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Go8 Submission: Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund

The Group of Eight (Go8) welcomes the opportunity to make a submission to the Committee on behalf of its members who may also make individual submissions.

The Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 seek to abolish the Education Investment Fund (EIF). It should be noted by this Committee that this is now the third attempt by the Government to abolish this critical research and education infrastructure fund to support other policy priority areas.

In each of these cases the Go8 has been supportive of funding to establish and/or boost funding to the Asset Recycling Fund and the NDIS. We are also  fully committed to the establishment of  the  Emergency Response fund, which will assist those affected by natural disasters. However, this must not come at the expense of   university research and education infrastructure.

The irony of course is that in each of these cases, it is our universities who conduct research to support those affected by, in this case natural disasters.

It is always basic, good Budget management, that such important public policy be funded, in a carefully advance-planned way, as befits the programs it is designed to provide. Clearly it has not been – and a proposal to use funds earmarked for higher education infrastructure – and critically for research infrastructure – is short-sighted and damaging. The Government is taking the quick and short-term route by attempting to close EIF down a third time and divert monies from the very fund that supports the nation’s research capability.

The EIF has been deliberately positioned by successive governments to assist research and education, which is at the heart of our economic future and, while the Emergency Response Fund is an important endeavour, using EIF monies to establish it is not appropriate.

Yours sincerely

VICKI THOMSON

CHIEF EXECUTIVE

Recommendations

  1. That the Committee recommend that the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 be amended to exclude the abolition of the EIF and to include provision for a different measure to support the intent of the Emergency Response Fund.
  2. That the Committee note the significant contribution the EIF has made to Australian research and discovery, to changing the lives of Australians including through driving novel and ground-breaking solutions and enabling economic recovery and growth.
  3. That the Committee notes that the significant contribution the Go8 makes to the Australian economy estimated at $66.4 billion a year, especially through the impact of its R&D, would not be possible were it not for key research infrastructure set up or funded by EIF.
  4. That the Committee find that the intent of the Emergency Response Fund Bill 2019 and the Emergency Response Fund (Consequential Amendments) Bill 2019 to close the EIF is counterproductive and contrary to a fiscally responsible approach to funding higher education infrastructure especially long-term research infrastructure.

Key points

  1. The Go8 considers the idea of an Emergency Response Fund, if effectively implemented, to be a reasonable priority for the nation, especially in view of Australia’s and the region’s susceptibility to natural disasters of several types.
  2. However, Governments have choices in how to fund such landmark schemes. The Go8 contends that the Government can exercise its option not to use the remaining EIF funds for this purpose, in view of the detrimental impact the loss of the EIF will have on the nation’s research and education capability. The certainty of that impact must be weighed up when seeking to use EIF, conversely, to support a fund that can only be drawn on as an additional response measure if the Government deems it necessary.
  3. EIF as a perpetual fund to support higher education infrastructure is a preferred mechanism to less predictable, finite and stop-start funding sources. It offers a more assured framework for investing in infrastructure needs on a semi-permanent, continually revitalised basis.
  4. The Go8’s concerns relate chiefly to the proposed loss of EIF monies as a future funding source for renewal of vital, enabling research infrastructure[1] but also pertain to its usefulness in supporting significant infrastructure projects for higher education and vocational education and training.
  5. While the Government’s latest investments in research infrastructure are welcome, they do not provide a clear avenue to fund urgent, unforeseen but necessary, and even major research infrastructure needs arising from the Government’s other decisions. For example, the Medical Research Future Fund, while injecting significant money into medical and health research, does not have a mechanism to support anticipated related infrastructure needs, even under the Government’s response to the Research Infrastructure Roadmap.
  • The Government’s intentions are in direct opposition to independent advice it commissioned. That advice, from the Review of Research Infrastructure, places the EIF – and its leveraging power to attract co-investment – at the centrepiece of a long-term, sustainable and well-premised funding solution for national research infrastructure.
  • Arguments are for the utility and benefits to the nation of the EIF in funding research and education infrastructure. The EIF has enabled research that has saved lives, enhanced lifestyles and ensured the survival of key economic sectors by modernising and making them more productive. It has created jobs and its benefits have flowed through local economies.
  • Our international competitiveness and reputation in higher education provision and as a research nation will be placed at risk. Benefits to industry, innovation, and other functions and priorities of government will be compromised.

