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Wednesday, 1 November 2000
Page: 21897


Ms PLIBERSEK (6:12 PM) —As the honourable member for Bass said, essentially in Australia at the moment we have a shortfall in research and development funding. In fact, I think it is fair to say, as many scientists have been saying over the last couple of years, that we have a funding crisis in this country. We have had five reports on science and technology or research and development in the last 16 months. At the core of each of these reports was a call for greater resources for research and development and for science and technology. Yet the legislation we are considering today—the Australian Research Council Bill 2000 and the Australian Research Council (Consequential and Transitional Provisions) Bill 2000—does not increase the amount of money that will be available for research and development in any way. There will still be ideas that go begging for funding in Australia. We read in today's Sydney Morning Herald a quote from Professor Vicki Sara, who, after the announcement yesterday of the $210 million Australian Research Council grants, said that `four out of five good scientific ideas are being lost to the nation because of inadequate funding'. That comes from the head of Australia's funding body. We are losing ideas. They are not being developed. They are not being commercialised. It means that we are losing jobs in Australia. I am afraid that this legislation does not address that problem at all.

There are a number of concerns with the bill that are concerns specifically with this legislation. I will deal with them first and then I want to deal with some of the more general concerns relating to research and development in Australia at the moment. Firstly, this bill transfers some funding provided under the Higher Education Funding Act from general university operating grants to specific research grants. There is no way that the government can claim that this is an increase in funding. The immediate problem as well is that this comes after years of cuts to universities. In fact, since 1996 this government has cut almost $1 billion from university operating grants. Professor John Niland, who is the chair of the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee, has said:

This takes us to the heart of the problem ... the preoccupation with moving the pieces of pie around the deck whereas what is needed is a bigger pie.

That is something of a mixed metaphor but his meaning is clear: there is no point in restructure after restructure if what is actually needed is a commitment to investing more dollars in research in this country. The second problem with the bill is the controversy between the government and research and student groups over what are called gap students. This bill sets up the research training scheme, providing 21,500 HECS exempt scholarships for postgraduate research. At the moment there are 25,000 Australian postgraduate awards which are scholarships for postgraduate students to undertake professional research in their field of expertise. APAs do not provide a great amount of money, but they do provide some assistance for our brightest academic stars to continue their work. These students make their own sacrifices to undertake academic research, and the APAs are one way of providing the necessary support for students to develop their skills and undertake innovative new work. The gap between the 25,000 APA students and the 21,500 HECS exempt students is 3,500 students. The government says that it will renegotiate the number of research places with each institution and the institutions will be expected to meet the gap in funding for these 3,500 places. Of course, universities are already pretty strapped for cash and will be forced to convert these higher degree research places to undergraduate non-research load places. This reduces the number of higher degree research places available in Australia by 3,500 at a time of crisis in research and development.

Another matter of concern in the bill is the alteration of the relationship between the Australian Research Council and the Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. Many speakers before me have expressed the concerns that Labor has over the narrowing of the independence of the ARC and the change in the relationship between the Research Council and the minister. Essentially, the minister has new powers to disregard ARC advice. That is certainly of concern when you consider the track record of the current Minister for Education, Training and Youth Affairs. It is a very dangerous proposition. Likewise, the ARC is no longer able to initiate advice; it can respond only to the directions of the minister. The minister is no longer required to table directions to the ARC, only to publish them in the annual report. This whole change in structure between the ARC and the minister has been criticised by the Australian Vice Chancellors Committee and the National Tertiary Education Union. An example was given that the conflict between political imperatives and science and research imperatives has become obvious in the fallout from the mad cow disease outbreak in the United Kingdom. Concerns have been raised that political instructions given at the time have not been clear; indeed, there are still ongoing attempts to get clear answers about what political instructions were given at the time.

