keep something going, or to jumpstart a ‘world breakthrough’ in something or other.
The supplicant is not always to blame. Only 20% of competitive grant applicants secure funding. Most grant funding goes to Professors with a list of cited publications longer than your inside leg and to research institutions with pedigree and political pull. Securing industry funding has an even lower success rate because commercial benefits are ill-defined or uncertain. Industry itself feels better if Government at least partly subsidises their projects and shares the risk of failure. When Government funding is available, why take a risk?
What is a Minister to do?
Selecting winners from supplicants is never easy. In a policy free getup, every supplicant looks worthy, has a good pitch, and a bundle of high-profile references. A Minister never wants to offend anyone or make a zero-sum choice unless he or she is obliged to, for example in a leadership spill. It is less offensive to offer something to everyone by trimming unspent budgets or forward estimates which, after all, are only spending promises not spent funds. Not even the recipients of block funding can be too annoyed at losing part of indexed grant funding over the forward estimates. They were lucky to have indexation reintroduced in the 2018-2019 Budget.
There are benefits!
Like every untidiness, policy freedom has its benefits. Universities are getting used to growing commercial revenues by partnering with industry rather than relying on Government funding. Research institutions are shifting weight to this focus. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Everyone walks away with something, or a bit less of something they might get next year if the Coalition wins the May Election, or something else if Labor wins. Complaining now will look like sour grapes. The science and innovation Budget 2019-20 has certainly done its job until June. What more could be asked of it? Yes Minister.