Much is made of the “next generation” of nuclear reactors in the debate over nuclear power in Australia. They are touted as safer than older reactors, and suitable for helping Australia move away from fossil fuels.
However, international projections predict nuclear power will stick around beyond 2040. It is forecast to reduce the carbon footprint of other nations, in many cases fuelled by our uranium.
To choose wisely on nuclear power options in future, we ought to stay engaged. Renewables in combination with hydro storage might fail to fully decarbonise the electricity sector, or much more electricity may be needed in future for desalination, emission-free manufacturing, or hydrogen fuel to deal with an escalating climate crisis. Nuclear power might be advantageous then.
The company NuScale in particular promotes a new approach to nuclear power, based on smaller modular reactors that might eventually be prefabricated and shipped to site. Although promoted as “next generation”, this technology has been used in maritime applications for many years. It might be a good choice for Australian submarines.
NuScale has licensed its design in the United States and might be able to demonstrate the first such reactor in 2027 in a research laboratory in Idaho.
These small reactors each produce 60 megawatts of power and require a much smaller initial investment than traditional nuclear power stations. They are also safer, as the entire reactor vessel sits in a large pool of water, so no active cooling is needed once the reactor is switched off.
However the technical, operational and economic feasibility of making and maintaining modular reactors is completely untested.
Looking ahead: Generation IV reactors and thorium
If Australia decided to build a nuclear power station, it would take decades to complete. So we might also choose one of several other new reactor concepts, labelled Generation IV. Some of those designs are expected to become technology-ready after 2030.
Generation IV reactors can be divided into thermal reactors and fast breeders.
Thermal reactors are quite similar to conventional Generation III light water reactors.
However, some will use molten salts or helium gas as coolant instead of water, which makes makes hydrogen explosions – as occurred at Fukushima – impossible.
Some of these new reactor designs can operate at higher temperatures and over a larger temperature range without having to sustain the drastic pressures necessary in conventional designs. This improves effectiveness and safety.
Fast breeder reactors require fuel that contains more fissile uranium, and they can also create plutonium. This plutonium might eventually support a sustainable nuclear fuel cycle. They also use the uranium fuel more efficiently, and generate less radioactive waste.
However, the enriched fuel and capacity to produce plutonium means that fast breeders are more closely linked to nuclear weapons. Fast reactors thus do not fit well with Australia’s international and strategic outlook.
Breeding fuel from thorium
An alternative to using conventional uranium fuel is thorium, which is far less useful for nuclear weapons. Thorium can be converted in a nuclear reactor to a different type of uranium fuel (U-233).
The idea of using this for nuclear power was raised as early as 1950, but development in the US largely ceased in the 1970s. Breeding fuel from thorium could in principle be sustained for thousands of years. Plenty of thorium is already available in mining tailings.
Thorium reactors have not been pursued because the conventional uranium fuel cycle is so well established. The separation of U-233 from the thorium has therefore not been demonstrated in a commercial setting.
India is working on establishing a thorium fuel cycle due to its lack of domestic uranium deposits, and China is developing a thorium research reactor.
To choose wisely on nuclear power and the right technology in future, we can stay engaged by:
realising a much-needed national facility to store waste from our nuclear medicine
making our uranium exports competitive again
driving the navy’s submarines with nuclear power, and
possibly reconsidering the business case for a commercial spent fuel repository.
Australia has already joined the international Generation IV nuclear forum, a good first step to foster cooperation on nuclear technology research and stay in touch with reactor developments.
Australia could deepen such research involvement by, for example, developing engineering expertise on thermal Generation IV reactors here. Such forward-looking engagement with nuclear power might pave a structured way for the commercial use of nuclear power later, if it is indeed needed.
Heiko Timmers, Associate Professor of Physics, School of Science, UNSW Canberra, UNSW
Yet, UTS has been aware of concerns about its collaboration with CETC for two years. When I met with two of the university’s deputy vice chancellors in 2017 to ask them about their work with CETC, they dismissed the concerns.
According to a report for the Jamestown Foundation, CETC openly declares that its purpose is “leveraging civilian electronics for the gain of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).” Similar concerns had been raised about CETC’s military links and its work with the CSIRO.