I was very fortunate today, as were many other members of parliament, to receive a visit in my office from two scientists, in my case Dr Michael James and Mark Wilcox. They came today as part of the science meets parliament visit that FASTS organises each year. Part of the very interesting information that they dropped off today was graphs that show the decline in funding of research and development in Australia over the past few years. It is interesting to see particularly the fast downward trend from 1996 onwards. Each of the graphs shows a marked decline from 1996 onwards. Once again we see the figure that concerns so many of us—Australia towards the bottom of the list of countries in the OECD when it comes to business expenditure on research and development.

It is worth recapping some of the figures. Total gross expenditure on research and development has fallen as a percentage of GDP from 1.65 per cent in 1996-97 to 1.49 per cent in 1998-99. Australia's gross expenditure on research and development puts us 12th of 17 reporting OECD nations. Of those 17 countries, Australia experienced the biggest drop in gross expenditure on research and development between 1996-97 and 1998-99, with a drop of almost $1 billion. Australia was one of only four countries to report a drop relative to GDP. Commonwealth investment has fallen by one-sixth, from 0.77 per cent of gross domestic product in 1995-96 to 0.64 per cent of gross domestic product in 1999-2000. Australia's business expenditure in research and development has dropped every year under this government. Business investment has fallen in the last three years, due particularly to cuts to the research and development tax concession. It had never fallen before. This completely reverses the trend.

Universities do 60 per cent of Australia's research, a much higher proportion than in most other OECD countries. Almost $1 billion in government funding has been taken from our universities by the Howard government since 1996. These cuts reduced by 11 per cent of GDP the level of Commonwealth investment in higher education research. In key areas, Commonwealth higher education research grants have fallen. Australian postgraduate awards have fallen since 1996. Research fellowships have also fallen. Research infrastructure has fallen considerably at a time when scientists are facing troubles because of the high cost of equipment and resources, from almost $101 million in 1996 to only $86 million in 2002. It is particularly worth noting that the relative changes in cost of equipment and overseas publications has had an enormous impact as well on what research scientists are able to buy with their funding. The poor performance of the Australian dollar in recent times has meant that, when scientists are buying journals or equipment from overseas, the task becomes that much more expensive.

There is a current crisis in innovation in Australia. It is a real crisis, and its effects will not be felt next month or possibly even next year but in five years time or 10 years time. Whatever we do not imagine, invest in, create, develop or produce here today we will be buying in the future. Australia cannot afford to continue to look overseas to buy elaborately transferred goods. While Australian research languishes because of the government's failures, we lose potential successes for the future. Of even more concern, we possibly lose whole new industries that have not even been developed yet. There is no reason for this terrible waste of Australian ideas to occur. Thinking Australians know that money spent on research and development is an investment in Australia's future success, domestically and internationally. They see it as an investment, not just an expenditure. There is statistical proof; measures over the years have shown that research spending is an investment. Estimates on the return of private research and development investment range from seven per cent up to 43 per cent and the social rate of return is much higher because of the spin-off benefits to other scientists and other projects that are going on.

Since the Commonwealth assumed responsibility for higher education 25 years ago, the average level of investment in universities has been 1.15 per cent of GDP. Had funding been maintained at that level in 1998-99, an additional $2.08 billion would have been available for investment in our universities and research in those universities. Yet Dr Kemp's research white paper will continue to slash the number of PhD candidates starting next year. This is against the considered and expert advice of the government appointed Australian Chief Scientist, Robin Batterham, who in his report The chance to change recommends the establishment of 500 new HECS exempt scholarships and a doubling in the number of Commonwealth postdoctoral scholarships. This government attempts to suggest that it is providing funding through the restructuring of the way grants are handled by the ARC. Most people are not fooled by simple restructuring replacing increased funding. Recently, a group of leading business people, inventors, educators, researchers and scientists became so deeply concerned about the future of Australian ideas that they placed a statement in a national newspaper which read in part:

We have come together to voice our support for the government to take decisive steps recommended in—

the report of the Chief Scientist and the Innovation Summit Implementation Group. It continues:

These include:

· improving the incentives for business to invest in research and development;

· appropriate levels of public investment in competitive research and world-class equipment and facilities; and

· encouraging better links between researchers and industry;

for the economic, social and environmental benefit of Australia.

