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Tuesday, 11 October 1983
Page: 1596


Mr STAPLES(10.40) —I wish to speak mainly to the estimates for the Department of Science and Technology. In doing so it is obvious that much of what I will say will be applicable to the estimates for the Department of Industry and Commerce as well. This is really unavoidable and in no way undesirable because if for no other reason it highlights the link between the two departments. Unfortunately, as I will highlight later, the link is in some areas extremely weak to say the least, and our economy is the worse for it. I believe I can speak with some authority in this debate for before entering this House I had the honour to work as a public servant, as a senior technical officer with the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

When Australians think of science they think of CSIRO, and it is not without reason considering the contributions that CSIRO has made to our industries and standard of living. Without any reflection on any other section of science, CSIRO would be the most highly respected scientific body in this country. When we look at CSIRO's achievements in agriculture, forestry, mineral, energy and water resources, public health, environment and manufacturing and technology industries, it is not difficult to see why Australians hold this organisation in such high regard today. However, CSIRO is not without its critics, especially in Canberra, where there seems to be a particularly noisy group among some local academics and the media. In considering CSIRO's budget it is a particularly appropriate time to put some of these criticisms into perspective. Some of the criticisms levelled at the Organisation are: Firstly, that there is undue emphasis on agricultural research; secondly, that much of the Organisation's work is irrelevant to our industrial and economic needs; and thirdly, that it is more interested in basic research and the acquisition of publications than what use it can be to industry.

The debate surrounding the proposal to introduce foot and mouth disease virus for research at the Australian National Animal Health Laboratory at Geelong is a typical example of the pop science debate being waged by some opponents of CSIRO . I can understand that sections of the higher education and research sector are worried that they will not get their fair share of the research dollar, but unfortunately that debate has been used as a springboard for more general attacks on CSIRO. The foot and mouth virus debate, which should have been conducted as an extremely disciplined scientific evaluation, for a long time has been degenerating into what amounts to a scare campaign. With the use of such a campaign it has also run the risk of becoming a political football within party politics and the politics of science and industry itself. I do not believe that the head kicking politicking of the Leader of the National Party of Australia ( Mr Anthony) in this House tonight has done much to raise the level of debate on this issue at all. Hopefully in the near future we will see the proper end to this debate. In essence what the foot and mouth virus debate has done has been to distract attention to CSIRO's real and imagined defects. Unfortunately the debate, which has been centred on CSIRO, has quite cleverly diverted attention from the real issues which face science and technology and industry in Australia today.

While CSIRO devotes a quarter of its financial resources to agricultural research, it is also worth noting that it devotes about one-quarter of its expenditure to manufacturing industries. It is true that agriculture now contributes only approximately 6 per cent to our gross domestic product and about 50 per cent to our export income, but primary industry bodies as a whole have for years realised CSIRO's value to their industries and, I believe, have contributed very significant amounts to CSIRO's funds. That is not necessarily a justification of the amount spent on primary industry research, but if industries are prepared to communicate their research problems, to put their justification for research to be carried out and to contribute money toward their research then good luck to them. CSIRO and primary industry communicate very well with each other. Technology transfer and development is admittedly much simpler in primary industries than it is for manufacturing industry because of, in many cases, simpler technology and the existence of State departments of agriculture as well as general industry bodies. It is a pity that the same level of communication in technology transfer has not really existed in the secondary industry level.

Let us look quickly at the mechanisms of consultation, communication and development that exist at a government level today and at some of the government incentives for Austalian industry in this Budget year. Apart from depreciation provisions, investment allowances, mammoth tax incentives and debenture capital for new technology enterprises, a 36 per cent increase to $71.6m was given to the Australian industrial research and development incentives scheme. Let us consider the $2.86m to the agencies such as the Technology Transfer Council, the Productivity Promotion Council of Australia and the Industrial Design Council of Australia. Let us also consider the $1.825m made available to research associations and to assistance to inventors and the $1.2m which has been set aside for the setting up of Sirotech, a company which will facilitate a vast amount of technology transfer and development from CSIRO to industry.

There are other incentives and intiatives in the Budget Papers. The Opposition cannot complain about funding for this Department. I worked in CSIRO under worsening conditions under successive Liberal-National Party Budgets. Where is the business sector? Where are the captains of industry? What is their contribution to our national wealth and development through research and development? Without going into too many comparisons let us look at Sweden which , like Australia, is a medium performer in research and development. Government spending on research and development as a percentage of gross domestic product is slightly higher in Australia. However, business spending on research and development, expressed as a percentage of GDP, is more than five times greater in Sweden than it is in Australia. The performance of research and development in Sweden is more than eight times greater than the performance of research and development by business in Australia. One way or another it is about time that Australian industries stopped expecting the Government and the taxpayers to be paying out and doing such a high proportion of its research and development for them. It is about time that Australian industries stopped treating government research as a part of a great big industrial welfare state. We must now, more than ever before, become a lot more adaptable, versatile and adventurous. The CSIRO is not the only body in Australia to have been lacking to some degree in these attributes. Our institutes of higher education, our universities and our scientific institutes are far from paragons of virtue in this regard and it is about time that they had a good look at their own expectations before they started making too much noise about CSIRO. It is about time that Australian industry had a good look at its contribution to research and development in Australia and to its communication with government funded science. In looking at flexibility and adaptability it is about time that we looked at the well being of the workers in science. The decline in working and safety standards, and the quite serious erosion of the career structure of scientists and scientific workers in general is to be deplored.

Unlike the former Government I expect that this Government will remedy that situation. Technical and support staffing levels in CSIRO in the last few years have fallen significantly compared with experimental and research scientist rankings. Further erosion of technical levels, career and educational conditions , will further deplete our skills base at a time when we should be furiously building it up. There needs to be an interchange mechanism set up so that workers in Australian science can transfer from government to industry and from university to industry, so that they can carry over their research into development and then, if need be, return to research.

There does need to be flexibility of career conditions so that we can make the best use of our human skills and resources. It is about time that we took a few big steps and it is about time that investors started to take a gamble in Australia and put some of their wealth and savings into Australia's technological future. The Government, by the initiatives in this Budget, is doing its share. CSIRO and other research centres are producing the research at taxpayers' expense. Now it is about time that industry played a larger part in the research and development game. It is a fair challenge. I issue the challenge : Is Australian industry and business prepared to have a go?