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Thursday, 28 March 1985
Page: 941


Senator PUPLICK(11.17) —I rise to speak in this Address-in-Reply debate on Australia's science and technology policies. Before I do so, I add my congratulations to other senators who have made their maiden speeches in the course of this session, in particular, Senator Parer, Senator Brownhill, Senator Knowles and Senator Vanstone who made particularly notable contributions to this debate. The matter which Senator Peter Baume was previously discussing in the Senate, that of organised, institutionalised crime and its association with the Australian Labor Party both in New South Wales and in Canberra, is of very great concern. I do not propose to discuss the matter in detail this morning. Undoubtedly, an opportunity will arise as soon as the Government can find and give to us a telecommunications interception Bill which it thinks is sufficient to protect those people whom it wants to see still protected. We shall await that piece of legislation with interest. The Governor-General, in his Speech at the opening of this Parliament, stated:

The Government will continue to formulate positive policy approaches to industry development. One of our objectives is to build closer links between industry and research, so that Australian industry gains the greatest benefits possible from the work being done by the CSIRO and tertiary institutions.

I wish to talk about research of science policy generally and to examine the monumental failure of the current Government to live up to the promises made and the expectations raised as far as science and science research in Australia are concerned. Honourable senators would be aware that the Minister for Science (Mr Barry Jones), at the stage when he was still in charge of technology matters, and before he had been significantly demoted to lose the technology section of his Department in recognition of his general incompetence in that field, invited the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development to send a group of examiners to Australia to examine the state of science and technology in Australia and to make recommendations. In a Press statement dated 23 February 1984 the Minister for Science, Mr Barry Jones, said:

By using the resources of the OECD Australia will get expert advice on the role science and technology should play in the achievement of our national goals.

The OECD examiners came to this country and they produced a report which, at this stage, is a draft report. That report had a series of major recommendations, almost all of which have been thrown out by the Government. I give the Senate just one example: Examiners of the OECD, an allegedly expert body, were in Australia in 1974. On that occasion their recommendations were followed very much to the benefit and the strengthening of the science and technology community in Australia. One of their recommendations appears on page 40 of their draft report as follows:

We favour a strong voice for Science and Technology at the Ministerial level. We are also convinced that those two topics-science and technology-should be treated within a single portfolio, since they are so completely intertwined. Many of Australia's technological opportunities, as we argued in chapter III, lie in facilitating the process of transition from science to technical application: it would be perverse to divide the two within central government.

Of course, that is precisely what this Government has proceeded to do. It has split science and technology into two separate departments in the face of the most expert advice which it had available on the subject and in the face of advice from the examiners of the OECD who were invited here, welcomed here, duchessed here and praised here by the then Minister for Science and Technology. Those examiners then made a significant recommendation about the science and technology portfolio and the Government immediately overthrew that recommendation. This is not only a reflection on the Government's approach to science and technology but also it is the first example that I propose to give of the failure of the Minister for Science to deliver as far as the scientific community is concerned.

This Government has a fetish about running down the level of basic research in order, as it sees it, to increase the technological and developmental side of things. I believe that this is a grave mistake. Let us look, for instance, at what is happening in Japan in terms of its science and technology policies. Many examples can be drawn which are relevant to the Australian experience. The latest comment on the Japanese approach to science and technology matters appeared in an article in the Australian Financial Review of November 1984 headed 'Japan downgrades development, beefs up basic research'. The article referred to the Ministry of International Trade and Industry and pointed out the big shift in Japan towards basic recearch and away from the development end of research and development. If we look at an article by Leon Lederman in the Scientific American of November 1984 headed 'The Value of Fundamental Science' we see that the general thrust of science policies in the United States of America, similarly, is to restore some element of greater funding to basic research. Without basic research, which is absolutely fundamental to the development of the scientific and technological community in Australia, there will be no significant progress on the technological side and no significant coming to grips with the major problems which can be addressed in Australia by the science and technology community.

The second example of the incompetent way in which science policy is being managed in Australia is that of the progressive downgrading of the emphasis on basic research which ought to be undertaken. To a very large extent, science and technology is dependent on the provision of adequate funds. If there was anything that the Minister for Science, Mr Jones, said to the Australian community when he was in Opposition or, indeed, in his early days as Minister, it was that there would be a new dawn for the provision of funds for basic and applied research in Australia. Let us therefore look at the comments made by the bodies which are intimately affected by this. I turn to the last two annual reports of the Australian Research Grants Committee, the ARGC, the premier body for the funding of research in Australia in the non-medical, scientific area. In its 1984 report the ARGC said:

. . . the funds available to the Committee were appreciably less than the amount required to maintain an adequate level of support under the Scheme and limited its capacity to provide proper support for its projects . . .

