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Opening of new research centre, University of Sydney plant breeding institute

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Address by the Hon. Simon Crean M.P. Minister for Primary Industries and Energy Opening of new Research Centre, University of Sydney Plant Breeding Institute


25 September 1991

Chairman, Vice-Chancellor Professor Don McNicol Deputy Chancellor Mrs Daphne Kok Chairman of the Grains Research and Development Corporation Mr Don Blesing Distinguished guests, members of the University, ladies and gentlemen

I welcome the opportunity to be here this afternoon, and to open this modern complex.

And I congratulate the University for taking this initiative, and making the move from restricted quarters and greenhouses erected over a 45 year period to a specially-planned centre, with micro climate rooms, and a greater capacity for greenhouse temperature control. It's a major commitment; an investment for the future.

It is one of the great frustrations of political life that long­ term strategic considerations are easily swamped by the plethora of immediate and urgent issues that somehow have to be addressed.

I have certainly become aware, in retrospect, that the science and technology portfolio really is a quiet backwater of politics, compared to the tumult of my present job as Minister for Primary Industries and

Energy, with its vast and disparate responsibilities and abundance of politically hot' issues:

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. the problems of the wool and wheat industries, GATT negotiations, conflicts over resource developments, the restructuring of the Australian Fisheries Service - not to mention the distraction of leadership challenges.

And now, suddenly transformed from a distant spot on the political horizon to a looming juggernaut in the space of just a couple of weeks, is the drought.

Already severe in parts of NSW and Queensland, there are fears it will grow worse as summer comes on, and some people are warning me that, with such dry conditions coming on top of the deep rural recession, we could be looking at a disaster in parts of rural Australia as bad as the 1890s.

So, to be frank, I haven't had much time to think about research and innovation since I ceased to be Minister for Science and Technology.

I have, however, made it a key concern within my office - for I have brought with me from the previous portfolio a conviction that science and technology are critical to what we have to achieve in this country if we are to secure our future.

I came into the Primary Industries and Energy portfolio with two priorities:

. in the short term, to improve assistance and

support for rural people hard hit by the downturn; and

. in the longer-term, to promote the sustainable development of our primary industries:

so that we don't have to flog our land to death in order to make a quid out it;

so that we can cease being so dependent as a nation on the export of bulk commodities, and instead, diversify, differentiate, process and do whatever else is necessary to build on the strengths we have in the agricultural and mining industries.

In other words, we have to become 'price makers' instead of being 'price takers'; we have to become much smarter about what we grow and how we sell it.

So despite the pressures created by the present rural crisis, I am acutely aware of the need to take a medium- to long-term view of the situation, as well as to apply short-term remedies.

Unless we address the structural weaknesses that underlie the problems facing farmers now, we may very well save them today only to see them go under tomorrow. You only have to look at the long-term trends in the composition of world exports, and in real

commodity prices, to see how Australia, as a producer of bulk commodities, is being squeezed in an ever- tightening vice.

Environmental problems - especially land and water degradation - will apply similar pressures on our capacity to create wealth from our natural resources, with the prospect of global climatic changes possibly adding a whole new dimension to these considerations.

It is in achieving this longer-term goal of economically and ecologically sustainable development that I see science and technology having so much to contribute.

The media likes to portray the issue of industry development as a clash between two irreconcilable value systems, especially when it comes to the resource-based industries - it is either industrial development, or environmental protection.

I come from a position that explicitly rejects the notion that we can best protect the environment by arresting industrial and economic development. We will not be able to meet environmental, or for that matter social, objectives if we are an impoverished and debt-laden nation.

The two issues of sustainable development and industrial development are intimately and inextricably linked. An efficient, competitive industry, whether in the primary sector or manufacturing, is better able to meet high environmental standards than an inefficient, struggling one.

Conversely, the experiences of the 1960s and 70s in the west, and those of the 80s in the eastern bloc countries, have clearly shown that stringent environmental standards can be a powerful force for greater efficiency and competitiveness, rather than a hindrance, as was once feared.

As I said, science and technology are the key to achieving this integration of economic and environmental objectives, to ensuring that we use our renewable

resources sustainably;

that we exploit our mineral wealth with a minimum and acceptable degree of environmental disturbance;

. and that we take the pressure off our raw resources

by adding value to them by adding knowledge to them, so that in the case of farming, for example, both the farmer and the nation get a better return on the product they produce.

During my time as Minister for Science and Technology, I was struck by the quality and potential of Australian science and technology. I am convinced they represent an immensely valuable asset to this country - but only if we learn to make better use of that asset.

I believe that the 1980s were a seminal decade in Australian science and technology policy. It was a decade that saw science and technology policy develop into something more just policy on how much to spend on research, with little regard to what type of research and innovation took place, where it was directed, how efficiently it was carried out, or how effectively it was used, especially in industrial development.

It was a decade that saw a policy base laid for the growth of a stronger and more productive science and technology capability in the 1990s, and beyond.

I accept there have been problems, especially for the universities and the government research agencies such as CSIRO. But there can be no denying the great changes

and gains that were made.

We saw, in the 1980s, a more than doubling of private sector R&D spending, significantly increasing industry's ability to use overseas-developed technologies and the research findings of public sector research institutions.

Together with the greater commercial orientation of organisations like CSIRO, this has resulted in much stronger linkages between science and its application, between research performers and research users.

In the past couple of years, we have also been able to address some of the problems affecting public-sector research, such as capital infrastructure and salary levels.

As part of the Government's goal to make Australia a cleverer, more adaptable country, Commonwealth support in this year's Budget for the major science and

innovation programs is expected to rise by 4.3 per cent in real terms, despite very real constraints on the G overnm ent.