Alex Joske, now an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and I had also uncovered a pattern of widespread research collaborations between academics at Australian universities and Chinese scientists and corporations connected to China’s armed forces and security services.
Along with UTS, ANU and UNSW are the most heavily invested. Some of the collaborations have been partly funded by the Australian Research Council. Some of our research was published in June and October 2017.
Some universities challenged over their associations have reacted defensively. Responding to a story questioning the wisdom of UNSW’s huge commitment to a China-funded “Torch Technology Park”, DVC Brian Boyle dismissed the evidence and suggested the criticisms were motivated by xenophobia.
When UTS teamed up with CETC in 2016 to collaborate on research projects worth A$10 million in its CETC Research Institute on Smart Cities, CETC was already working with the Chinese state to improve the world’s most comprehensive and oppressive system of surveillance and control of its citizens.
CETC is upfront about its Smart Cities work, saying it includes “public security early warning preventative and supervisory abilities” and “cyberspace control abilities.” A report by the official Xinhua news agency in 2016 noted that CETC’s work on smart cities “integrates and connects civilian-military dual-use technologies.”
When asked about their collaborations with Chinese experts in military and security technology, universities have typically responded that all of their research proposals comply with the Defence Trade Controls Act, which restricts the export of technologies, including IP, deemed sensitive.
They were able to tick the right boxes on the relevant forms because it was possible to describe the planned research as “civilian.” But even well-informed amateurs know that the traditional distinction between civilian and military research no longer applies because major civilian technologies, like big data, satellite navigation and facial recognition technology, are used in modern weapons systems and citizen surveillance.
UNSW scientists have collaborated with experts from the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), a top military research centre, on China’s Beidou satellite system, which has many civilian as well as military uses, including tracking the movements of people and guiding missiles.
Joske found that some two dozen NUDT-linked researchers have passed through UNSW as visiting scholars or PhD students in the last decade. A further 14 have passed through ANU. Some have backgrounds working on classified Chinese defence projects.
Having visited and studied at Australian institutions, these researchers, who hold rank in the People’s Liberation Army, return to China with deep international networks, advanced training, and access to research that is yet to be classified. In many cases, a clear connection can be drawn between the work that PLA personnel have done in Australia and specific projects they undertake for the Chinese military.
The same can be said for companies like CETC that take research output from Australian researchers and apply it to the security and surveillance technology used across China.
“Orwellian” seems inadequate for the types of surveillance and security technologies being implemented in China. Facial recognition scanners have even been set up in toilets to allocate the proper amount of toilet paper. The state tells you whether you can wipe your backside.
Fixing the system
Some universities pass the buck by saying that the department of immigration is responsible for any security concerns when assessing visa applications for researchers. (Now the authorities are doing more checks, but the universities are grumbling because visas for Chinese scientists are taking too long.)
The universities’ refusal to accept any responsibility tells us there is a cultural problem. Most university executives believe that international scientific collaboration is a pure public good because it contributes to the betterment of humankind — and, of course, the bottom line.
So asking them more carefully to assess and rule out some kinds of research goes against the grain.
All of this suggests that the system is broken. The fact remains that Chinese military scientists and researchers at companies like CETC have been returning to China with improved knowledge of how to build better weapons and more Orwellian surveillance systems.
American universities are now alive to the problem by looking much more closely at the China links of scientists working in the US. So, in April 2018, it was reassuring to see the Australian minister of defence, Marise Payne, commission an inquiry into the effectiveness of the defence trade controls regime.
However, when it came time, the report failed to recognise Australia’s new security environment, especially the risks posed by China’s aggressive program of acquiring technology from abroad. It accepted the university view that the system is working fine and, apart from a few recommended adjustments to the existing Defence Trade Controls Act, kicked the can down the road.
In short, defence and security organisations, who can see how the world has changed, lost out to those who benefit from an open international research environment, one that has been heavily exploited by Beijing for its own benefit.
In the US, federal science funding authorities have been sending the message that continued funding will be contingent on universities applying more due diligence to the national security impacts of their overseas research collaborations. We can expect to see something similar in Australia.
