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Wednesday, 17 September 2008
Page: 7803

Mr CRAIG THOMSON (10:15 AM) —Australia is positioned to become a vital player in one of the world’s most economically dynamic regions. But, to stand out, we must have a strong research base. The government have shown our commitment to a research revolution as part of our education revolution. We cannot let ourselves fall behind the rest of the world in investment research any longer. That is why we are providing more funding to the Australian Research Council to support research schemes. We are investing in schemes that will support our best and brightest mid-career researchers and will strengthen Australia’s position in the global research arena. We have committed almost $175 million to introduce the Future Fellowships program, funding fellowships worth $140,000 each, with each researcher’s institution to receive a $50,000 grant to support the purchase of related infrastructure equipment for their research projects. This new Future Fellowships scheme is part of the Rudd government’s education revolution and is keenly anticipated by the research community. The fellowships will provide opportunities for mid-career researchers—that is, researchers at a pivotal point in their career—to gain further career experience in Australia as our future research leaders. We want to keep our best and brightest here in Australia.

The fellowships will also provide the capacity for the best researchers coming to Australia to conduct research, which is critical for building domestic research capacity. The promotion of research is vital in areas of critical national importance and that is why incentives must be put in place to retain research in this country. We understand that overseas experience is important for researchers, but it is unacceptable that our best researchers are being forced to stay overseas to do high-level research which is adequately supported and, up until now, with no incentive to lure them home.

I want to tell a little story about a dear friend of mine who also happens to be related to the member for Werriwa. It is a school friend of mine whose name is John Cusick. John went to the University of New South Wales, where he did a chemistry degree and went on to get first-class honours in chemistry. John tried to look for work in Australia and, like many people who finish their degrees, he could not get any and was encouraged to do his PhD. He did his PhD at the University of New South Wales, doing groundbreaking research in his field of organic chemistry. Following the completion of his PhD, again he looked around for work in this area but there was nothing to keep him here in Australia. He travelled to the United States and worked at a university in South Carolina for a few years with his wife. But, like many young couples, they wanted to start a family and they wanted to do so in Australia, so there was a desperate need for Mr Cusick to find work back here in Australia. This is someone with a first-class honours degree in chemistry, followed by a PhD in groundbreaking work that had commercial applications. The United States system was happy to take him and to develop his ideas—Australian ideas—for the benefit of the American economy, but not Australia. So he ended up coming back to Australia and decided, as he was a very bright man, that there was no future in continuing in his field in Australia.

As someone who has a law degree, I do not like to deride the profession that much, but Mr Cusick went on to do a law degree—and God knows we have enough lawyers in Australia at the moment! We do not need our best and brightest scientists not being encouraged to stay in this country to do their research and instead choosing to go to law. I know that he is a great success at Mallesons, where he is practising as a senior associate, but we have lost in Mr Cusick someone we should not have lost in terms of research that could have happened. And his story is typical of this area. If we do not put the funding in to make sure that our best and brightest in our key areas are encouraged and retained then we are going to lose them to other countries and to other jobs, because these are bright people who can work in any area that they set their mind to.

Future Fellowships is targeted at researchers working in areas of national priority, such as renewable energy, manufacturing technologies, the sciences, medical research and education. Importantly, preference will be given to those researchers who can demonstrate a capacity to build collaboration across industry and research institutions and with other disciplines. At least 10 per cent of the government’s future fellowships will be targeted to encourage outstanding Australian researchers currently based overseas to return home. Again, this is exactly where Mr Cusick would have fitted in.

These fellowships are part of our 10-point plan that places research and researchers at the centre of a national innovation system. This plan includes strengthened investment in creativity and knowledge generation; focused business R&D incentives to promote global competitiveness; accelerated take-up of new technology, so that Australian firms have access to the best ideas; support for international research partnerships and collaboration; strengthened publicly funded innovation and research infrastructure; improving industry access to the expertise of our universities and research agencies; and encouraging cross-disciplinary and cross-institutional collaboration.