Total funds for university research are estimated to rise about 6 per cent in real terms, including a real increase in funding for the Australian Research Council of 37 percent to $242 million.

The Budget includes the first actual outlay, of $19.5 million, for the Cooperative Research Centres Program, which will, within a few years, see the injection of a total of $100 million a year of additional funds into research to establish up to 50 Cooperative Research Centres.

The program embodies the three basic goals of the Government's science policy - excellence, cooperation and application. The centres are being selected on the criteria of scientific excellence, effective interaction

between researchers in different institutions and demonstrated links with potential users in industry and other areas such as the environment and health.

Many of you will no doubt know that one of the first round centres will be established in broadly the area of research the Plant Breeding Institute is engaged in. This the Cooperative Research Centre for Plant Science in

Canberra, which will use new developments in biology to design and develop more productive and disease- and pest-resistant plant varieties for agriculture and horticulture.

I believe that even before any centres were established, the program was having an important catalytic effect in prompting greater collaboration and interaction between researchers in different research institutions and in industry.

In my own portfolio, Government funding for the rural R&D corporations and councils will also rise this year to $114 million from $90 million last year. Total funding for

the corporations will rise from $146 million to $187 million.

I think the changes in rural R&D with the establishment of the R&D corporations, most of them under the Primary Industries and Energy R&D Act of 1989, reflect almost all

aspects of the broader changes in Australian R&D - both the benefits and the hazards - for I readily admit the changes carry risks.

As many of you will be aware, we are currently reviewing the corporation model,.focussing on the Meat Research Corporation, which was established (as the Australia Meat and Livestock R&D Corporation) in 1985.

There appears to be general acceptance of the basic thrust behind the establishment of the corporations: greater industry links and commercial emphasis, improved focus and greater accountability.

However, I understand there are also several concerns about the direction the corporations could be heading.

These relate to issues such as: the level of accountability now demanded (perhaps an over-reaction to the lack of it in the past); the consistency in policies across the corporations; and the ability to access the corporations as

a group on issues common to them.

There are also concerns that relate broadly to the balance of research and emphasis: between national interest and industry interests; the need for strategic direction in funding; between long-term and short-term research; the adequacy of infrastructure support.

I do not know to what extent these concerns are warranted - that is for the review to determine. However, I will pay close attention to its findings.

Certainly, I want the closer interaction between science and industry to stretch the industry's time horizon, as well as contracting the horizon of some of our research.

I want the commercial orientation of the corporations to be in the context of, and consistent with, a strategic national vision for the industry.

While promoting the application of research findings, I firmly believe we also must preserve and strengthen our scientific base, our core research and educational capacity.

We need to achieve the right balance between basic research and near-to-market research.

I am concerned that there is a perception amongst at least some in the scientific community that rural research is in chaos. Perhaps some of this perception is due to a knee-jerk reaction to necessary change, but

some of it may be legitimate.

Over the past three decades expenditure per agricultural researcher per year has declined significantly in Australia and NZ, while it has risen in other industrial

countries, but this is at least, partly due to the numbers of agricultural researchers increasing in Australia and NZ at a faster rate than elsewhere.

Cuts in funding for rural research by the States, the biggest funder, has made researchers more dependent on the rural R&D corporations, which, with their shorter-term commercial emphasis, is perceived to be affecting the stability and security of research. As a result, I have been told, agricultural research is

becoming less attractive to young people, who feel there is no future in it.

If this is the case, then we must rectify the situation.

All of what I have said explains why I am happy to be here to open this new research centre.

Agricultural research is one of the few areas of Australian science where there have been strong links between research, including the more fundamental research undertaken in the universities, and industry. As a result it has made great contributions to our economy.

Its future contribution will be equally, and even more, important to the industry and the nation.

In the case of plant research, the potential exists to further decrease unit costs by, for example, developing more productive strains of plants; or increasing unit returns by improving quality.

Plant research has a particular role in helping to prevent crises. It can limit disease, or the effect of disease on a particular crop. It can produce better plant characteristics, and develop better varieties, so that variations in temperature and in climate become less

crucial to the survival and quality of the crop.

Plant research can also make important value-adding contributions to the industry by addressing the needs of processors by, for example, providing farmers with grain cultivars with the right characteristics for further

processing for specific markets.

So there is a clear need for grains to be developed not only for their properties of growth and yield, but also for their ability to meet the specific requirements of users in increasingly differentiated markets.

I see the role of institutes such as the University of Sydney's Plant Breeding Institute as doing the research which underpins the whole chain, from preparing the ground and growing the grain, through processing, marketing and end-use.

It seems to me, in reading about the Plant Breeding Institute, that it exemplifies the productive relationship that has existed between agricultural research and agricultural industries.

The University of Sydney has a long history of strong agricultural research, going back to the 1920s. This Institute, in particular, has been instrumental in the control of damaging cereal rusts.

From very early on, the researchers at this Institute have realised the need to link research to end use needs. For example, the release of Gabo in the 1940s, one of the

many cultivars developed by the university, saw a wheat cultivar in which rust resistance had been combined with high bread making qualities.

I see from the institute's booklet that recent estimates have put the annual savings, through reduced production losses, as a result of rust control through using resistant cultivars at $139 million for stripe rust,

$124 million for stem rust and $26 million for leaf rust.

The figures show clearly the extent to which research funding, for both industry and government, is an essential investment, not a discretionary cost.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Plant Breeding Institute has a proud history of making major contributions to the development of Australian agriculture.

I fully expect the work done here to equal the high standard of the many years of work in plant research already undertaken at the University of Sydney.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to declare this new facility of the Plant Breeding Institute of the University of Sydney, open.