What happens to research that is funded by taxpayers? A lot ends up in subscription-only journals, protected from the eyes of most by a paywall.
But a new initiative known as Plan S could change that. Plan S focuses on making all publicly funded research immediately fully and freely available by open access publication.
It sounds like a good idea – but there are possible downsides. This model could potentially undermine peer review, the process vital for ensuring the rigour and quality of published research. It could also increase costs of publication for researchers and funding bodies. So let’s do Plan S right.
Chinese and Indian officials have expressed their support for this open access publishing movement.
Plan S aims to make scientific publications resulting from publicly funded research by national and European research councils and funding bodies directly available in open access journals or platforms after 1 January 2020.
Plan S stipulates that all articles should be published in open access mode only, with no paywalls (including in hybrid journals, where some content is open access and some paid) with the following conditions:
unrestricted usage and free distribution
authors retain copyright
funders or universities pay the open access publication fees.
Flaws in the current publication system
The ethical base for Plan S is sound and would undoubtedly make sense to most Australians – that is, publications that have been funded by taxpayer dollars should be readily accessible to the public immediately.
Currently, members of the public and many parts of the research community do not have easy access to research outputs for comment and scrutiny.
Research is hidden behind paywalls in subscription-only journals. Research institutions spend billions of dollars globally on subscriptions.
Hiding valuable research results – particularly those that were taxpayer-funded – behind paywalls is a drawback of the existing scholarly publication model.
Some researchers have labelled Plan S a serious violation of academic freedom, as it restricts their choice of suitable high-quality publication platforms.
If Australia does not adopt Plan S, it could potentially restrict collaboration, publishing, and funding opportunities with research bodies who subscribe to this ambitious movement.
Are Australians ready?
The basic notion of open access has won wide acceptance. But it’s also attracted strong criticism, with some claiming deleterious effects on young researchers of dividing the world into “Plan S” and “non-Plan S” publications.
Open access is already a policy of the Australian Research Council (ARC), which requires that:
Any Research Outputs arising from an ARC supported research Project must be made openly accessible within a twelve (12) month period from the date of publication.
However, the same policy stipulates that “contractual obligations” is an acceptable reason for non-compliance within a 12-month period. In effect, this still allows publication contracts to effectively keep research permanently behind paywalls.
A Plan S implementation would disallow this. It would require that authors retain full copyright even after publication, and open access would be required immediately with no 12-month delay.
In this way, Plan S could be seen as merely extending existing Australian funding policy principles.
Rethink how we do things
Despite the potential for downsides, we argue universities and research organisations in Australia should consider aligning their policies with Plan S and promote the advantages of open access to the research community.
Plan S will enable the public to freely access publications, enabling them to come to their own conclusions rather than having intermediaries interpret.
Plan S appears to be a wave that is heading this way so Australians, researchers and research organisations in particular, should start thinking and talking about how it might affect things here.
After all, if this level of open access becomes the norm in Europe, China and India – which combined account for more than one-third of global output of scientific papers – the resulting critical mass would probably force a progressive action of some kind here.
Colonising the Moon, and beyond, has always being a human aspiration. Technological advancements, and the discovery of a considerable source of water close to the lunar poles, has made this idea even more appealing.
But how close is China to actually achieving this goal?
If we focus on the technology currently available, China could start building a base on the Moon today.
The first lunar base would likely be an unmanned facility run by automated robotics – similar to Amazon warehouses – to ensure that the necessary infrastructures and support systems are fully operational before people arrive.
The lunar environment is susceptible to deep vacuum conditions, strong temperature fluctuations and solar radiation, among other conditions hostile to humans. More importantly, we have yet to fully understand the long term impact on the human body of being in space, and on the Moon.
Seeds taken to the Moon by the Chang’e-4 mission have now reportedly sprouted. This is the first time plants have been grown on the Moon, paving the way for a future food farm on the lunar base.
Building a lunar base is no different than building the first oil rig out in the ocean. The logistics of moving construction parts must be considered, feasibility studies must be conducted and, in this case, soil samples must be tested.