In its 1985 annual report it said:

This increase was grossly insufficient to support the number of worthy projects that the Committee considered should be funded.

In that report it also said:

Acceptance of new projects fell from 46 per cent (1984) to 25 per cent (1985).

The number of projects deemed worthy but unable to receive support from the scheme were 361 in 1984 and 732 in 1985. The ARGC chairman, Professor Peter Sheehan, has said that innovative scientific research in Australia will almost cease next year because of severe funding restrictions. Professor Sheehan has tried to intervene unsuccessfully with the Prime Minister (Mr Hawke) to do something about this. An article by Jane Ford, the science and technology correspondent of the Australian newspaper, on 23 May 1984, read as follows:

The Australian Research Grants Committee has received a record number of applications this year in the wake of the Labor Government's dedicated 'talking up' of the value of research.

However, the Government's enthusiasm seems unlikely to be matched by any significant increase in funding and the scheme is facing a shortfall of well over $40m for grants next year.

The Labor Party has taken this approach to science and science research in Australia: Talk it up and leave it swinging in the wind; talk it up and then fail to live up to promises. It is not just the ARGC that has cause to complain. On page 1 of the 1983-84 annual report of the Australian Biological Resources Study it is stated:

Inadequate funding of the Participatory Program has meant that many worthwhile, highly recommended, projects could not be funded.

Even in that area, a significant one for Australia, there has been a shortfall which has been condemned by the grant making body. I turn now to what this Government is doing in terms of rural research. There was a statement in the Australian Financial Review of 1 March this year that the Federal Government had decided to set an upper limit to its contribution to rural industry research. This is apparently to be dealt with in some omnibus legislation that the Minister for Finance, Senator Walsh, is to introduce to this Parliament at some stage. One wonders about the degree of success he will have with this, as compared with the degree of success he had with introducing tertiary fees, or whether, having been knocked back by his Party on that particular matter, he is now going to the research sector as an area that is to be trimmed yet again to make up the shortfall.

I turn to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation as a final example. One will recall that, in the Governor-General's opening Speech, His Excellency had an important thing to say. He said that there was to be an increased interaction between industry and the CSIRO. What has the CSIRO found in terms of its capacity to deliver on this? I will read from the summary statement that was part of the statement of the CSIRO joint working party with the Department of Finance which was, in the Minister's marvellous words, 'by an inadvertent administrative oversight', not tabled in this Parliament. It was part of the summary document which was simply lost somehow and which was not tabled until I raised the matter in this place and had the Minister table it later, pleading, as I said, 'an inadvertent administrative oversight' which is, I suppose, his bureaucratic term for 'it seemed like a good idea at the time'. The joint working party in its summary document said:

CSIRO's Budget allocation provided no additional funds to meet increased operating costs in 1983-84 and 1984-85 and insufficient funds were provided to cover the full cost of the Government directed Repairs and Maintenance and Occupational Health and Safety Program in 1984-85, thereby requiring the CSIRO Executive to cut programs.

In other words, the CSIRO, put upon by the Government to undertake maintenance and occupational health and safety programs and to spend money on these programs, was not given additional funds to meet the Government's demands and had to cut those funds from the sorts of programs it ought to support and which it wants to support. This Government's attitude towards research and the promotion of science in Australia is even more apparent when one sees that the Government's programs in other departments contribute to this problem. For instance, serious shortcomings in the Federal Government's offsets programs are alleged to be costing Australian science and Australian scientific industries a considerable amount of money. Why is it, one might ask, that of the $2,000m worth of offsets only $495m have so far been awarded and completed by local industry? It is because this Government is in a total confusion about its support and its commitment for science and for science research and science and technology in this country generally.

I turn to the one attempt that has been made by the Government to do something about it, because it once again illustrates the monumental incompetence of Mr Jones as the Minister for Science. I refer to the matter of taxation deductions for research and development. Again, I refer to an article in the Australian on 14 November 1984, following an announcement made in the Prime Minister's policy speech about a 150 per cent taxation deduction for various research and development projects. The article states:

Industry last night welcomed the Government's decision to introduce a 150 per cent tax concession for industrial research and development, saying it was the most important step the Government could have taken to boost innovative development and industry restructuring.

How was this most important step taken? It was taken in the teeth of the Minister for Science. An article in the Australian of 15 November 1984 stated:

The Federal Government's decision to introduce a 150 per cent tax concession on industrial research and development was made little more than 24 hours before the election speech on Tuesday, raising further questions on the ad hoc, dictatorial style of government of the Prime Minister Mr Hawke.

