SKA bid wins $40.2m from Budget

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SKA bid wins $40.2m from Budget
Artist's impression of the SKA dishes. Credit: SPDO/TDP/DRAO/Swinburne Astronomy Productions.

Provisions and cuts for Australian research.

Last night’s Federal Budget included $40.2 million over four years for the Australia-New Zealand bid to host the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA).

The radioastronomy project involved 20 countries that would spend a total of 1.5 billion Euros ($2.1 billion) to establish a 3,000-dish array by 2024.

Australia would shoulder 10 percent of the cost if selected to host the site. Local bid director Brian Boyle was unaware of any such monetary commitment in the competing Southern African bid.

Budget 2011-12 papers indicated the Government would provide $6.3 million to support “promotion and diplomatic efforts, development of a site proposal, and negotiation with stakeholders”.

If successful, the Government promised to provide $33.9 million for pre-construction design and development work over four years. SKA construction would officially commence in 2016.

Boyle said last night’s commitment was in line with anzSKA’s offer to pay a “site premium” of between 25 and 30 percent of the 90 million Euro ($120 million) pre-construction phase.

“To date, the vast majority of funding has been from the Government,” he told iTnews, noting that organisers still hoped to attract private sector funds.

Innovation Minister Kim Carr said Australia was an “ideal candidate to host the SKA”, highlighting the availability of NBN fibre connectivity, large tracts of radio-quiet land, and scientific and technological expertise.

Southern Africa offered 12.5 million hectares of radio-quiet land, affordable land, labour and services, and “basic infrastructure of roads, electricity and communication”.

If the Australia-New Zealand bid is unsuccessful, funds will be returned to the Consolidated Revenue Fund, which had a balance of $934 million this financial year.

“If the bid is not successful ... the Government will consider an alternative proposal to be a non-host partner in the pre-construction phase,” Senator Carr told iTnews today.

The project was expected to generate local opportunities in computing, renewable energy and communications. Australian researchers expected a third of SKA funds to be spent on ICT.

Of the $33.9 million to be spent on pre-construction, Senator Carr said approximately $9.8 million would go to the international SKA Project Office.

The remaining $24.3 million was intended for “pre-construction work packages to be undertaken by Australian institutions and industry”.

Read on to Page 2 for budget highlights from the Innovation, Industry, Science and Research portfolio.

More cash for science outreach, CSIRO, and broadband research

The Gillard Government’s focus on national broadband infrastructure was apparent in a 60 percent rise in spending on “transport, telecommunication and other infrastructure” research in 2010-11.

This area would account for $345 million (3.7 percent) of Australia’s research spend in 2011-12, compared to $308.2 million (3.4 percent) this year, and $193 million (2.3 percent) the year prior.

Last night’s Budget also committed $21 million over three years on an ‘Inspiring Australia’ program to promote scientific careers, and a separate $3 billion over four years to the CSIRO.

Of that $3 billion, $14.7 million would go towards the research organisation’s Tasmanian ICT Centre, which would receive a further $5.3 million in 2015-16 to meet the Government’s April 2011 pledge of $20 million.

The CSIRO said last night that it was finalising a new Strategic Plan for the 2011-15 period, which would be launched in July.

According to its 2007-11 plan (pdf), the upcoming four-year period marked the end of a 15-year journey to make the CSIRO “more relevant and of greater benefit to Australian society” and would be characterised by the “accelerated delivery of national benefits”.

Over the next four years, the CSIRO expected to spend: $2.4 billion on its National Research Flagships; $2.38 billion on core research activities; $157 million on science outreach; and $537 million on national research infrastructure.

CSIRO pledged $90.7 million over the period to scholarships and research programs under a ‘Science and Industry Endowment Fund’, which in 2009 received $150 million from the CSIRO’s WLAN licensing program.

“Finding room for this funding in a responsible Budget has been difficult, but it demonstrates the value the Government places on this important institution,” Senator Carr stated, noting that the research organisation earned more than $100 million from annual Government commissions, in addition to the $3 billion pledged.

He expected the CSIRO’s work to focus on: national carbon, water and land use; the digital economy; biosecurity; food security, clean energy, climate change and preventative health.

Collaborative research, SME programs lose funding

The Department of Innovation cut funding from Cooperative Research Centres (CRC), Collaborative Research Networks (CRN), the Enterprise Connect program, LPG Vehicle Scheme and the Green Car Innovation Fund.

Budget 2011-12 documents (pdf) forecast savings of $33.4 million from the CRC program, which commenced in 1991 to link research institutes with public, private or community sector end users.

A further $6.0 million was cut from Enterprise Connect, which offered support and advice to small and medium enterprises, leaving the program with $101.3 million over four years.

Meanwhile, the Department’s CRN program, which aimed to boost the research capabilities of smaller and regional higher education institutions, lost $20.7 million for the 2013-15 period.

Greens MP Adam Bandt said cuts to CRC and CRN, worth $54.1 million in total, highlighted “the need to continue campaigning for science and research funding”.

“It is disappointing that the Cooperative Research Centres and the Collaborative Research Network funding programs have been cut back,” he said.

“It reinforces the need continued advocacy for research and innovation support.”

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