It went on:

Early action is needed so results can flow soon and we can compete effectively.

This statement followed the National Innovation Summit in February, which called for an additional amount of $5 billion over five years to boost research and development. Similarly, Toss Gascoigne, the Executive Director of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, who were the organisers of the Science Meets Parliament Day today, said:

We coasted when other countries put their foot on the accelerator. We are on the path towards becoming irrelevant.

Australian researchers and inventors are enthusiastic about their work. They are imaginative, dedicated and willing, yet they receive so little support from the Commonwealth that a new phenomenon has arisen. It is commonly referred to—and we hear lots of references to it—as a brain drain occurring in Australia at the moment. A survey of 270 researchers of the Australian Society for Medical Research released in Australia in September found that most Australian scientists working abroad wanted to return home but believed that the country is losing touch with the frontiers of international research. Researchers at home and abroad fear `a continuing lack of availability of adequate research funds', `poor job security' and `lack of a career structure' in Australia. They were the reasons they cited.

This confirms the story of one young medical researcher in my electorate. Medical research, particularly biomedical research, is one of Australia's best areas for research. We have had some world firsts in this area and some things that we should be very proud of. Yet this young man will be leaving science upon completion of his PhD in a few months time, very sadly, because he does not see a future for himself in the area of science research. After eight years of tertiary academic endeavour, he has made the very difficult decision to leave research because the wages are low, the equipment is old, there is no support for researchers and their work, he has no job security and it is extremely difficult to undertake a career in an environment where education and research cuts are savage and continual. It is the same story as told by Dr Brian Gaensler, a former Young Australian of the Year, who in many ways brought this discussion about the state of research in Australia to prominence again recently.

The problem is not just confined to specialist laboratories and academic institutions. For the first time in many years, government high school retention rates are slipping, from 79 per cent to 66 per cent. The number of university students is in decline. The $1 billion cuts in university funding have left overcrowded labs and lecture halls, and teachers and lecturers desperate. We are trailing in research and development, compared with many other countries. The examples are endless. Countries like Iceland are leaving us for dead. We rank just above the Czech Republic. Ireland, with a population about the size of the city of Sydney, has revolutionised its economy through investment in education, research and development. In fact, Ireland has recently become the world's largest exporter of computer software through a vigorous targeting of this particular sector of its economy. The National Tertiary Education Union paper on international research levels says:

It is an indictment of Australian education policy that, at a time when other nations are recognising the value of increased investment in education, Australia has substantially reduced investment.

It is indeed an indictment of Australian education policy. It is also an indictment of the minister for education's and the Prime Minister's backward looking government.

In contrast to the Howard government, Labor have developed a comprehensive and coordinated approach to creating a successful future for Australia through innovation and invention. We know that Australia's future depends on building a knowledge nation. We are already committed to doubling the number of research fellowships for Australian academics when we return to government. These will be early career fellowships aimed at keeping our best and brightest researchers in Australia. The brain drain of our quality researchers has been a key point made by every person concerned about the current emergency in research and development, and Labor are committed to addressing it through these fellowships. Labor will also create a new category of elite research fellowships. The elite fellowships will be awarded to outstanding academics and will span a period of five years. In this way Australia can support our experienced researchers and academics and tempt them home from overseas. The combination of these fellowships will retain Australian ideas and innovators and support researchers throughout their professional lives.

We have also made a commitment to reach the OECD average of business expenditure on research and development as a percentage of GDP by 2010. We have made a number of other commitments in relation to early school and tertiary education which are aimed also at ensuring that Australian students are studying science and that the teachers who are teaching them are trained properly to teach science rather than being generalists. I conclude by saying that Labor actually have a plan for Australia's future and we are committed to increased investment in research and development, not just shifting around the pieces of the pie.