It was revealed yesterday that the decision was made with minimal consultation on Monday, totally unknown to the Minister for Science and Technology, Mr Jones, his department or other key sectors.

It is believed the decision has angered Mr Jones and senior officials in his Department and is seen as a further sign of the diminishing influence of the minister.

His department was apparently caught totally unaware on Tuesday as it is known that the head of the Department of Science and Technology, Dr Greg Tegart, was arguing strongly against tax incentives only hours before they were announced by Mr Hawke.

The Australian Science and Technology Council, in a recommendation on page 7 of its January 1985 report, 'Computer-related Technology in the Metal Trades Industry', recommended:

That a taxation incentive scheme be introduced as a matter of urgency . . .

We know that recommendation was before the Government, but we also know that the Minister himself, Mr Jones, had a quite contrary view. I turn to an article in the October-November 1984 edition of Search. It reports question time following Mr Jones's address to the National Science Forum in Canberra. The question was raised with him by somebody from ASTEC who said:

I wonder if you could explain to us the Government's thinking which has placed an initiative such as the Commission for the future-which as I understand it, is based on a New Zealand one which was abolished because it embarrassed the Government-as a higher priority than a taxation incentive for the private sector to increase its R &D activities.

The Minister replied:

Well the reason it's got a higher priority was that I placed it at a higher priority. I know ASTEC was bitterly opposed to it and no doubt continues to be.

So the Minister, in pursuit of one of the most Mickey Mouse enterprises ever undertaken in this country-the Commission for the Future-was more concerned to provide this Mickey Mouse operation and to put his little mate Phillip Adams as Chairman of the Commission than to provide the taxation incentives necessary for industrial research and development, despite the fact that ASTEC and other scientific bodies were arguing in favour of it. His incompetence in the matter was even recognised by the Prime Minister, who overruled him, without consultation, and announced the introduction of the taxation incentives scheme opposed by Mr Jones and indeed unknown by Mr Jones until it tumbled forth as part of the litany of promises from the Prime Minister's lips in his policy speech prior to the last election. Undoubtedly, like the trilogy and all the other things that were promised and have already been dishonoured, it too will be found to be a fairly hollow exercise when we actually see it.

Let me say something, therefore, about this Commission for the Future. Let me remind the Senate about the outstanding predictions for the future that experts have always made. I remind the Senate that Alfred Nobel, no mean scientist and technologist, thought that the important thing about dynamite was that it would make wars impossible, because it was so devastating. I remind the Senate that Simon Newcombe, a not undistinguished British scientist of his time, said that flying machines were in fact impossible; they defied all of the known laws. The Parliamentary Committee on Science and Technology of the British Parliament in 1878 said that Edison's electric light bulb was 'unworthy of the attention of scientific men'. I remind the Senate that Einstein thought in 1933 that the unleashing of nuclear energy was not going to amount to very much, and Rutherford, one of the most distinguished scientists of this century, when asked whether splitting the atom could lead to anything useful in a technological or energy sense, said that the whole idea was-I use his precise word-'moonshine'. Nevertheless, despite the fact that Alfred Nobel, Simon Newcombe, the British Parliamentary Committee, Einstein and Rutherford got it wrong, undoubtedly Phillip Adams will get it right. Anybody who is fool enough to believe that should perhaps have a close look at a very perceptive editorial written in the Australian Financial Review on 14 February 1985. The editorial was headed 'A Commission for Bulldust?'. That is precisely what we are going to get, at some public expense, from Mr Adams and Mr Jones. The editorial states:

Despite the fact that he deals with an undeniably important range of subjects, Mr Jones has a talent for trivialising them and for making vitally significant matters sound merely silly.

One can see numerous examples of exact confirmation of that undertaking in terms of what Mr Jones and his friends have had to say about the so-called Commission for the Future. Perhaps I should remind the Senate of the words of J. B. Haldane, one of the most distinguished members of the scientific community of this century, who said:

The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, but stranger than we can imagine.

That is a perceptive observation about the future. Yet Mr Jones thinks that the way in which this matter is to be treated is to appoint Phillip Adams as Chairman of the Commission for the Future and believe that the future is well entrusted to their hands. That is the extent to which science policy in this country has become trivialised by a Minister whose understanding of the fundamental requirements is deficient and who replaces all of these significant long term issues with a pick-a-box mentality of knowing the short answer to a silly question at any moment in time. Mr Jones would not be such a concern of mine if he were merely trivialising things. The point is that to a very large extent he is also dangerous in terms of his approach, and in particular his approach regarding institutions such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. The Age of 20 February 1985 reported:

The Federal Science Minister, Mr Jones, said yesterday that one of his top priorities this year would be significant structural change to the $384 million organisation--

that is, the CSIRO-

with implications for its relations with the Government, industry and academics.

