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Wednesday, 13 September 2017
Page: 10375

Mr HILL (Bruce) (16:00): I rise to support the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Amendment Bill, which is one of Australia's largest public research organisations. It's primarily focused on nuclear research and technology, although, as this bill talks about, what it now requires and enables has grown beyond that, moving further into the research ecosystem and, hopefully, the commercialisation value chain.

ANSTO, as it's known, has a number of facilities—there's the head office in Lucas Heights, the OPAL research reactor in Sydney and the Australian Synchrotron in Notting Hill, which is actually in my electorate. I live in Notting Hill, a few hundred metres from the Synchrotron, which was a wonderful initiative of the then Brumby Labor government, who leapt out ahead of the pack and stole the march on Queensland where the Howard government was looking, for electoral reasons and against expert advice, to put the Synchrotron. ANSTO also, I discovered in my research for this bill this morning, has a number of other facilities that I haven't heard of or visited, so I'm putting them on my 'nerd out' list. They are the Centre for Accelerator Science, the cyclotron and so on.

I am a science nerd. I have a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Monash University, although, given my final year, some of the other activities I was up to and the distractions, it's probably a good thing for Australian science that I stopped!

An honourable member: Did you say 'science nerd'?

Mr HILL: I said 'science nerd', and I'm a proud science nerd. I've also got a view, from that training and discipline, that knowledge, evidence and reason should be the primary underpinnings of public policy. It's an old-fashioned view, I know, in this era where there's a war on evidence and a war on facts by those opposite—for example, in relation to climate change. But, in relation to science and nuclear research, globally it's fair to say—that dreadful, tired phrase—that we do punch above our weight. That's no accident. Unfortunately, though, we're not great at commercialisation. If you have a look at the rates of commercialisation, unfortunately we're still down towards the bottom of the OECD for a range of reasons—not only scale but also incentives. I do hope that initiatives like this will help move us along, but we can't take them for granted, and we need to innovate to create new knowledge and to create value from that knowledge.

I read a beautiful speech, actually, on Friday morning by Australia's Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel. Those opposite would've heard of him—he gave them the report they asked for but now don't seem to want. They commissioned a report from the smartest scientist in Australia and seem to have sent it off to the dumbest side of their party room to try to resolve the issue. Nevertheless, in musing about science, this speech talked about the future and the role of science fiction. I won't go to the role of science fiction, but I do highly recommend that members read this speech. We were all emailed the speech. It really is a beautiful read. It's a fairly long speech.

There's some beautiful prose that I will draw on, because it gave voice to the optimism that I feel, which is that science, knowledge and research technology can continue to do amazing things for humanity. In his speech to the Cranlana Program last week, Dr Finkel said:

I start in the firm conviction that human beings can and do adjust to complicated and even dangerous technologies, given time.

Look at the motor car. Look at electricity. Look at aviation.

All of them were once seen as technologies far too dangerous to put in human hands, and yet we tamed them.

So we can and do harness our powers for good—like a child, learning to pick up the sweet guinea pig, and pat it nicely, without crushing it to death.

But soon we’re going to be a child with superpowers—a child who could crush civilisation in his fist before he ever gets the chance to grow wise.

But also, a child with superpowers who could do amazing things.

He then went on to paint three traps that we must avoid if we're to harness the incredible possibilities of modern, cutting-edge science—utopianism, dystopianism and atavism. I do recommend that part of the speech, particularly to those opposite—not the two members here, to be fair, but to some of your colleagues. Then, he concludes his speech by saying:

We are more capable and creative than we know.

We hold the pen and we write the future.

We can choose to be heroines and heroes.

Set out in that spirit, and I promise you, our greatest adventure has barely begun.

And our children will marvel, when they come to read our chapter … that we touched with our human minds, a distant tomorrow.

Certainly, out of all our research institutes, the work, the mission and the physical and human capital of ANSTO is central to this positive future. Nuclear science is, indeed, a superpower for humanity. It could crush civilisation, but it also does and can do more amazing things.

I have visited the Synchrotron a number of times. For any member who hasn't, I'd be happy to hook you up with ANSTO in my electorate. I try not to go too often lest I become a stalker! There are always new things being done there and new things to be seen. It's pretty much 24/7. I was delighted to see that the Commonwealth, in the last budget I think, finally came through, after a few years of negotiation, on a 10-year block of recurrent funding. ANSTO and the Synchrotron are now in this perverse reality, for most agencies, where they've got the recurrent funding locked in and now they're out scouting for capital. Usually, it's the other way around for new beamlines. Hopefully with the next budget industry, universities and the Victorian government will get the new beamlines.