This government is committed to building the national innovation system and, over time, doubling the amount invested in research and development in Australia. We will bring responsibility for innovation, industry, science and research into a single Commonwealth department. We are developing a set of national innovation priorities to sit over the national research priorities. Together, these will provide a framework for a national innovation system, ensuring that the objectives of research programs and other innovation initiatives are complementary.

The Rudd government will abolish the previous government’s flawed research quality framework and replace it with a new, streamlined, transparent, internationally verifiable system of research quality assessment, based on quality measures appropriate for each discipline. These measures will be developed in close consultation with the research community. We are also addressing the inadequacies in current and proposed models of research citation. This government’s model will recognise the contribution of Australian researchers to Australia and the world.

We will give priority to the training of the next generation of researchers and nurture the talents of researchers at all stages of their careers. The Rudd government is committed to attracting and retaining high-calibre researchers in Australia. We are reinvesting in research infrastructure, establishing a ‘hubs and spokes’ model of research cooperation between universities and other research agencies to promote excellence, while providing access to the best possible facilities for the greatest number of researchers. We will reduce the fragmentation of our national research effort, build on our research strengths and encourage greater collaboration between researchers and research institutions.

The government is also committed to the concept of peer review; to funding compacts with universities; to the guarantee of academic freedom; to the independence of the Australian Research Council, the National Health and Medical Research Council and other research grants agencies; and to reducing red tape and unnecessary interference in university research matters. Labor has long recognised the need for research funding agencies to coordinate their efforts more closely in order to deliver the best research outcomes in areas of critical public need, such as Indigenous health and climate change.

Our plan, which we have started to put in place, is to revitalise our public research agencies and replace the culture of short-term commercialisation with an emphasis on public research and support for long-term sustainable economic growth. We are bringing forward the statutory review of the Cooperative Research Centres Program and removing the restrictions imposed by the Howard government that the Productivity Commission has identified as a brake on the effectiveness of the CRCs. The current government recognises the importance of basic research in the creation of new knowledge and the value and breadth of Australian research efforts across the humanities, creative arts and social sciences as well as the scientific and technological disciplines.

In my electorate of Dobell, on the New South Wales Central Coast, I have recently been visiting many schools and have been impressed by the bright young students who are studying on the Central Coast. Our education revolution will help these young people realise their goals and dreams. They too will have the opportunities to join the country’s research community, attracted by the sorts of incentives that the government is putting in place to make a research career in Australia worth while. This is part of the Rudd government’s education revolution. It is why we are putting computers into schools. It is why we are having trade training at schools.

I was recently at St Peter’s Catholic College at Tuggerah, on the Central Coast, and was able to see firsthand the benefits that computers in schools are delivering to that school, how well received by the kids and teachers those computers are and how they are changing the way in which the students gain access to educational resources.

I was at Blue Haven Public School last week, where I talked to the primary school kids about their ambitions and what they wanted to achieve out of education. I was able to sit through a wonderful concert put on by them about the rock-and-roll history of our nation and the world. It was a wonderful experience to see such bright kids. One of the problems we have on the Central Coast is that we have very low retention rates—some of the worst retention rates in Australia—of people going from year 10 to year 12. That is why it is so important that the Rudd government is committed to the education revolution at all levels of education—to make sure that our kids get the right opportunities. Blue Haven Public School, on the Central Coast, is the type of school that this education revolution is aimed at.

I also had the good fortune of being invited to address year 12 students at Tuggerah Lakes Secondary College, The Entrance campus, last week to talk about the sorts of aspirations they have, where they want to go and what they want to study. It was timely because they are four weeks out from sitting for the Higher School Certificate.

