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Monday, 6 June 1994
Page: 1349

Senator COULTER (7.03 p.m.) —I guess the Minister for Industry, Science and Technology (Senator Cook) was filibustering, bearing in mind that this debate will be concluded in about 15 minutes time. He seemed to be arguing very much like a yo-yo. At various points he seemed to be saying, `I am the minister. I am responsible,' and heaping this onto the government. At other times, he seemed to be trying to argue that the CSIRO is completely independent. He cannot have it both ways. Throughout his speech he argued one way and then alternately the other way. Clearly, the minister and the government do not have any notion of the proper division of responsibility of CSIRO and its scientists.

  Senator Cook also made a quite incredible remark. He repeated several times that of course the rural industries are responsible for only 4.3 per cent of GDP. He was rather implying that we could cut out all rural activity altogether. It reminded me of that American economist who not so long ago said, `Food production in America is only five per cent of America's GDP. We can do without that.' Of course, the truth is that we depend far more fundamentally on rural research and agricultural production than is represented as a percentage of GDP.

  I pick up on a question asked by Senator Abetz about whether the Australian Democrats had put a proposal to government for increased CSIRO spending. The answer is that, yes, we did. The fact of the matter is that we put a very balanced alternative to the government in which all the expenditures would be fully financed by income. Included in that was a substantial increase in the budget for CSIRO. But, of course, the government chose not to do that. I put on the record again that, over the next three years, on average CSIRO will be $20 1/2 million less well off than it was during the last three years.

  Senator Cook implied that somehow or other the CSIRO was independent, it was making its own way. A number of things have been imposed on the CSIRO by this government, and it is about time that we had a look at the effect of that on the CSIRO's activity. I mention, for instance, the requirement for 30 per cent funding from private sources. That has been imposed on the CSIRO by this government. A feature of the rural industry at this time is that, with the rural downturn, the funding from those sources has become much less, particularly in relation to the wool levy.

  That is one of the reasons why CSIRO's divisions in the rural area are having difficulty with their funding. This bears very much on one of the subterms of reference that I will shortly be moving as an amendment—that is, the need for countercyclical government funding to maintain long-term research. If the CSIRO is to undertake long-term rural research, we simply cannot have research which goes up and down with the supply of funds. We must put in place a system under which, if someone is 30 per cent dependent on private sources and those sources are incapable of meeting that 30 per cent, the government bridges that gap—it must put in more during that time. It is precisely due to that type of research that the rural industries will get themselves out of the hole in which they are in.

  Several years ago, when John Button was the minister responsible for this area, senators may recall that I asked him how much time was spent by CSIRO scientists making out grant applications in seeking funding. Former Senator John Button replied that 20 to 25 per cent of their time was spent on that activity. Of course, it is not hard to imagine that, when 20 to 25 per cent of scientists' time—

Senator Collins —All research scientists?

Senator COULTER —Yes, 20 to 25 per cent of their time was used. Senator Collins should look back at the Hansard. If 20 to 25 per cent of scientists' time is spent on those sorts of activities and 30 per cent of the funding comes from those sources, the direction of science becomes grossly distorted. In fact, John Button went on to say in his reply to me that it was an advantage that this amount of time and effort was expended in this way because `it helps set the agenda for the CSIRO'.

  We are supporting this motion. In fact, in a press release which I put out the day before Senator Panizza gave notice of this motion, I called for an inquiry into CSIRO. I foreshadow that as an amendment to the motion I will move the additional nine points which have been circulated to the Senate. I include among those—and I understand Senator Panizza might have mentioned an earlier date for reporting—the requirement that the committee report by the last sitting day in 1994.

  The amendment says that the committee will inquire into particular matters especially as they relate to rural research. So it is related to rural research specifically, not the CSIRO in general. The first point refers to the structure and administration of CSIRO. It has already been mentioned by the minister that CSIRO is administered by a board. It has a corporate structure similar to private business. But to whom is the board answerable? There are no shareholders in CSIRO. In fact, the board is acting in a way without parallel. Indeed, many of the board members are people who have particular business interests. For instance, I believe that Adrian Clarke has been given a directorship on the board of the AMP. These sorts of things raise questions about conflicts of interest and I think it is about time, given that these conditions have been imposed on CSIRO by this government, that these matters are inquired into.

  The second point refers to the sources and adequacies of research funding. I think it is quite clear from what is happening to CSIRO that the sources are inadequate. The minister claimed that only three scientists would be dismissed. I suggest that this figure is grossly misleading. It is clear that a total of 331 staff are expected to leave CSIRO as a result of the exercise already referred to by Senator Abetz. The figure includes 148 staff who are expected to accept redundancy rather than relocate to other sites, plus 183 forced redundancies. Taking into account the anticipated rehiring of some 187 new staff, the net loss is 144 positions. Of these, three are claimed to be research scientists, but in real terms a significant proportion of these positions would be considered research staff. As an example, over 50 per cent of the staff of this particular laboratory we are talking about are directly involved in research. The following statement comes from one of the CSIRO's scientists:

An important factor not considered in retaining the critical research capacity is the training of the rehired research staff, and this typically takes from three to five years and will put massive constraints on the ability of the divisions involved to provide the research outcomes essential to ensure the survival of the industry at this critical time when recovery is in sight.