China has taken the first step by examining the soil of the lunar surface. This is necessary for building an underground habitat and supporting infrastructure that will shield the base from the harsh surface conditions.
3D printed everything
Of all the possible technologies for building a lunar base, 3D printing offers the most effective strategy. 3D printing on Earth has revolutionised manufacturing productivity and efficiency, reducing both waste and cost.
China’s vision is to develop the capability to 3D print both inside and outside of the lunar base. 3D printers have the potential to make everything from daily items, like drinking cups, to repair parts for the base.
But 3D printing in space is a real challenge. It will require new technologies that can operate in the micro gravity environment of the Moon. 3D printing machines that are able to shape parts in the vacuum of space must be developed.
We know that Earth materials, such as fibre optics, change properties once they are in space. So materials that are effective on Earth, might not be effective on the Moon.
Whatever the intended use of the 3D printed component, it will have to be resistant to the conditions of lunar environment. So the development of printing material is crucial. Step-by-step, researchers are finding and developing new materials and technologies to address this challenge.
On a larger scale we have seen houses being 3D printed on Earth. In a similar way, the lunar base will likely be built using prefabricated parts in combination with large-scale 3D printing.
Examples of what this might look like can be seen to entries in the 3D printed habitat challenge, which was started by NASA in 2005. The competition seeks to advance 3D printing construction technology needed to create sustainable housing solutions for Earth, the Moon, Mars and beyond.
Living on the Moon
So far, we’ve focused on the technological feasibility of building a lunar base, but we also need to consider the long term effect of lunar living on humans. To date, limited studies have been conducted to examine the the biological impact on human physiology at the cellular level.
We know that the human organs, tissues and cells are highly responsive to gravity, but an understanding of how human cells function and regenerate is currently lacking.
What happens if the astronauts get sick? Will medicine from Earth still work? If astronauts are to live on the Moon, these fundamental questions need to be answered.
Yesterday morning, the mid-year budget update unveiled research funding cuts of A$328.5 million over the next four years. This budget raid on research was more than double the size expected by the university research community.
This new freeze on growth in research funding and PhD scholarships follows last year’s freeze on funding for student places.
The effect will be felt immediately by the nation’s researchers and their research projects in positions lost and projects slowed, limited or not started. But the damage done will be felt for much longer – in inventions, ideas and opportunities missed.
Why has it been done?
As yet, there has been no adequate public explanation from government, save for two paragraphs in Education Minister Dan Tehan’s media release yesterday:
The decision to pause indexation of research block grant programs for 12 months, along with adjusting growth for RSP (the Research Support Program), will allow the government to prioritise education spending, including on regional higher education.
And this further par:
We have invested over A$350 million since the 2018-19 Budget to support students in regional and remote Australia.
In truth, most of Australia’s regional universities will lose millions of dollars more under the 2017 funding freeze than will be redistributed to them via this latest research cut. And under this new research freeze, they, too, will lose scholarships for PhD students – our next generation of brilliant research talent.
Nationwide, the government will fund up to 500 fewer of these scholarships for PhD candidates next year due to the research funding freeze. That’s 500 fewer people who will dedicate their talent to the creation of new knowledge in the national interest.
The education minister has tried to repair the damage inflicted by the 2017 decision of his predecessor – Simon Birmingham – only to compound the damage with this second freeze. That’s throwing bad policy after bad.
Regional universities were among those hardest hit by the 2017 MYEFO decision to cut funding for student places. And that decision continues to cut deeper each year – it will be felt more in 2019 than 2018, and more in 2020 than 2019.
How this will affect Australian research
The harm this will inflict is manifold.
First, it will cut the research funding program. This scheme enables universities to pay the salaries of researchers and technicians whose work enables ground-breaking discoveries. It also funds keeping the lights on in labs and libraries.
These overheads of research are not funded by competitive grants. For every A$100,000 an Australian university secures in competitive research grants, it must find an extra A$85,000 to be able to deliver that research. Where will universities find these funds?
Second, it will cut the research training program. This funds scholarships for PhD students to enable them to complete their higher degrees – a necessary first step on the way to a career in research. This is a cut into their brilliant careers, and Australia’s future research capacity.
