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Wednesday, 1 November 2000
Page: 21826

Ms BURKE (12:21 PM) —I rise today to speak on the Australian Research Council Bill 2000 and the Australian Research Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2000. This has a significant bearing on my electorate of Chisholm. This proposed legislation is symptomatic of the government's maladministration of the higher education and research funding area. In short, these bills will give the minister new powers to disregard or vary ARC advice regarding the funding of research proposals. Further to this, the minister will no longer be required to table directions to the ARC. However, Labor's major concern is that these bills take steps towards implementing the government's research paper, which provides inadequate funding levels for research.

I now turn my attention to the white paper. The Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs released the white paper in December 1999, just before Christmas. Most notably the paper contained no extra money for universities hard-hit by cuts of $800 million to operational grants. These have been experienced in my electorate of Chisholm, at Monash University, where 70 people have been cut from the arts faculty and, more importantly with regard to this bill, 70 to 80 people have been cut from the science faculty.

There was also an admission that the number of Australian research students is likely to fall. Australia has 25,000 postgraduate research students, yet Dr Kemp has promised to HECS exempt only up to 25,000 places. Fears about cuts to research places have been realised in these two bills. There are reports that universities could lose as many as 3,500 Commonwealth funded postgraduate places due to the introduction of the research training scheme. It is alleged that this gap has emerged because education institutions have extended their research places above the number of scholarships they had won, by diverting funds from undergraduate places and offering research places on a HECS liable basis.

The minister has said that these additional research places will not be funded under the RTS as they have been created at the expense of undergraduate student places. However, the minister and the government miss the point. Universities should not have to contemplate shifting students around in order to boost research places. If the government were truly committed to improving Australia's research base, they would simply expand the postgraduate program rather than argue with our universities. We should be talking about increasing the level of research undertaken by Australians rather than seeing the unedifying spectacle of the minister lecturing universities about their understandable attempts to try to grow their research places.

Labor have a different vision about the future of education and research. We want to end the petty bickering and move towards a more cooperative approach. As announced by the Leader of the Opposition, a Beazley Labor government will double the number of research fellowships for Australian academics and create a new category of elite fellowships. Labor will double the number of early career fellowships to keep our best young minds here and prepare the next generation of leading academics. Labor have committed to double the number of fellowships for outstanding researchers and to create a new category of elite fellowships, valued at $200,000 a year for five years. In short, these new scholarships will be about preventing the brain drain and intellectual property deficit we are in danger of experiencing. By offering better support, these researchers will have an incentive to stay here, and hopefully we will be able to lure some of our best minds home.

The bill abolishes the National Board of Employment, Education and Training, and it reduces the independence of the ARC. As we enter the new millennium it is nonsensical to have a research council that is responsible for administering research grants, with a diminishing ability to provide unsolicited advice to the minister. This bill further denudes the accountability of this minister. It is difficult to overstate the importance of education and research, particularly science, to Australia's future. I am sure that all of us have been visited by the scientists today, who are promoting the link and the importance of science in our society.

Globalisation provides both opportunities and dangers to a small, geographically isolated country like Australia. The need to develop niche export markets and take leadership in the field of science and technology in our region is critical. It is most crucial at this time, as we look at the Australian dollar. It is being reported quite widely that, unless we actually embark on some of these new technologies, our Australian dollar will stay where it is for a long time to come, something that I do not think the rest of the country wants to contemplate.

Our future living standards will depend upon our ability to be innovating and creative. As our traditional economic base continues to shrink and we find it difficult to compete with Asian neighbours, we must stake out new areas to continue to improve our knowledge base and grow the economy. The way ahead must be new ideas, more research and the marketing of Australian made products and innovations. As Labor leader Kim Beazley has said, we need to develop ourselves as the knowledge nation. However, one ingredient is needed that we as a country do not currently have—a federal government that is committed to resourcing and supporting research institutions in our quest to develop new industries. The government's record is as follows: since 1996, one billion dollars in government funding has been taken from our universities, and Dr Kemp's research white paper will slash the number of PhD places starting next year. The government's own science and technology budget statement admits that the government's investment in R&D has fallen by more than one-sixth, from 0.77 per cent of GDP in 1995-96 to 0.64 per cent in 1999-2000. Business investment in R&D has fallen for the last three years as a result of the cuts to R&D tax concession. It never fell prior to this.

Our spending on research and development has plummeted, and Australia is lagging behind the rest of the developed world. Over the past few years, the world's leading industry powers such as the US, Japan, Germany and France have all made concerted efforts to increase their national investment in R&D. Even a country as small as Ireland has transformed its economy to become the world's largest exporter of computer software.