Further detail

A remnant concern for universities

At the Go8 alone, the economic impact of our research is estimated to be almost $25 billion annually. Much of this research depends on cutting edge, advanced and nationally available research infrastructure facilities.

The Go8 has therefore welcomed the Government’s investments in research infrastructure in recent years and acknowledges the Government’s commitment to ensuring investments are tailored, appropriate and commensurate within identified areas of priority, including those noted in the 2016 Research Infrastructure Roadmap.

The Go8 is also pleased to note a commitment by Government to engage in future road mapping processes as a valuable mechanism for determining key needs through consultation with experts and users, including industry and business. This is an important, proven way of ensuring that infrastructure investments are as soundly validated as they can be in advance of or to give effect to budgetary decisions. A level of rigour is applied that is not often matched in establishing other funding decisions.

However, the roadmaps are intended to be implemented holistically but have often not been adhered to in totality when Governments respond. A specific concern raised by the Go8 in the last road mapping process was how the increased research infrastructure needs, expected as a result of additional medical and health research investments through the Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF), would be met.

  • This remains a continued concern despite the Government’s agreement to the 2016 Roadmap’s Recommendation that the needs of the MRFF and complementary initiatives be addressed.
  • There is a strong danger that the potential benefits of the MRFF may be significantly reduced if related research infrastructure can not be acquired or provided.

The benefit of a perpetual fund

The 2015 Review of Research Infrastructure observed that Australian Government investment in national research infrastructure is critical and recommended that the Government establish a long-term funding program for this purpose. The Review’s expert panel recommended that the basis for this fund, the Australian National Research Infrastructure Fund (ANRIF), be the remaining monies in the EIF, then at $3.7 billion, to which an additional $2.9 billion generated in earnings and co-investment from various sources would be added.

The level of suggested earnings and co-investment is important. The Government’s investments through EIF and NCRIS in national research infrastructure facilities have continually demonstrated a high level of return in terms of the cash and in-kind co-contributions that have and can be made by the sector and its partners.

  • Not only will $4 billion be lost to the sector from the EIF, but so will the buying power it has to attract co-investment from sources outside the Australian Government to boost its investments.
  • As a quantification, noting that NCRIS facilities have partly been supported by EIF funding, between $0.88 and $1.06 was attracted for every $1 the Australian Government invested into NCRIS over time[2].

However, the greatest possible advantage of EIF is that as a perpetual fund it would offer certainty for infrastructure facilities, especially research ones, including the jobs of people employed[3], and ensuring that investments are not compromised or wasted through discontinuation of essential capability.

  • While national research infrastructure, including NCRIS, now has a certain level of certainty through the Government’s 12-year investment, the sector cannot easily forget or dismiss intermittent, lengthy periods of complete uncertainty that resulted in loss of critical talent from the facilities as people were let go or needed to find more ongoing employment.
  • Two significant capabilities, National High-Performance Computing and the Australian Animal Health Laboratory, were identified by the 2016 Roadmap as requiring urgent consideration for renewal, a situation which would not have occurred if EIF had been activated to provide the significant funding for infrastructure build and upgrades to the facilities.
  • As the Review of National Research Infrastructure noted,

‘The problem with NCRIS was not the process but that it was a terminating programme. The latter prevented optimal whole-of-life planning and resulted in uncertainty and caution.’

‘Retaining staff is not just about financial incentives. Certainty of employment is as important, or maybe more so (…)uncertain funding, severely restricts the ability of National Research Infrastructure operators to offer internationally competitive, long term contracts (..) also makes it difficult to manage a workforce’

Relevance of EIF investments to natural disaster response and wider economy

EIF investments into national research infrastructure facilities have enabled capability to be built to achieve the following:

  • weather scenario predictions that enable planning for major weather events such as storms, flooding and bushfires, and assist farmers in maximising their yields and managing risks, could not occur (National Computational Infrastructure)
  • key terrestrial measures including of soil, landscape and ecosystem aspects that assist (among other functions) in agricultural decision making (Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network)
  • development of new and improved crops, healthier food, more sustainable agricultural practices and improved maintenance and regeneration of biodiversity in the face of declining arable land and the challenges of climate variation (Australian Plant Phenomics Facility).