Third, it damages Australia’s standing as a global research leader. Why would a great researcher come to or stay in Australia, when the government has sent a message that, in a time of budget surplus, it’s prepared to cut into research?
Fourth, it will further undermine Australia’s position in research and development investment relative to our economic competitors. China now invests 2.1% of its GDP in research and development – while Australia’s total investment from all sectors in research and development (government, business and research institutions) is now just 1.88% of GDP. China’s economy is ten times bigger than Australia’s, but they’re investing 30 times more than we are.
Our government only spends A$10 billion on research and development each year. Only last Friday, it was revealed Australia’s government spending on research and development was already forecast to fall this year to its lowest level in four decades as a percentage of GDP – to 0.5%. This new research funding cut only worsens this situation.
With the budget in surplus, it makes no sense
University leaders knew research funding was at risk, and so jobs for researchers, technicians and researchers were at risk. But beyond these jobs are the projects they support and the Australians from all walks of life whose lives have or will be transformed by Australian research.
Universities Australia has stories of survivors of stroke, cervical cancer and family violence speaking about how crucial university research has been in the lives of people like them at #UniResearchChangesLives.
With a government budget surplus in sight, it makes no sense to cut the research capacity that will create jobs, income and new industries for Australia.
Over the past four years, we have conducted a range of attitudinal surveys with the Social Research Institute at Ipsos on the relationship between trust in the political system and attitudes towards democracy in Australia.
Our latest research, conducted in July 2018 (prior to the Liberal Party’s leadership spill), includes a quantitative survey of a representative sample of 20 focus groups and 1,021 Australians from a wide range of demographic backgrounds. We understood political trust in this survey as “keeping promises and agreements”.
Our findings should give all democrats pause for thought. We continue to find compelling evidence of an increasing trust divide between government and citizens. This is reflected in the decline of democratic satisfaction and receding trust in politicians, political parties and other key institutions (especially media). We also found a lack of public confidence in the capacity of government to address public policy concerns.
Democratic decline and renewal
Australians should rightly be proud of their hard-won democratic traditions and freedoms and the achievement of stable government, which has delivered social and economic well-being for its citizens.
The majority of Australians dislike the conflict-driven politics of the federal parliament, but don’t dislike democratic values or democracy as a system of government.
When asked to select three aspects of Australian democracy that they liked the most, the top three in 2018 were (in order):
“Australia has been able to provide good education, health, welfare and other public services to its citizens”
“Australia has experienced a good economy and lifestyle”
“Australian elections are free and fair”.
Respondents were least likely to choose features that praised (or showed engagement) with current democratic politics. The findings suggest that Australians are happy with the underlying democratic infrastructure of Australian society that allows them to achieve a high standard of living, but are less positive or engaged about day-to-day political operations.
Australians are deeply unhappy with democratic politics
Fewer than 41% of Australian citizens are satisfied with the way democracy works in Australia, down from 86% in 2007. Public satisfaction has fallen particularly sharply since 2013, when 72% of Australian citizens were satisfied. Generation X is least satisfied (31%) and the Baby Boomers most satisfied (50%).
Just 31% of the population trust federal government. State and local governments perform little better, with just over a third of people trusting them. Ministers and MPs (whether federal or state) rate at just 21%, while more than 60% of Australians believe the honesty and integrity of politicians is very low.
The three biggest grievances people have with politicians are:
they are not accountable for broken promises
they don’t deal with the issues that really matter
big business has too much power (Liberal and National Party voters identify trade unions instead of big business).
The continued decline of political trust has also contaminated public confidence in other key political institutions. Only five rate above 50% – police, military, civic well-being organisations (such as Headspace or community services), universities and healthcare institutions.
Trust was lowest in political parties (16%) and web-based media (20%). Trust in banks and web-based media has significantly decreased since the last survey. This reflects the impact of the banking royal commission and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal.
People who are more likely to feel satisfied with the status quo include those aged over 55 (Baby Boomers), those earning more than $200,000 a year and those who vote for the National or Liberal parties. They are more likely to be male and an immigrant, because those born overseas tend to be more satisfied with Australian politics than native-born.