On the Central Coast in the electorate of Dobell we have a unique tertiary education model in the Ourimbah campus of the University of Newcastle. Just by coincidence, the pro-vice-chancellor of that campus is visiting parliament today. The reason the University of Newcastle’s campus is unique is that it combines with a TAFE college and a community college to provide many pathways in education for young Australians, particularly young Australians from the Central Coast. It was pleasing to be informed by the pro-vice-chancellor last week, while we were sitting having a chat about the Rudd government’s great initiatives in education and higher education in particular, that the Ourimbah campus has seen a 17 per cent increase in enrolments in its TAFE, university and community college courses. It is because of the particular model it has that it has been able to attract them. The good news for the Central Coast is that the vast majority of the people enrolling come from the Central Coast, which has not always been the case with that campus.

It is clear why this campus is the favoured choice for young school leavers in the region, with its unique TAFE and university systems coexisting in an academically stimulating environment that offers enhanced research resources such as large libraries, which are not always available at TAFE colleges. Hundreds of young people who have graduated from the Ourimbah campus have gone on to great careers. The Rudd government is doing a great deal to create the right incentives for these students of the present to become the top researchers of the future.

The Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2008, which I am supporting today, will increase spending on research by $942.9 million over four years. This is an appropriation bill which will provide funding to the Australian Research Council to support the research schemes that I have outlined. The bill provides foundation funding for the establishment of the 2008-09 budget measure Future Fellowships, which was an election commitment—and, as the member for Dawson pointed out before I rose to speak on this issue, this government, unlike the previous government, honours its election commitments.

The Australian Research Council advises the government on research funding and policy and, through its management of the National Competitive Grants Program, promotes the conduct of research and research training that is of the highest quality for the benefit of the Australian community. The ARC is the primary agency responsible for administering Australian government competitive funding for research in universities. In 2007 and 2008, it administered a budget of $595.8 million for the National Competitive Grants Program, accounting for 9.5 per cent of the almost $6.4 billion Australian government financial assistance for science and innovation in that year.

The National Competitive Grants Program consists of two elements: discovery and linkage. Within these elements are a range of funding schemes to provide a pathway of incentives for researchers to build the scope and scale of their work, and for collaborative partnerships. The National Competitive Grants Program’s funding is allocated competitively on the basis of research excellence and determined by peer review. Competition allows the identification and targeting of financial support to those activities that are likely to deliver outcomes of the highest quality.

The ARC is the only Australian government agency that has the sole role of supporting research and research training across the broad spectrum of research, from the sciences and engineering through to the social sciences and humanities. In this way, the ARC has a watching brief on the state of Australian research within and across all disciplines. It is able to support multidisciplinary approaches to finding solutions to important research questions that are increasingly problematic rather than discipline specific. It administers national infrastructure and Australia’s participation in international ventures, such as the Gemma telescopes and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

All of this is part of the Rudd government’s education revolution that starts at preschool and goes all the way through to researchers who are mid-career, as is dealt with in this bill, to retain them here in Australia so that the Australian economy can benefit from their great research.

Going back to last week, another of the schools that I visited was Tumbi Umbi High School, where I participated in the year 10 interview program. What we did there was sit down with year 10 students and pretend that we were employers. We assisted them in terms of how they prepare for jobs and work in the community and also encouraged them about future careers and staying at school, which I mentioned earlier in my contribution today as being absolutely vital. Again, to reiterate, on the Central Coast we have very, very low retention rates between years 10 and 12, and this coordinated education revolution that is linked and all-encompassing is so vitally important for electorates like my own that struggle to get people to continue in education and have better prospects for their lives. It is particularly important in electorates like my own to have all levels of education there, from preschool through to university campuses, to make sure that all of these are actually linked together.

The Australian Research Council stands to become an even more important organisation in helping steer the research element of this country’s education revolution, and that is what this specific bill is about. But it is just one part of this government’s commitment to education, a commitment to make sure that Australia is at the cutting edge, is one of the best countries in the world in terms of the education that we provide to our children and to adults when they go on to higher education. We are doing that because that provides benefits to the whole country in economic productivity, the ideas that come out and the way in which these things can be generated and harnessed by our economy.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I commend this bill. It is a very important bill, as it is a vital part of the education revolution, and it is one that should be supported by all sides and commended to the House.