Note: Where available, the PDF/Word icon below is provided to view the complete and fully formatted document
Joint Standing Committee on the National Capital and External Territories
Canberra's national institutions

BENNETT, Ms Hazel, Chief Operating Officer, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation

DRIVER, Ms Kate, Acting Director, Questacon

MANEN, Mrs Rebecca, Acting General Manager, Science Policy Branch, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science

MULCAHY, Ms Mary, Director, Education and Outreach, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation


CHAIR: Welcome. Although the committee doesn't require you to give evidence under oath, I should advise you that this hearing is a legal proceeding of the parliament and therefore has the same standing as proceedings of the respective houses. The giving of false or misleading evidence is a serious matter and may be regarded as contempt of parliament. The evidence given today will be recorded by Hansard and attracts parliamentary privilege. I now invite you to make a brief opening statement before we proceed to discussion.

Ms Bennett : We have no opening statement except to issue an invitation to the committee to come and visit the CSIRO Discovery Centre.

CHAIR: We'd love to.

Mrs Manen : We have no opening statement, thank you.

Ms Driver : On behalf of Questacon's director, Professor Graham Durant, I pass on his apologies for not being able to make it today. He is on some well-earned long service leave but will be returning to the country next month and also extends the invitation for you to visit both of our campuses—the National Science and Technology Centre down at the parliamentary triangle and the Ian Potter Foundation Technology Learning Centre, which is our second campus here in Canberra—at your convenience.

CHAIR: I have visited Questacon on a number of occasions but not the Ian Potter centre, so that will be interesting.

Ms Driver : You're in for a treat.

CHAIR: I'm opening up these discussions with some similar questions. They sound naive, but I want to start at high-level principles. Why is what you do important? What does it matter if you're doing it or you're not doing it? What's the strategic importance of being able to share the story that you do with the visitors that come and see you? Can we look at this as an umbrella—not specifically for your institution as a whole but in your broader field in relation to science and technology?

Mrs Manen : Perhaps I will start and say that government is committed to supporting Australian science, including science engagement, and the National Science Statement released by the government sets out the government's vision for Australian society to be engaged in and enriched by science. One of those four objectives under the vision is engaging all Australians in science and technology, and certainly Questacon and Discovery are one part of the way in which the government progresses and seeks to achieve those objectives. I think that, importantly, science, innovation and technology are a core part of what the government is trying to do in its economic agenda, and the two institutions that are here with me today are a key part of that program of work.

CHAIR: For each of the organisations: how much do you focus on collection as opposed to public-facing, visitor-type activities? It might be different for each of them.

Ms Driver : Questacon is not a collecting institution, so we don't hold any collections. However, we do work with other cultural institutions to showcase collections. A good example of that at the moment is our colour exhibition in the centre. This has some rocks from the national rock collection that show—

CHAIR: Yes, I've discovered that there is a collection.

Ms Driver : There is. It's been brought out of a place which isn't often seen and put into the gallery to show fluorescence and what it means. If you look carefully in the display case in the colour exhibition, you'll also see use of fluorescents. There's a very nice licence for our RoboQ that shows the security elements of how you use fluorescents and so on to showcase that piece. We've got some of the entomology collection from the CSIRO in that same exhibition. So, while we don't hold collections, we work with institutions to try to showcase them in the context of the work that we do as well.

Ms Bennett : Within CSIRO again, the discovery centre itself is not a collection agency, but the CSIRO does hold a number of national collections, and they are an active part. For us, as Mary can talk about, the discovery centre surfaces CSIRO science, so there's a much stronger link from our science—and hence our collections are a valuable part of active science—through to what's exhibited and used by visitors in the discovery centre.

CHAIR: The Australian National Insect Collection is part of CSIRO?

Ms Bennett : Yes.

CHAIR: Could you take on notice the list of the different collections that CSIRO would manage?

Ms Bennett : Certainly. I can provide it here but am happy to take it on notice.

CHAIR: Oh, provide it here if you can.

Ms Bennett : We have six national collections. They are the primary ones. They are the National Insect Collection, the National Wildlife Collection, the Tree Seed Centre, the Australian National Herbarium, the Australian National Fish Collection and the Australian National Algae Culture Collection. Then we have a number of smaller ones that aren't national.

Ms BRODTMANN: The insect collection is fab. It's the only one of its kind in the country—in the world—isn't it?

Ms Bennett : Yes.

Ms BRODTMANN: It's extraordinary. You should get out there.

Ms Driver : And come to Questacon and have a look at it in 'Colours'.

CHAIR: We have so many invitations. This is very important. I want to come to the issue that we're seeing in education. In this inquiry I want to look at the strategic importance of what we do. I think that's the best basis on which to grow and defend the role of the institutions and make sure they're achieving their objectives. When I think about your particular institutions, I think about inspiring young people. We hear a lot about STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths. How important is it in relation to your exhibitions? Do you see an important part of your role being to inspire the next generation of young people and that inspiration leading to further education and careers in relation to these areas? Are you adequately resourced to do that?