In contrast, an IMF report shows Australia is the world's second biggest consumer of new technology but second last among advanced economies as an IT producer. Whilst record numbers of Australians may be hooked up to the information superhighway, we are missing out on the opportunity to benefit from it. Sadly, this is the case with many of our industries. Even if we manage to develop the technology, it ends up being financed and owned by multinationals. We must provide assistance in turning good ideas into commercial ventures that value add to our economy.

My electorate of Chisholm, as I have said before, is home to one of the finest educational institutions in the country, namely Monash University. Its largest campus is at Clayton, in my electorate. It is regarded as one of the top research institutions in Australia, with one of the highest records of published research. Flicking through the university's strategic research objectives one sees all the positive things the university is seeking: to improve efficiency, to promote public awareness of the university's research achievements, to encourage strategic collaborations and to maximise research spin-offs on outside earnings. Certainly the university appears acutely aware of their responsibility to contribute to advancing and applying knowledge through basic and applied research and collaborating with other institutions in order to better the product and services that touch both industry and human lives. Moreover, Monash is aware that the commercialisation of research has the potential to lead to the establishment of joint ventures and the jobs that flow from this. As I have already pointed out, sadly we are seeing massive job losses at the university through lack of funding. One of the tragedies of this is that people, such as several friends of mine who went through Monash with me and who are currently PhDs with a fair number of research publications behind them, cannot get permanent jobs within the university. They are just not on offer.

Another facility in my electorate, which is adjacent to Monash University and works quite closely in collaboration with them, is the CSIRO. I have had the opportunity on a couple of occasions to tour through the various divisions and witness some of the cutting-edge research being done by the organisation such as plastic banknotes. I did at one stage see the old-growth forests division that was actually value adding to paper products. Sadly, that division has been cut and we have lost 13 scientists out of that division. This is actually a great tragedy because it is one of the areas we keep talking about that we need to value add in. At the CSIRO we had people dedicated to this, but the division has been cut. Another area in which the CSIRO does fantastic work is X-ray innovation. CSIRO, like Monash, is acutely aware of its role in generating products and new technologies in conjunction with the business community. However, the CSIRO conducts much research that has no financial incentive but is necessary to our advancement as a nation. My electorate is also home to Deakin University where significant research is going on in sports and sports science, which I think has come into good stead recently. Also in my electorate are large industry leaders such as Bosch, Lockwood and Dulux. Dulux has just spent $11 million—actually going against the trend—in opening a new R&D research facility. Like Monash, Deakin and CSIRO, I am sure these businesses would be greatly assisted by a return to the level of R&D support they enjoyed under the previous Labor government.

In the Business Higher Education Roundtable statementfrom April 1999 there were many interesting international examples provided about trends in research and development funding. In the US, President Clinton recently announced an extra $US2.8 billion for research. In the UK the `Building the Knowledge Driven Economy' white paper announced increased funding of more than 1 billion. Closer to home, Singapore now boasts over 60 research scientists and engineers for every 10,000 people. In South Korea the government will increase R&D spending by 28 per cent over four years in an attempt to overcome the Asian financial crisis. Another country that should prove instructive for Australia is Finland. Like Australia, Finland has a small population and is surrounded by much larger economies. The government has steadily increased public and private expenditure on research and development over the last 15 years. With just five million people, Finland boasts the company of Nokia with a value of $US226 billion, which is three times the GDP of Finland. The global chief economist for Zurich Financial Services was quoted in an article in the Australian on 16 October 2000 as saying:

This is a good example for Australia ... This proves that the size of the country is no constraint on global success. The critical issue is human capital, management quality and making the right decisions.

What does Australia need to do to ensure we do not miss the R&D boat? Much of the answer can be found in the report of the government appointed Australian Chief Scientist, Robin Batterham. The report recommends:

... increase the number of Australian Postdoctoral Fellows—doubling would be appropriate.

This mirrors the policy of doubling research fellowships which Kim Beazley announced in Hobart, though Labor will go further and add a new category of elite researchers as well. The report also recommends:

HECS scholarships for students undertaking combined science/education qualifications.

In March this year, Michael Lee announced Labor's teacher excellence scholarships, which give HECS exemptions to high achieving school leavers who study to become science, maths or IT teachers.

The report's fifth recommendation calls on the government to `expand the funding for university research infrastructure'. This again is Labor Party policy. So when will this government get the message? Some of the effects of this bill will have a positive effect on research and development funding, but it is a case of too little, too late. That is not to say that Australia does not have an opportunity to reverse the decline in our commitment to research, but we must have policies in place to ensure it actually happens. We must provide more incentives for business to invest in research and more investment in our learning institutions and, importantly, encourage better links between research and industry. Labor have got the message and we are taking a very comprehensive policy of knowledge and innovation to the next election. It is clear that business has got the message. It is now incumbent upon this present government to harness the skills, innovation, education and creative strengths of our country by embracing a stronger commitment to the knowledge nation.