Those who are most likely to be unhappy are Australian-born, female, aged in their 40s (Generation X) and struggling on less than $50,000 a year. They are more likely to identify with minor political parties like One Nation, Centre Alliance or independents.
The perfect storm for independents
Levels of social trust are also in decline. Social trust between people has fallen below 50% for the first time to 47%. A majority, though, still believe that people in their neighbourhood would help others out – except for the very rich (47%).
Four attitudinal shifts are on display here.
First, many voters care more about effective and competent government than promises of more dollars in their pockets.
Second, there is a group of voters who are completely disconnected from traditional politics. They are deeply distrustful not just of politicians but almost every major institution and authority figure listed in the survey, except for their local GP.
Third, we can identify an increasingly large group of Australians who are deeply critical of the main political parties and are looking for an alternative across the ideological spectrum.
And fourth, there is a group of Australians who vote independent for tactical reasons, either to secure greater resources for their communities or to register a protest vote against the two-party system.
Appetite for democratic reform is extremely strong
Our survey revealed a significant appetite for reform. Nine out of 15 proposed reforms received net agreement rates above 50%. The top five reforms favoured in the survey were:
limiting money donated to parties and spent in elections
the right for voters to recall ineffective local MPs
giving all MPs a free vote in parliament
co-designing policies with ordinary Australians
citizen juries to solve complex problems that parliament can’t fix.
Reforms aimed at improving the practice of representative politics were the most popular, followed by reforms aimed at giving citizens a greater say. There was also strong support for reforms aimed at creating a stronger community or local focus to decision-making. Only reforms aimed at guaranteeing the representation of certain groups failed to attract majority support.
Remarkably, accessing more detailed information about innovative reforms led to greater support for those reforms. This is an important finding, revealing the importance of strategic communication in winning the war of ideas.
We are at the tipping point
Liberal democracies are founded on a delicate balance between trust and distrust. Our survey findings suggest we may have reached a tipping point due to a deepening trust divide in Australia, which has increased in scope and intensity since 2007.
Yet citizens still appear to value the overall stability of their political system, even if the lack of political trust means they doubt its ability to deliver, especially on more challenging policy issues.
Australians imagine their democracy in a way that demonstrates support for a new participatory politics but with the aim of shoring up representative democracy and developing a more integrated, inclusive and responsive democratic system. In the light of this discovery, we believe an effective path to reform is not about choosing between representative and participatory democratic models, but finding linking arrangements between them.
The winners of this year’s health budget are aged care, rural health and medical research.
The government has announced A$1.6 billion over four years to allow 14,000 more older Australians to remain in their home for longer through more high-level home care places. For those in aged care, an additional A$82.5 million will be directed to improve mental health services in the facilities.
The budget includes A$83.3 million over five years for a rural health strategy, which aims to place more doctors and nurses in the bush and train 100 additional GPs.
There’s A$1.3 billion over ten years for a National Health and Medical Industry Growth Plan, which includes A$500 million for new research in the field of genomics.
Other key announcements include:
– A$1.4 billion for new and amended listings on PBS – A$302.6 million in savings over forward estimates by encouraging greater use of generic and bio similar medicines – A$253.8 million for a new Aged Care Quality and Safety Commission.
Helen Dickinson, Associate Professor, Public Service Research Group at UNSW
It was well foreshadowed that this budget would bring with it significant provisions for aged care. It has been widely reported that reforms to pension and superannuation tax have resulted in disaffection in the Coalition within older age groups.
Making older Australians the cornerstone of budget measures is a calculated political tactic in a budget that in the short term makes only limited tax cuts for low- and middle-income earners.
The A$1.6 billion for 14,000 new places for home-care recipients will be welcome, but are a drop in the ocean, given there are currently more than 100,000 people on the national priority list for support.
Additional commitments around trials for physical activities for older people, initiatives to improve connections to communities and protections for older people against abuse will bolster those remaining in homes and communities.
Commitments made for specific initiatives for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and aged care facilities in rural and remote Australia will be welcomed, although their size and scope will likely result in little to address older age groups with complex needs.
