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Tuesday, 3 December 2002
Page: 7042


Senator BROWN (7:37 PM) —by leave—I move, on behalf of Senator Nettle, amendment (3) on sheet 2705:

(3) Clause 20, page 15 (line 11), at the end of subclause (2), add:

; and (c) if made by an applicant who receives Federal, State or Territory government funding—must include information on all commercial interests related to the activities for which the licence is sought, or related activities.

This is an amendment to require the disclosure of commercial interests in division 4 of the bill, the licensing system. Clause 20(2) now reads, in part:

(2) An application under subsection (1)—

that is, for a licence authorising the use of excess embryos—

... who receives Federal, State or Territory government funding—must include information on all commercial interests related to the activities for which the licence is sought, or related activities.

The amendment does just what it says. It requires people who are in receipt of public funding to disclose any commercial interests they have in related ventures. The amendment by Senator Nettle is designed to ensure disclosure of any potential conflict between the roles that an applicant may have as part of a public institution engaged in research and as a shareholder or office holder in a private company, for example, negotiating for public funding.

During the course of the public debate and the Senate inquiry into the bill the question of potential conflict of interest became an issue because of the different roles that some people have been playing in the private and public sectors. Questions were raised about relationships and their influence on grant application outcomes. We are not suggesting that researchers operating with the support of public funding who have a commercial interest in other companies—that is, in companies outside the public arena—should be prevented from applying for a licence, but this amendment gives import to our belief that any commercial interest should be disclosed.

The amendment is particularly necessary given the trend of public researchers in the stem cell field to become involved as directors of private or joint venture spin-off ventures. Perhaps the most notable contemporary case is that of the National Stem Cell Centre, which received a federal government grant of $43.5 million. As we all know, that is a big sum to come from the public purse. This amendment is also important because the bill excludes the disclosure of information on the grounds of its being commercial-in-confidence, although Senator Nettle notes that Senator Harradine has an amendment to remove that clause. The agreement of the Council of Australian Governments—state and national governments—from which this bill evolved is very clear about the importance of transparency and public accountability. Here we have an amendment which aims to fulfil the desire that in these matters public accountability should be to the fore.