Additionally, the EIF has enabled research that has or has the strong potential to have a direct impact on industries and their contribution to the economy. A few examples are provided below:

  • research into factors affecting cows becoming pregnant and their ability to successfully wean calves;
  • research into new solar and plasma energy solutions;
  • predicting flows of liquid through rock to aid mining outcomes – a development that resulted in a spin-off company, Lithicon, by the Australian National University and the University of NSW, that was so successful it eventually sold for record $76 million;
  • the use of imaging infrastructure to get a better view inside oil and gas pipelines, to inform solutions to the formation of hydrates that result in blockages, loss of production and safety issues; and
  • the development of new more sustainable crop lines;
  • research into the causes of autism spectrum disorder;
  • more precise insulin dosage predictions;
  • a national childhood diabetes database;
  • antibiotic development;
  • the use of crops to develop pharmaceuticals;
  • the identification of a gene whose discovery will help treat the lethal disease sepsis;
  • ground-breaking x-ray imaging to detect real-time changes in the lung;
  • development of new wrist orthopaedic implants to speed healing of wrist injuries;
  • better understanding of whether war veterans with Traumatic Brain Injury or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are at increased risk of Alzheimer’s Disease later in life;
  • further research into: obesity; diabetes; cardiovascular conditions; infectious diseases such as flu viruses; preventative health; gastric and ovarian cancer; cystic fibrosis; mental health; neural diseases and brain disorders; immunological and blood diseases; population health; and endocrine disorders;
  • regional health education including through the Joint Health Education Facility at Port Macquarie, a collaboration between the UNSW, the University of Newcastle and North Coast TAFE.

As expected, the EIF has generated jobs, initially for those involved in the construction of new facilities but extending well into the implementation and use of these facilities.

While figures are not available for the whole of the EIF, the impact of research infrastructure on the job market for a comparable program, the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS), is well-known.

Indeed, the EIF supported at least 80 per cent of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) network (22 facilities) at critical junctures when lapse of funding would have resulted in closure of facilities, discontinuation of key research, and adverse effects on thousands of researchers, technical staff and others.

In 2018, the Department of Education commissioned National Research Infrastructure (NRI) census report showed that over 2000 jobs were supported by NCRIS facilities, 79 per cent of which were technical staff. There were over 2 million users of NCRIS facilities. Between 2015-16 and 2016-17 nearly a 10 per cent increase in commercialisation outputs were seen in NCRIS facilities, including clinical trials supported, patents and proof of concepts[4].

Australia will be internationally compromised

It is partly due to the EIF and notably through NCRIS – which the EIF has also enabled – that Australia has gained a reputation as a research heavyweight, attractive to overseas talent and prominent researchers, with proven capability in building and implement world class research facilities.

Our contribution as a country to global discovery and advances will be hampered not only by the potential loss of Australia’s own research infrastructure, but also through the loss of our ability to subscribe as researchers to international research infrastructure and more significantly by endangering our strong record as international research collaborators.

A prominent example is Australia’s successful bid to co-host with South Africa the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), which will be the largest, most capable radio telescope ever built – expected to significantly expand human understanding of the universe and in so doing to drive technological advancements – such as the management of exponential amounts of data – worldwide. The EIF provided $80 million to establish Australia’s second petascale capability high performance computer and related facilities housed at the Pawsey Centre in Perth.

Several EIF funded national research facilities are part of worldwide networks or facilitate international research. Examples include:

  • The Pawsey Centre and Australia’s other petascale high performance computer, the National Computational Infrastructure in Canberra
  • The Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS) and the Terrestrial Ecosystem Research Network
  • EMBL Australia (as a partner laboratory of the European Molecular Biology Facility – EMBL)
  • Australia’s participation in the international Giant Magellan Telescope including the construction and development of key instrumentation at Mount Stromlo
  • The Australian National Fabrication Facility, critical to many global research advances, including in defence, medical delivery, and manufacturing.

The loss of the EIF and the certainty it could provide endangers not only our long-term research capability and activity, but the resulting benefits. Research infrastructure of the quality funded by the EIF has contributed strongly to the Go8: being consistently the highest ranked Australian universities in international rankings; providing half the research graduates in Australia; and educating over 100,000 students from international countries. One in three international students that choose to come to Australia study at a Go8 university, while the excellence of our research contributes to the higher education sector’s overall attractiveness as an international education provider, contributing to the $23.5 billion international education industry.

