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Thursday, 1 March 2012
Page: 1385


Senator MASON (Queensland) (13:23): This is a routine bill to apply indexation to existing appropriations and adds the last year of the forward budget estimates. The proposed amendments only impact on administered special appropriations; they do not alter the substance of the act or indeed increase departmental funds. This bill will alter three existing financial year funding figures by adding indexation at approximately 3.4 per cent and will extend the forward estimate period to include the financial year starting on 1 July 2014. The additional financial year will be funded at $795.392 million, a reduction of four per cent from the previous financial year, and the cost of indexation is $88.949 million over three years. By adding an extra outyear to the forward estimates and updating indexation, the bill will increase spending by approximately $885.335 million over four financial years.

Australia has a long and indeed proud history in research, science and innovation. Our national quest to add to the sum-total of human knowledge and to improve lives through scientific and technological progress belies the image of many around the world of Australia as a land of somewhat languid beachgoers and jackaroos, satisfied with the status quo of 'she'll be right' rather than seeking to improve on it.

In many ways, however, our climate and geography have contributed to a decidedly practical bent in our drive for innovation. It will not surprise anyone to know that, in addition to many agricultural and transport related inventions, Australians have been pioneers of refrigeration and that miracle hangover cure the Aspro tablet.

But in the past, it has been this very same geography in the form of relative isolation from the rest of the developed world—the tyranny of distance—which has also hindered the work of our very best minds. Contrary to the stereotype of the lone and mad genius labouring in a backyard laboratory, research, science and innovation thrive on networks and collaboration, the constant interplay and interaction between numerous individuals putting pieces of the puzzle together. No wonder that for a large part of our history we had to send our best and brightest overseas, most often to Britain, in order for them to flourish and indeed to fully reach their potential.

Sir Howard Florey developed penicillin at Oxford, and Sir Mark Oliphant worked at the University of Birmingham to develop radar and then in the United States to build the atomic bomb. Then the communication revolution and cheaper air travel progressively abolished the tyranny of distance and Australians could far more readily participate in the global scientific and global research community. Our scientists and researchers of course still travel the world and teach and often work overseas, but they no longer need to do so in order to feel that that is the only way they could put their talents to best use. Most of the major recent innovations and inventions—many of them in the medical field where our country has always seemed to punch well above its weight—have been made in Australia, from the bionic ear, microsurgery, to new stomach ulcer treatments, and recently of course cervical cancer vaccines. For a relatively small population occupying a large continent at the end of the world, we have much to be proud of and much to build upon for our future.

Research of course is one of the twin pillars of universities—the other one being teaching. The benefits of teaching are not so difficult to quantify. Some of them of course are intangible, that is true. After all, you cannot put a price on the new habits of mind, the rounding influence of liberal education or the preservation of the shared values and culture that connect us with the past and unite us here in the present. But in practical terms we know very well that university graduates have substantially higher lifelong earnings than those with secondary education only and no-one questions the value of a better educated workforce for our economy.

But the value of research is just as important as the value of teaching and education, even though it is often much harder to measure. It is clear that new medical treatment provides benefits to mankind and it is equally clear that a major new innovation, like the wireless internet developed right here by the CSIRO, has huge economic and social impact. Most research, however does not result in a few startling breakthroughs that make history, but in thousands of small incremental improvements. Various studies suggest that the average return for every taxpayer dollar spent on research gets a return of about 20 per cent, and some argue even more, making research investment the best return on government spending.

The Australian Research Council, or the ARC, has been the central core of government architecture in the area of research funding. The ARC provides advice to government on research matters and manages the National Competitive Grants Program, the major source of public funding to support research work and research training at our universities. The National Competitive Grants Program comprises two major funding streams—linkage and discovery. The ARC's linkage funding aims to promote national and international research partnerships between researchers and business, industry, community organisations and other publicly funded research agencies. It does so by requiring the winners of its grants to have secured matching funding from these other sources. In turn, this process of collaboration encourages the transfer of skills, knowledge and ideas, which can assist—among other things—in commercialising research. The ARC's other flagship, the discovery schemes, aim to build a strong capability in fundamental research—sometimes called discovery, basic or blue sky research; in other words, the very front line of research.

Parliamentarians are busy people with plenty of calls on their time and attention. Both the House and the Senate pass hundreds of bills every year, many of them highly technical and, indeed, often arcane. Unless one is a minister or a shadow minister responsible for a particular area of public policy, or one has a particular interest, most of us will never acquire an in-depth knowledge and appreciation of all the bills we are called to vote upon on every sitting day. But behind every bill, no matter how unlikely, there is a story, and often a fascinating story.

This bill, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2011, might be a short, administrative, non-controversial piece of legislation, but it is part of a much larger story. It is a story of ingenuity and imagination, of long hard work as well as instant flashes of inspiration. Who knows—maybe one of the recipients of an ARC grant next year will discover the secret of the universe or will build the proverbial better mousetrap. Maybe he or she will stand on the shoulders of the great Aspro giants and develop the next generation of hangover cures. Whatever happens, Australia and the rest of the world will be eternally grateful.