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Tuesday, 14 March 2000
Page: 12713

Senator STOTT DESPOJA (Deputy Leader of the Australian Democrats) (3:28 PM) —I move:

That the Senate take note of the answer given by the Minister for Industry, Science and Resources (Senator Minchin), to a question without notice asked by Senator Stott Despoja today, relating to the funding of research and development in the higher education sector.

I asked Senator Minchin today if he was aware of the comments that have been made by the chief of Ford Australia, who was talking about how brain power was underpinning our investment in future industries.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —I am sorry, Madam Deputy President. I am not sure what Senator Watson's interjection was.

The DEPUTY PRESIDENT —All interjections are unruly, so I would suggest you ignore them. Senator Watson, remain silent.

Senator STOTT DESPOJA —Indeed, Madam Deputy President, I will not allow myself to be distracted. Indeed, the minister seemed a little distracted in his response to me today. He did express his concern about, for example, the reduction in R&D spending by some groups in society and the massive decline in R&D spending by higher education institutions, but he did not seem as alarmed, as certainly the Democrats and other groups in society are, about the changes to funding of our higher education institutions and of our vocational education and training sector. There is a need, as I think the minister pointed out himself at the recent Innovation Summit held around 11 February this year, to recognise that education is an investment—not necessarily a cost—in our future that should be supported and promoted and that should underpin the very notion of innovation in society.

This government's rejection or its refusal to accept the need for major additional investment in those sectors—both through direct allocation and incentives to industry in Australia's research base—demonstrates how flawed the government's response is to innovation needs. Certainly the government's plans for reforming Australia's research management sector remain flawed while it fails to understand that need for investment. The key contention in the government's recent research white paper that the level of Australia's research funding compares well with other OECD countries is completely wrong and it is based on out-of-date figures. Dr Kemp's research papers OECD data, which relates to 1997 or earlier, takes no account of the substantial boost in R&D over recent years in OECD countries such as the UK, Japan, Germany, Finland, Canada, South Korea and, indeed, the United States. That funding commitment is not being matched in our country.

Moreover, since the abandonment of the 150 per cent tax rebate for industry R&D in the 1996-97 budgetary process, higher education R&D has been falling. In 1996-97, it was 0.318 per cent of GDP but, in 1999-2000, it has declined by 13 per cent to be around 0.276 of GDP. While universities can accept their obligation to embrace new ways of managing their research, the government needs to accept an obligation to increase funding across the spectrum of Australia's research if it is to realise the vision it has articulated in its very own white paper.

American data that has been cited by the Australian Vice-Chancellors Committee shows that some 73 per cent of US patents cite research from public and non-profit organisations. This data rejects the notion proffered by this government that Australia will be able to maintain a modern research infrastructure and culture by only seeking to increase industry sources of funding. While other OECD countries are now increasing their funding for research and development, this government—and certainly I know Dr Kemp suggests this—deserves praise for its announcement of a significant injection of funds into health and biotechnological research. We support that, but what about the other spheres? We are only going to keep pace with other OECD countries and realise sustainable economic dividends through support for a wide range of research. I think the minister failed to articulate this in his response today. Certainly these issues were a key component of the Innovation Summit, but they were not reflected in the response today.

The government's white paper uses a user-pays approach to research funding, but it gives rise to potential conflict with the principles of open collaboration, usually underpinning the best research, and an increased emphasis on national priority setting could also challenge the institutional autonomy necessary of course for research excellence. These days, instead of the search for truth, we seem to have the search for funds in most of our higher education and other education research facilities.

I draw the Senate's attention to the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies' policy statement of November 1999, which looks at these very issues, including understaffing, a lack of appropriate infrastructure and the need for improved occupational health and safety conditions, particularly in our laboratories—all the things that the minister in his reference to science in his answer to my question today should be aware of. (Time expired)

Question resolved in the affirmative.