While investment in aged care services will be welcome, it remains to be seen whether this multi-million-dollar commitment will succeed in clawing back support from older voters.
Recent years have seen around A$2 billion of cuts made to the sector through adjustments to the residential care funding formula. The current financial commitments go some way to restoring spending, but do not significantly advance spending beyond previous levels in an area of the population we know is expanding substantially in volume and level of need and expectation.
A number of new budget commitments have been announced in relation to mental health services for older people in residential aged care facilities, for a national mental health commission, and for Lifeline Australia.
However, given the current turbulence in mental health services, it’s unclear whether these will impact on the types of issues that are being felt currently or whether this will further disaggregate an already complex and often unconnected system.
Equity, prevention and Indigenous health
Lesley Russell, Adjunct Associate Professor, Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney
The government states its desire for a stronger economy and to limit economic imposts on future generations, but this budget highlights a continued failure to invest in the areas that will deliver more sustainable health care spending, reduce health disparities, and improve health outcomes and productivity for all Australians.
There is nothing new to address the harms caused by excessive alcohol use or opioid abuse.
The crackdown on illegal tobacco is about lost taxes rather than smoking prevention.
There is A$20.9 million over five years to improve the health of women and children – an assorted collection of small programs which could conceivably be claimed as preventive health.
There is nothing in this budget to address growing out-of-pocket costs that limit the ability of many to access needed care.
Additional funding (given in budget papers as A$83.3 million over five years but more accurately described as A$122.4 million over 2018-19 and 2019-20, with savings of A$55.6 million taken in 2020-21 and 2021-22) is provided for rural health that should help improve health equity for country Australians.
Continued funding is provided for the Indigenous Australians’ Health Program (A$3.9 billion over four years); there is new money for ear, eye and scabies programs and also for a new Medicare item for remote dialysis services.
There are promises for a new funding model for primary care provided through Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Services (but no details) and better access for Indigenous people to aged care.
The renewal of the Remote Indigenous Housing Agreement with the Northern Territory will assist with improved health outcomes for those communities.
PBS, medicines and research
Rosalie Viney, Professor of Health Economics at the University of Technology Sydney
The budget includes a notable increase in net expenditure on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS) of A$1.4 billion for new and amended listings of drugs, although most of these have already been anticipated by positive recommendations by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee (PBAC).
Access to a number of new medicines has been announced. The new and amended medicine listings are clearly funded through savings in PBS expenditure from greater use of generic and bio-similar medicines, given the net increase in expenditure over the five year outlook is around A$0.7 billion.
In terms of medical research, there is an encouraging announcement of significant further investments through the Medical Research Futures Fund. This will be welcomed by health and medical researchers across Australia.
What is notable is the focus on the capacity of health and medical research to generate new jobs through new technology. While this is certainly important, it is as much about boosting the local medical technology and innovation industry than on improving health system performance. And the announcements in the budget are as much about the potential job growth from medical innovation as on providing more or improved health services.
There is new funding for medical research, development of diagnostic tools and medical technologies, and clinical trials of new drugs. The focus on a 21st century medical industry plan recognises that health is big business as well as being important for all Australians.
All of this is welcome, but it will be absolutely critical that there are rigorous processes for evaluating this research and ensuring the funding is allocated based on scientific merit. This can represent a major challenge when industry development objectives are given similar standing in determining priorities as health outcomes and scientific quality.
Andrew Wilson, Co-Director, Menzies Centre for Health Policy at the University of Sydney
Rural Australians experience a range of health disadvantages including higher rates of smoking and obesity, poorer survival rates from cancer and lower life expectancy, and this is not solely due to the poor health of the Aboriginal community.
The government has committed to improving rural health services through the Stronger Rural Health Strategy and the budget has some funding to underpin this.
The pressure to fund another medical school in rural NSW and Victoria has been sensibly addressed by enhancing and networking existing rural clinical schools through the Murray Darling Medical Schools network. This will provide more opportunities for all medical students to spend a large proportion of their studentship in a rural setting while not increasing the number of Commonwealth supported places.