That off the cuff comment was sufficient to alarm the Prime Minister once again, particularly since Mr Jones was proposing to replace the current structure of the CSIRO with something, God spare us, akin to the structure of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. If one can imagine anything more ludicrous for this country it would be to put the CSIRO on the same footing as the ABC-to bring in people like the people of the ABC, whom this Government seems to favour, and put them in charge of our major premier scientific and research organisation. So much so that the Australian of 15 March reported:

The Prime Minister, Mr Hawke, has begun a far reaching inquiry into CSIRO . . .

Why? I quote:

The move is seen as a major setback for the Minister for Science, Mr Jones, who wants to introduce legislation in this parliamentary session to revamp the CSIRO's upper echelon to allow a non-scientist to be chief executive.

* * * *

ASTEC has been urging the Prime Minister for months to set up an inquiry into the organisation, but the move was brought to a head by the discovery of Mr Jones' plans.

The matter was not brought to a head by mature consideration in Cabinet, not by mature consideration by ASTEC or any of the other bodies of concern, but because, once again, the Minister for Science was off on one of his rural frolics and produced some idea off the top of his head. The Prime Minister and others have had to get in and rescue the scientific community before Mr Jones gets his paws on them again. Let me take the final example within the Minister's portfolio as the failure of the Government's policies; that is, in relation to the Antarctic. In discussion the financial assistance made available for the Antarctic Division and for our Antarctic research, the National Times commented at one stage in 1984 that the important thing about it was this:

Penguins don't vote. In an election year, pork-barrelling in Australia will take precedence over spending on Antarctica.

There is considerable concern among government officials and Australian scientific researchers that unless Australia shows it is willing to increase the level of its scientific activity in Antarctica that it will forfeit its privileged place in the Antarctic community.

That is absolutely true. The failure of this Government and the failure of this Minister to deal with funding issues for the Antarctic has put at risk Australia's position in that continent.

I want to make quickly only two other observations. The first is that in dealing with issues which are of scientific concern Mr Jones should well take a leaf out of the book of his colleague Dr Blewett, because whatever my disagreements with Dr Blewett in terms of Medicare and the administration of the health system in Australia, I give unreserved credit to the way in which he has coped with the acquired immune deficiency syndrome epidemic in Australia-the provision of funds, the provision of support, ensuring that adequate funds are made available for research and ensuring that things are properly thought out and co-ordinated. An area which could have led to all sorts of nonsense and hysteria has been managed in a fundamentally scientific and proper public health fashion. If Dr Blewett has the wit and the wisdom to deal with a major crisis of that nature with some degree of intelligence and sympathy, and with a set of policies which commend themselves, I think to all members of the Australian community, it is clear that it is not simply an institutional fault of the Government as far as this matter is concerned, but rather it can be sheeted home as a specific failing of the Minister for Science.

The last comment I wish to make-I will be brief because I think we will at some stage have a chance to debate this-is on the matter raised by Senator Harradine the other day relating to funding by the National Health and Medical Research Council of certain projects. Senator Harradine said that we have to be careful of the NHMRC because it is funding a program which he described in the Senate on 22 March as applying human sperm to animal ova. He implied that this was part of the business of creating some terrible monster out of the whole thing. In the process he upset my dear friend Senator Walters, which is not a nice thing to do, and a considerable amount of debate ensued on that. I actually went and got a copy of the research project to which he referred. It is dealt with at length in the Australian Journal of Biological Sciences, volume 35, of 1982. It refers to a project undertaken by Dr Quinn of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woodville, South Australia.

If one reads the document-I will have a chance to speak on this if Senator Harradine does introduce his private member's Bill at some stage-one will see that the project undertaken by Dr Quinn is in fact of a substantially different character from the way in which it was characterised by Senator Harradine and certain other speakers later in that debate. This simply indicates the dangers that will occur if one allows these debates suddenly to rise out of nowhere, without the proper degree of information, without the proper degree of consideration and with accusations that the National Health and Medical Research Council is funding projects to create monsters out of test tubes, Petri dishes and goodness knows what, without going back and looking at the specific program and without looking at the peer review system which is in place and, which is a far better way of deciding what grant should be undertaken than leaving it, with the greatest of respect, in the hands of even distinguished honourable senators.

The point I make in conclusion is that, in relation to the whole administration of science and technology in Australia, this Government has been demonstrated to be a failure. The Minister for Science has been demonstrated to be incompetent and I just hope that at some stage this Government will find a Minister for Science who is prepared to pay serious attention to the development of science and technology in Australia rather than to trivialise a matter far too important to be left in his incompetent hands.

Debate (on motion by Senator Robertson) adjourned.