In view of the minister's statement today about sitting in judgment over them when they provide evidence, I will not reveal the name of the person who wrote to me, but I assure the Senate it comes from a CSIRO scientist. The sources and adequacy of research funding need to be looked at and, as I have already mentioned, there is a need for countercyclical government funding to maintain long-term research.

  The fourth point refers to the influence of private funding on effectiveness and direction of research. I have already referred to the fact that the 30 per cent funding from private sources, together with the structure of the board and the way in which CSIRO is administered, I believe, may well be distorting the direction of research in CSIRO.

  The fifth point refers to the benefit of rural compared with other research. The point has already been made by Senator Abetz that the rural and agricultural divisions have borne the brunt of cuts in recent years. Roughly 50 per cent of the attrition of CSIRO staff over the last three years has come from those divisions, and far less from the other divisions. I accept the minister's point that certainly one can restructure these activities, but the scientists are very concerned that the $173 million in potential court costs faced by CSIRO is being spread equally across all the divisions, whereas the appropriations are certainly not. The question of the actual cost benefit ratio of rural research compared with research in other divisions is something that needs to be looked at.

  The sixth point refers to the adequacy of the structure of commercialisation of research results. I think the fact that CSIRO has involved itself in several court actions, one of which has already proved to be a very expensive court action and one which has that potential, indicates that the structure by which CSIRO is seeking this commercialisation research certainly needs to be looked at. Point seven refers to how the costs and benefits of this commercialisation are distributed, and the costs and benefits between the divisions. Finally, there is the effectiveness of communication between CSIRO and the community. That, again, is a point made very strongly by a number of CSIRO scientists. I move:

Omit all words after "inquiry and report", substitute "by the last sitting day in 1994:

The adequacy and appropriateness of the operation, funding and resourcing of research relating to rural industries by the CSIRO, in particular:

(a)the structure and administration of CSIRO;

(b)sources and adequacy of research funding;

(c)the need for countercyclical Government funding to maintain long term research;

(d)the influence of private funding on effectiveness and direction of research;

(e)the benefit of rural compared with other research;

(f)the adequacy of the structure of commercialisation of research results;

(g)the costs and benefits of commercialisation and the distribution of those costs and benefits between the divisions;

(h)the effectiveness of communication between CSIRO and the community; and

(i)any other matter bearing on rural research within the CSIRO".

I would like to make two more points. Senator Cook was rather dismissive of the fact that some of us had not been to the estimates committee and asked questions. I think all senators will know that I have certainly asked a number of questions in the chamber here in question time, but the answers I have received from the minister have led me to not believe those answers. The same thing happens at estimates—one gets replies through the minister. The minister is there and is answering on behalf of senior people. I am not satisfied with answers being filtered through the minister; I want direct answers. I want scientists to be able to come before the committee to provide evidence directly of the concerns which they are now privately providing both to me and, clearly, to members of the opposition. I simply do not accept that criticism from the minister.

  Finally, I simply say that considerable concerns have been raised within some of the divisions in relation to the closure of some of the laboratories. That point has already been raised. The other day I read into the record a letter from another CSIRO scientist relating to the Long Pocket research station in Brisbane. One of the senior scientists there said that one of the options available is the following:

- remaining at Long Pocket with no administrative, computer maintenance, library, workshop, store, meeting room, reception, parking or social facilities, or

- relocation entailing construction costs for replacement of quarantine, office, laboratory, insectary and glasshouse facilities in excess of $8 million which, when combined with other expenses, would appear to be more than could be realised by sale of the Long Pocket site.

I think one needs to be very careful when saying that CSIRO is necessarily closing these particular laboratories with the idea of improving its functioning. Certain conditions have been imposed on CSIRO by this government through its funding cuts; they have been imposed on CSIRO by the 30 per cent requirement for private sources funding. This government even imposed an efficiency dividend on working scientists as though somehow or other every year we can cut a percentage from scientific activity and make scientists more efficient. Nothing could be more silly, but it indicates the degree to which this government has intruded directly into the day-to-day operation of this organisation. It is not as independent as the minister at various points in his remarks was trying to make out.

  This reference needs to be very strongly supported; I am pleased that the opposition has put it up. I hope the opposition will also see fit to support this amplification of the terms of reference that I have moved, and that we can get under way with this inquiry as quickly as possible.

  Debate interrupted.