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Monday, 19 August 2002
Page: 3094

Senator PATTERSON (Minister for Health and Ageing) (5:08 PM) —I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

I seek leave to have the second reading speech incorporated in Hansard.

Leave granted.

The speech read as follows

The Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS) and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) are public sector research agencies that undertake research and development and other scientific activities to increase the competitiveness of Australian industry and improve the quality of life for all Australians. The agencies produce research of an international standard, the applications of which are valuable financially, socially and environmentally.

AIMS was established by the Australian Institute of Marine Science Act of 1972 in recognition of the growing importance of the marine sector to Australia, in particular tropical marine research in northern Australia. Much of AIMS' research is designed to build national marine research capacity and to meet the challenges of Australia's Oceans Policy, which provides an integrated strategy for the exploration and ecologically sustainable utilisation of marine natural resources.

The planned outcome of AIMS' research is “enhanced scientific knowledge supporting the protection and sustainable development of Australia's marine resources. Areas identified as research priorities include the sustainable development of aquaculture industries and the exploitation of marine genetic resources for pharmaceutical and commercial use. Both these priority areas present outstanding opportunities for commercialisation of products or technologies.

ANSTO is a body corporate established by the Commonwealth Government through the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Act of 1987 to provide the broad range of expertise needed to support Australia's interests in nuclear science and technology.

In addition to operating major national facilities such as the HIFAR nuclear reactor at Lucas Heights and the Medical Cyclatron at the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney, ANSTO supports medicine, science, industry and agriculture through the development and application of nuclear-based technology and associated capabilities.

In the past AIMS' and ANSTO's commercialisation efforts have focused on developing technologies that clearly fit within their areas of specialisation. However, they have both recently developed technologies that have significant applications outside their areas of specialisation that have attracted considerable Australian and international interest.

The Commonwealth Government's innovation strategy, Backing Australia's Ability, has clearly acknowledged the importance of achieving greater commercial application of research from universities and public sector research agencies. It promotes strengthened research linkages between public sector science and industry, providing specific assistance to take promising research to the stage of commercial viability.

This is being supported by the provision of $78.7 million over five years as pre-seed funding to help commercialise public sector research, starting from 2001. Assistance through the fund will be available to public sector research agencies such as AIMS and ANSTO, as well as universities, to take proposals to a venture capital ready stage.

Backing Australia's Ability identified the need to examine barriers to the commercialisation of government-funded research. As part of its work on this matter, the CSIRO, AIMS and ANSTO Acts were examined to ensure that they do not inhibit the commercialisation of research developed by these agencies. The Australian Government Solicitor (AGS) found that both AIMS' and ANSTO's legislation was most restrictive in this context, imposing commercialisation restrictions.

Examples can be given of instances where AIMS current legislation excludes it from significant commercialisation opportunities. One such example is AIMS' inability to take up a shareholding in the spin-off venture to market the seafood test kit technology that they developed in collaboration with James Cook University.

The kit uses a new method to test shellfish for the presence of a toxin that causes food poisoning. It may also be applicable for determining the presence of toxic algal blooms in freshwater bodies. If so, this invention could find an even larger market and more lucrative market. However, AIMS is presently excluded from such exploitation of its intellectual capital as the AIMS Act clearly does not permit AIMS to engage in development and commercialisation of non-marine applications of marine science and technology.

It is also apparent that doubts under the current legislation about AIMS inability to produce goods and to participate in the development of marine technology and to sell that technology for profit is discouraging venture capitalists from investing in AIMS inventions and technologies. This is highly undesirable for the community as it limits the potential return on the Commonwealth's investment in marine research and development and restricts access to useful new products.

The bill will give AIMS significantly greater scope to commercialise its discoveries. Firstly, it will allow AIMS to engage in the development and commercialisation of marine and non-marine applications of marine science and technology.

Secondly, the bill will remove restrictions that would limit AIMS' ability to engage in commercial production and marketing of products incorporating the results of its research and development activities.

Thirdly, the bill will give AIMS and its related companies the power to borrow money to finance their commercial activities and give AIMS the power to make loans to its related companies and, with the approval of the Finance Minister, to provide guarantees for the benefit of associated companies of the Institute. Consequently, AIMS will be able to pursue business opportunities that have been put on hold by restrictions in the Act as it presently stands.

The bill will also increase AIMS' level of responsibility and accountability consistent with the intent of the Commonwealth Authorities and Companies Act in relation to contracts and intellectual property management. This means that AIMS will be able to sign contracts valued at over $100,000 to a level of $1 million, without Ministerial approval. These amendments will decrease the administrative burden from the growing number of activities that currently require Ministerial approval and reflect increased accountability required of the AIMS' Council by the CAC Act. AIMS would continue to keep the Minister informed of activities relating to contracts and the transfer of intellectual property.

The bill also includes minor technical changes to the AIMS Act that bring it into line with legislation covering other research agencies.

Amendments to the ANSTO Act are also required to facilitate the commercialisation of non-nuclear technologies with significant potential and to promote greater collaboration between ANSTO and users of ANSTO's technologies.

In pursuing its role in nuclear science and technology, ANSTO has made discoveries with important non-nuclear applications that are waiting to be commercialised. For example, ANSTO in collaboration with CSIRO and industry partners has developed environmental management technologies relevant to the mining industry through its Sulfide Solutions Research Project. This technology is important in addressing the world-wide problem of acid mine drainage and offers the prospect of sustainable environmental and financial benefits.

Another example is a technique for remediation of arsenic-based waste and water that carries arsenic compounds, which ANSTO has developed in conjunction with CRC partners.

To permit the commercialisation of such technologies, the bill will allow the agency to engage in the development and commercialisation of both nuclear and non-nuclear applications of nuclear science and technology.

With the development of the ANSTO Technology Park at Lucas Heights, high technology companies are taking advantage of the on-site expertise and access to world-class scientific facilities. The Technology Park would like to develop relationships with companies who have specialist technical and research synergies with ANSTO by enabling the companies to move to Lucas Heights, close to the source of this expertise.

The bill will clarify ANSTO's ability to construct and lease buildings to a third party. This will provide additional certainty as to ANSTO's capacity to pursue development of the Technology Park, through building and leasing those buildings to companies adjacent to the site. The Technology Park is an extension of ANSTO's business profile and is viewed by ANSTO as an important part of their business operations.

Finally, the bill will bring the ANSTO Act into line with the Science and Industry Research Act 1949, which is the CSIRO's enabling legislation. This means that the agency will be able to enter into a contract that is more than the threshold of $5 million set in the ANSTO Act, if a higher amount is prescribed by the regulations. This will lessen the administrative processes related to finalising contracts, as Ministerial approval will be required less frequently.

In summary, it is imperative that the AIMS and ANSTO Acts be amended so that the growing range of commercial activities of these research agencies may be fully exploited and in doing so, are fully supported by providing funds and infrastructure. Other minor changes will lessen the administrative demands on the agencies and the Government.

It is a matter of significant national interest that AIMS and ANSTO have the opportunity to fully commercialise the technologies they have developed. This will help them to contribute to the triple bottom line—growth in income and employment, social well-being and a more sustainable environment.

I commend the bill to the Chamber.

Debate (on motion by Senator Buckland) adjourned.