There is a major need to match this increased student capacity with a greater investment in specialist training positions in regional hospitals to ensure the retention of that workforce in country areas. Hopefully the new workforce incentive program will start to address this.
Hospitals and private health insurance
Peter Sivey, Associate Professor, School of Economics, Finance and Marketing, RMIT University
Australia can benefit much more than it does currently from the world-leading research in our universities. It ranks near the top of the OECD for research excellence but is less effective at collaboration between industry and researchers to drive the economic benefits of research. I suggest two important measures that could go a long way to achieving more translation of research to achieve commercial outcomes.
The first is to create a separate fund to support the translation of non-medical research. (The translation of medical research is already supported via the Medical Research Future Fund.) The second is to reform the tax incentives for business and enterprise research and development to better reward industry-university collaboration in the translation of research.
Commercialising an idea, innovation or great piece of research is a key driver of new sources of revenue, jobs and industries, and the lifeblood of increasingly knowledge-intensive economies.
But it is not an easy process. For an idea to make the successful journey from discovery to commercialisation, basic research must be tested through prototypes and trials. If we want this to happen, we need funding that specifically targets the research translation process.
A future fund for research translation
We should create an Australian Research Translation Future Fund (ARTFF). Its role would be to focus on translation of the research currently funded by the Australian Research Council (ARC). In so doing it would mirror the role played by the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) in translating research funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
The importance of funding medical research is beyond question, but there are many challenges facing our society that fall outside the medical category. Advances in science, technology, engineering, humanities, social sciences, arts, design and mathematics are also critical to our prosperity and wellbeing.
Grants for fundamental research and industry linkages in all these areas are administered by the Australian Research Council (ARC) which has funding broadly equivalent to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).
But while the NHMRC funding is complemented by the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), the ARC has no equivalent. A new translation fund for ARC-funded research could support research in priority areas such as food, soil and water, transport, energy, environmental change and cyber security.
While there is still some debate about the best way to administer the relatively new Medical Research Future Fund, in broad terms it presents a model that could be followed in the creation of research translation fund for non-medical research.
Established in 2015, the Medical Research Future Fund is an endowment fund that will hit A$20 billion upon maturity in 2020-21. It is expected to spend A$1.4 billion over the forward estimates to 2021. The average annual spend over this period is shown in the schematic. Beyond 2021, annual expenditure is expected to be some A$1 billion.
The Australian Government refunds about A$3 billion of the A$16.7 billion that business spends on research and development through its R&D tax incentive scheme. Currently, this scheme does nothing to encourage collaboration with publicly-funded research organisations such as universities.
We should endorse the 2016 review’s recommendation for a collaboration premium up to 20% for the non-refundable R&D tax offset for companies with a turnover of A$20 million or more (a rise from 38.5% to 58.5%).
With company tax at 30% this would deliver a net saving as a percentage of eligible R&D expenditure of 28.5%, that is substantially higher than the current 8.5%. The recommended premium also applied to the cost of employing PhD or equivalent graduates in science, technology, engineering and maths in their first three years of employment.
A collaboration premium would pull industry towards universities. If implemented alongside a proposed cap on the annual cash refund to small to medium enterprises and a threshold R&D percentage, the R&D tax incentive collaboration premium could be largely budget-neutral.
The current R&D ecosystem has imbalances in the funding of medical and non-medical research, coupled with insufficient engagement between industry and universities. Both are factors in the worrying discrepancy between Australia’s research excellence and our ability to apply and commercialise our ideas.
A tax incentive coupled with a new fund to support research translation could go a long way toward closing that gap.
I don’t have any non profit organizations that I support on a regular basis. I do support various non profit organizations from time to time, but it tends to be a bit all over the shop.
I have supported such environmental organizations as Bush Heritage Australia and WWF, among others. I have also supported Compassion and other similar organizations from time to time, such as when the appeal went out for assistance during the tsunami crisis on Boxing Day a few years ago.
I do have an interest, should I have access to any money, to start a foundation-type organization for diabetes research and support. The reason for this interest is that a dear friend died a few years ago who suffered badly from diabetes.