The importance of research infrastructure to international education is recognised by the Government – for example the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science notes the importance of access to and training at national research infrastructure facilities in attracting international students and supporting Australia as an education destination[5].

No ongoing or dedicated fund exists to support teaching and learning infrastructure

The 2015 Report of the Higher Education Infrastructure Working Group (HEIWG) recommended that the Government ‘develop a long-term plan to provide adequate funding for transformative institutional research infrastructure and teaching facilities, with co-investment and collaboration as prerequisites.’

It found that the decision to abolish the EIF, made in the 2014 Budget, left universities with minimal Commonwealth Government capital funding programmes for infrastructure. In terms of non-research infrastructure, this issue has yet to be redressed.

The HEIWG found that as an indication of the issue in 2013, 33 responding universities had an estimated total deferred maintenance of $1.87 billion, as an estimate of the expenditure over and above on-going preventative and corrective maintenance that would be required merely to restore buildings and spaces to their original condition. Meanwhile, deferred liabilities other than deferred maintenance totalled $2.2 billion.

In 2017, the asset value of buildings alone across 39 higher education providers in Australia was estimated at $29.975 billion while construction in progress was valued at $2.4 billion[6].

ATTACHMENTS

  1. SOME KEY FACTS ABOUT THE EIF
  2. KEY OUTCOMES – GO8-LED EDUCATION INVESTMENT FUND (EIF) INVESTMENTS

ATTACHMENT A

SOME KEY FACTS ABOUT THE EIF

Key fact 1

Around half the $4.207 billion investment from the EIF has funded research infrastructure.

Key fact 2

Nearly a quarter of the EIF investment has served national research infrastructure.

Key fact 3

The EIF has supported at least 22 National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) facilities.

Key fact 4

EIF investments in research infrastructure make up around a third of major government investments[7] in research infrastructure (2006-2016).

Key fact 5

Go8 EIF projects facilitate research and education ranging over and sometimes entailing collaborations involving the following:

  • health (obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular, infectious diseases such as flu viruses, preventative health, gastric and ovarian cancer, antibiotic development, cystic fibrosis, mental health, neural diseases, brain disorders and other research, immunological and blood diseases, population health, endocrine disorders, regional health education)
  • materials science
  • chemistry, biology and physics
  • veterinary and agriculture, food and wine
  • environmental including urban, terrestrial and marine
  • food and wine
  • mining
  • geoscience
  • nanoscience
  • advanced engineering
  • quantum science and computing
  • climate and weather science
  • energy – including plasma fusion and solar energy
  • astronomy
  • genomics
  • Antarctic
  • Humanities – including language

[1] Such infrastructure comprises tools, equipment, instrumentation, services, assets and facilities that facilitate ground-breaking research that otherwise could not occur, would not be possible or would be significantly delayed.

[2] This refers to an Australian Government commissioned survey, by ORIMA in 2014 of NCRIS which estimated at the time $1.06 co-investment, and a census completed in 2018 showing NCRIS attracts co-investment estimated to be at least $0.88 for every dollar invested by the Australian Government.

[3] For example NCRIS was estimated to fund over 2000 jobs by the NRI census the Australian Government released in 2018.

[4] https://www.education.gov.au/national-research-infrastructure-census-nri-census

[5] Department of Industry, Innovation and Science 2016, Submission to 2016 National Research Infrastructure Roadmap Capability Issues Paper

[6] Department of Education 2019, Finance 2017, Financial Reports of Higher Education Providers

[7] These include investments through the Research Infrastructure Block Grants, the Australian Research Council’s Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities, and the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS)

Attachment B

KEY OUTCOMES – GO8-LED EDUCATION INVESTMENT FUND (EIF) INVESTMENTS

$1.273 billion has been allocated to or through Go8 institutions in relation to 30 infrastructure projects, from a total of $4.207 billion disbursed from EIF.

Go8 to Senate – Emergency Response Bill (Attachment B) https://go8.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2019/09/Go8-to-Senate-Emergency-Response-Bill-Attachment-B.pdf