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Tuesday, 29 November 1983
Page: 2953

Ms MAYER —My question is to the Minister for Science and Technology. When will the Government be in a position to announce the research grants to be awarded under the national biotechnology program? How many applications have been received? What is the total dollar value of the applications? Is it possible to make any assessment of the quality of the applications? Is the $1.5m allocated to the scheme going to prove inadequate? Are more major breakthroughs in biotechnology expected?

Mr BARRY JONES —I thank the honourable member for Chisholm for her question. In the 1983-84 Budget we adopted the recommendations of the Australian Science and Technology Council to provide $1.5m for the first year of a national biotechnology program to run over three years. The Government set up a Research Grants Advisory Committee under Professor Bruce Holloway to administer the fund. The Committee has received 107 applications for research grants totalling $22.6m in the first year; in other words, 15 times more than it can spend under the program. The Committee has selected 33 applications for further consideration, these requests totalling $9.9m in the first year. Throughout the month of November these applicants have been interviewed by the Committee in the various capital cities and I hope to be in a position to make an announcement, possibly before the end of the week. The applications will be independently assessed for scientific excellence and commercial potential. Understandably ASTEC underestimated the likely volume of demand and the quality of applications because activity in that area has increased so rapidly in the last year. Professor Holloway has reported to me that the Committee is very impressed with the quality of the applications received. He said that about 80 per cent of them are of first class international standard and they indicate the great strength that Australia has in this area.

One of the important results of the setting up of the scheme is that the Committee has been able to survey the needs of biotechnology research in this country, something that has never been done before. Biotechnology continues to be the most exciting area in modern science and, on the basis of my observations from Japan and Korea, the one in which Australia has the clearest lead. Work on the 'jumping gene', which won the 1983 Nobel Prize in chemistry for Barbara McLintock, is being carried out with spectacular success at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation by Dr Jim Peacock-that is, the achieving Peacock. This should lead to significant increases in crop yields and is exportable. I draw the House's attention to a remarkable discovery by two Americans, John Baross and Judy Deming, published in Nature on 2 June.

Mr MacKellar —What page?

Mr BARRY JONES —It is the first article. They explored the waters of the Pacific Ocean 2,650 metres down at a split in the earth's crust where water is at a temperature of 350 degrees Celsius, under enormous pressure. They have found bacteria down there which are not only living but thriving at such temperatures, increasing a thousandfold every six hours. This is an extraordinary discovery because it overturns all the assumptions that we have grown up with from children about the nature of cellular life, cell structure, the time scale of evolutionary processes and the origins of life itself. I say to honourable members: Just ponder what that means.