I also visited Lucas Heights last year. I heard about their work and the value created there and their exciting plans. The new nuclear medicine manufacturing capabilities will meet Australia's growing needs and, economically, will be a boost in helping to meet the global hunger for nuclear medicine and isotopes and so on that are in short supply. I was briefed on the plans to develop this innovation precinct—centred there but it also has national benefits, for the Synchrotron and for universities nationally and in New Zealand. This bill provides for an innovation precinct at Lucas Heights but also, importantly, a potential for similar precincts at other sites around Australia that ANSTO controls, now and into the future. The precinct clusters together subject-matter experts, scientific partners, high-tech businesses and industry and graduates, and uses all of ANSTO's capabilities, those human capabilities and knowledge but also the research infrastructure, to create an innovation ecosystem. It's a really clever and well-thought-out proposal.

I commend ANSTO on the work they have done as an agency in building that case with evidence but also on building it within government. Very cleverly, they've had a number of events here at Parliament House and brought members along as well as the local community. Co-location in the precinct is intended to reduce and remove barriers to mobility for STEM professionals between sectors, agencies and universities. It's that kind of research ecosystem which the modern theory says is particularly critical for cross-pollination and collaboration across disciplines, and for that more fluid work and interrelationship between those who create knowledge and those who seek to commercialise it. Labor commends the government for backing this legislation and supports the precinct because, of course, it was first raised by Senator Kim Carr, the Labor shadow minister, when he was the minister in 2011. Labor expressed this in its Australian jobs plan list in December 2012, and it was commendably picked up in the current government's climate statement in, I think, 2015. So, that bipartisan support has certainly gestated along the way.

The Graduate Institute is an important and critical part of the precinct proposal. It is distinct although critically related. It's a formal training program for researchers, which will see 300 to 400 postgraduate and postdoctorate researchers as part of the institute. The research will be conducted in Sydney at Lucas Heights, at the Graduate Institute there, but also in Melbourne, at the campus in my electorate, at the Synchrotron. It is right next door and across the road from Monash University. They've done a lot of good research in looking at the best such precincts and institutes around the world. It's drawn, particularly, on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT, one of the world's leading universities on that model. Students will stay enrolled at their universities but the supervision and access to infrastructure can happen at ANSTO. You will get top research students and postdoctorates from universities all over Australia and New Zealand, working side by side but still supervised, I guess, and issued with degrees and qualifications by their universities.

ANSTO already works with 40 Australian and New Zealand universities, and several universities have expressed interest in being formally part of ANSTO's Graduate Institute. It's a very clever model. It won't confer the degrees, but the knowledge and education-intensive hub for STEM and nuclear medicine is important for research in its own sake, for development of skills and for help to commercialise in the precinct. Also, this research is global. It provides a hub for connections with others around the world working on similar problems and challenges.

With that as the context, the bill itself formally broadens ANSTO's mandate. There is a new definition of 'scientific research, innovation and training', which is broader than the current narrow restrictions in relation to nuclear science and technology—which, largely, ANSTO has outgrown. The world is not so linear and segmented now, so it needs a broader definition. The bill replaces the words 'on a commercial basis' with 'whether or not on a commercial basis', which gives ANSTO the necessary flexibility in its functionality without requiring that everything has to be on a purely commercial basis. This makes sense, and allows ANSTO explicitly, in a new subsection, to share its knowledge, expertise, equipment, facilities, research, property and so on to other entities, whether or not those entities have a direct connection or sit solely within the nuclear science and technology silo.

I think this bill clearly is of national importance. If you haven't been there, do make the time when you are in Sydney to visit ANSTO for a couple of hours. The government relations team are great and they're passionate about sharing their knowledge and showing you around. It is not just the nerdy science bit that is exciting; it's seeing their entrepreneurialism for spotting market opportunities to create economic value and revenue. It will make any little Treasury bureaucrat's eyes light up with joy, seeing them thinking about revenue streams and so on.

On a parochial note for my electorate, I point out that the proximity of the Australian Synchrotron to Monash University, my alma mater, is of enormous value not just to the City of Monash but to that whole south-east Melbourne precinct. In coming years we will be looking for other places—knowledge hubs and clusters—around the country, and I think that Monash precinct is fast emerging as one of the most exciting innovation precincts. We have the new heart hospital being co-located with the teaching and research hospital and we have the Australian Synchrotron, which does so much work around cancer treatment, protein structure types and creating world-first drugs. There is some fascinating stuff—which sounds a bit scary—about treating actual patients and experimenting with new treatments for people in incredible pain with bone cancer. There is also the physical side of things. They use neutrons from the OPAL to test the integrity of materials—turbines, bridges, pipes and aircraft engines. They test refurbished power station turbines and give a subatomic seal of approval, if you like, that they are fit for purpose. They are helping water resource management in the natural environment stream of their work, and so on.

So, in a national sense as well as a parochial sense, I think ANSTO's work is exciting. It is important and deserves airtime and a record of our commendation in the House of their new mission to create knowledge and wealth for the country.