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Tuesday, 31 May 1994
Page: 911

Senator SANDY MACDONALD —My question is directed to the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology. The minister will be aware that the CSIRO operates a system of priority areas of research which attract funding over and above other fields in two ways: firstly, via CSIRO's general budget allocations; and, secondly, by access to a special pool of funds reserved for priority research areas. The minister will also be aware that the priority areas for the next triennium are mining, telecommunications, information technology and small business which, by CSIRO's own definition, effectively excludes primary industry. Does the minister agree with CSIRO's judgment that primary industry, which earns about one-quarter of Australia's export income, does not warrant a high priority for research funding?

Senator COOK —This parliament provides a one-line appropriation to the CSIRO. We appoint a board to the CSIRO of eminent scientists and other leading citizens in Australia to guide the selection of science priorities for the country. We do not interfere with the CSIRO's choices, although there is a degree of trust and confidence between the board and the government. We do exchange views about the priorities expressed, but the decisions in the end are the decisions of the CSIRO.

  We have had from many opposition spokespeople over the last several months claims that the government should stop interfering in the CSIRO. The government was never interfering in the CSIRO. The essential import of this question is that we should begin a campaign of interfering in the CSIRO. I must say for the record that I do not intend to do that. We will express our priority views to the CSIRO but we will respect the right of this group of Australia's most eminent scientists to determine the best allocation of funds.

  I made the observation in reply to some comments after question time yesterday that the frontiers of science change continually; that is the very nature of science in the world. As a consequence, the priorities one must apply in science research and funding change continually as well. We do not have a static state; we have a dynamic state.

  Opposition senators interjecting

Senator COOK —Enough of the braying incompetence of the opposition. We have to trust the judgment of people who know where the frontiers are to advise us and take decisions about those priorities. In answering this question, nothing in my answer should be taken as meaning that we do not place a high degree of importance upon research in agriculture and agricultural-related industries. Agriculture clearly is one of the major industries and exports of this country. Priorities of research in that field are vitally important. But the imputation of the question is that the priorities are not being appropriately met; and that is an entirely different argument.