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Thursday, 25 August 1994
Page: 432


Senator COULTER (7.01 p.m.) —I underscore the remarks just made by Senator Tierney. The sleepers in Sleepers, Wake! by Barry Jones are still asleep; they have not woken up. That is the point I would like to make. Rather than encouraging this country to become a clever and wise country, this government has shown no wisdom whatsoever when it comes to tertiary education. While we still have a residue of high quality people—I refer particularly to people in science at Australian universities—my great fear is that the quality of students going into science is such that within the next 10 to 15 years we will lose even that quality that we have and will really go down the gurgler in a major way. So while the quality of science is certainly poor at the moment by world standards—and I will give some figures on that in a moment—all the indications are that the situation will get worse very rapidly.

  The first point I would like to make is one that Senator Tierney has already referred to: that Australia is currently spending 1.35 per cent of GDP on research and development. That compares very poorly with most of the other OECD countries. It is less than half the money that countries such as Japan, Sweden and Germany spend on research and development.

  We simply will not get the quality work which is needed if we do not put in a lot more money. Given that in Australia, for very well understood reasons, we have failed substantially to match the private funds which are put in in those countries, it is absolutely essential—urgent—that the government comes to the party and puts a great deal more money into research.

  We certainly have done better in encouraging private industry to put money in. However, it is an established fact that we have many multinational companies in Australia that do much of their research overseas. If we want that quality research to be done here and the results to stay in this country and benefit this country, we need a higher proportion of government input into that research. That has not been forthcoming despite all the protestations of the government in relation to quality.

  The second piece of evidence that I would like to put before the Senate is the relative science citation study recently published by Professor Bourke and others at the Australian National University. It shows that, particularly since 1987-88, the quality of science published by Australian researchers has been falling quite precipitously, roughly by about eight per cent in terms of the science citation index. I admit that that is only one measure of the quality of science but it is generally recognised as a very appropriate measure. That would indicate that the quality of the research is going downhill. The amount of research is going downhill. When we put those two things together, it certainly presages a very poor outlook for science in Australia in the future.

  The third piece of evidence I would like to bring forward is the entry scores of students going into science. When one looks at those scores across all the universities in Australia, one finds that science is only marginally above nursing in the quality of the students which it attracts. I am not suggesting for a moment that nursing is a profession that we should ignore, but nursing is the profession which in terms of tertiary scores attracts the poorest quality of students. Science is only marginally above that. On a scale of one to five across 30 universities, medicine scores No. 1—in other words, it scores more of the better students—and areas such as business and law attract the rest of the good students.

  Looked at in another way, if we divide the students into quartiles, we find that, while medicine attracts something like 99.7 per cent of its students from the upper quartile, science attracts only about 25 per cent of its students from the upper quartile. While medicine attracts none from the lower quartile, science attracts about one-quarter of its entrants from that lower quartile.

  It is not surprising that our better students do not want to go into science. The reasons are given in the first two indicators that I have mentioned. The money is not in science; the research facilities are not there; and the quality of science is falling away, and falling away quite rapidly. Students—the intelligent students, anyway—simply do not want to go into science.

  We have heard the former Prime Minister talk about a clever country. I reiterate that this is not a clever country. It has not been a clever country—it certainly has not had a wise government—since 1983. Unless we do something fairly urgently, I believe the quality of science will deteriorate very rapidly.

  As members of the Senate would know, at the moment the Senate Standing Committee on Industry, Science and Technology is conducting an inquiry into CSIRO. I will give one example of what is happening there. Recently that committee went to Armidale, where there is a university with a CSIRO division. Private interests associated with the meat and livestock industry have involved themselves in two CRCs that have attracted $60 million worth of funds. The government has provided insufficient funding for CSIRO. CSIRO is intending to sell two of the field stations on which the CRCs depend. So $60 million that is already available for high quality research has been put in jeopardy. Again, that is an indication of where science is going in this country.

  I believe that everybody in this chamber needs to be exquisitely aware of the dangers to this country and to our intellectual quality if something is not done quickly. The good quality science that we have at the moment is very much dependent upon people in their fifties and sixties who will retire over the next 10 to 15 years. The young students are not coming on. The quality is not being replaced. Science will continue the decline indicated by the relative science citation index, which as I indicated has been falling quite steeply since 1987-88. In a few years time we will not have quality science in this country.

  The government should take no joy from what is happening. The government needs to be pushed, and pushed very hard, to put a great deal more money into science to attract back the better quality students and to ensure that 15 to 20 years from now we still have quality science in this country. I seek leave to continue my remarks later.

  Leave granted; debate adjourned.