Ms Bennett : It's absolutely fundamental to us. It's based in our act. In our act we have a specific provision that talks about cooperating with tertiary education institutions, so right back from 1949, at the origin of the act, it's been there. I'll let Mary talk more about it.

Ms Mulcahy : We do work to inspire students. We also work with teachers to ensure that they have access to relevant information. It shows how what they're teaching in the classroom applies to the research in science and technology as it's happening. One of the really important things about our programs is that we evaluate them, and we can show that this has an impact—that students are inspired, that teachers feel more capable and understand how that science is applied in the real world. One of the really important things for students is the ability either to see what is possible or to meet someone that they can self-identify with, so they can have a vision and understand that journey that they're going on. A number of our programs are having a big impact with that. Students can actually see scientists. They see the research. They can connect and therefore see that there's a possibility of a career. And they see how what they're learning in the classroom is applied in the real world.

Ms Bennett : The discovery centres aim to focus on the research and, through that, the impact of what you do with the outcome of science on the continuum. We want to surface research and excite people about the research process and being a researcher or having a career in research. Obviously, there are two sides of the coin. There is the process of getting there, and there's where Questacon would be on the continuum: taking on what the outcome of science is and how you use it and getting the inspiration that way. You can reach people in different ways, and we work together to try to do that.

Ms Mulcahy : Discovery is a relatively small part of a much larger education outreach program that CSIRO runs. Yes, it's based in Canberra, but most of the visitors are from interstate, so, even though it's a territory based program, it actually has a national reach. CSIRO is looking to have national programs at scale to differentiate us from some others in the market. So it's a small part, but there's a much bigger story to tell, and we work really closely together.

Ms Driver : You spoke about teachers. STEM X is a joint program that the CSIRO and Questacon have taken forward this year. That's about inspiring teachers. We're in the high 90 percentages of satisfaction and quality in terms of the evaluation coming out of those programs. Coming back to your question, Chair: how important is it? Obviously, as Questacon, we'd say that it's critically important. We would probably go as far as to say that inspiration is our core business. An uninspired person won't have any motivation to change the world. If you think about the continuum of science engagement in the context of this question, you are talking about a very complex ecosystem of a person who goes through their life having multiple influences, multiple touch points and multiple moments of inspiration and so we're coming at it from a number of perspectives.

Questacon is generally associated with the young, but, in fact, at our establishment, we were asked to look at the young and the not so young. We do also focus on teachers, communities and young people. If you put it in the context of the economic transformation agenda, for example, which is where much of this conversation is happening—at the intersection of both formal education and informal education—we collectively place ourselves in that informal education sector, which is the scaffolding around that formal education sector. The transformation agenda is not only about STEM skills but about the environment in which young people are brought through that system by confident teachers who are able to articulate the skills to deal with uncertainty, the digital skills of the future, the entrepreneurial skills and so on, which is part of the broader agenda. There are probably about 60-odd toddlers about a kilometre from here down in Mini Q at this very moment.

CHAIR: I've been there.

Ms Driver : It is a good place and it's a hard place to feel sad.

CHAIR: You can get very wet.

Ms Driver : The water play area is the reason why we have a dryer in the basement! Statistically, those toddlers have every chance of living until the 22nd century. This is in the lifetime of young Australians today, and the ecosystem that they are brought through is enhanced by institutions like the CSIRO Discovery Centre and Questacon and other cultural institutions. It is not only to add the fundamental building blocks of that STEM economic transformation but you heard from colleagues earlier that it's also about that little touch of magic, that little bit of inspiration. It is that motivation, that imagination and that creative skill set that the Foundation for Young Australians has actually done research into, which said that it's just as important for that transformation agenda that people have that broader set of skills rather than just the fundamentals. That's where we see our role in terms of, 'Is it important?' Yes, we'd say it's critical.

CHAIR: I'm trying to draw some themes together between the institutions. Part of that is about them telling the Australian story, which is important. You come to Canberra to learn about our Australian story. Your institutions are not as directly focused on that as the Library or Archives would be. How do you counter what I just said? What elements do you do that are absolutely focused on the Australian story in the fields in which your focus?

Ms Bennett : The vast majority of CSIRO science is for the benefit of Australia. If you come to the Discovery Centre, you can see a display on cotton. CSIRO has been fundamental in the last 48 years to the generation of a cotton industry that is world-class. We've now taken the same germ plasm out to over 1/3 of the international production of cotton. I'd say that would be one example immediately. It is very definitely an Australian story.

Ms Mulcahy : The focus of the Discovery Centre is to talk about CSIRO's research. If you're talking about thorough research, we're talking about Australian research and the fundamental challenges that have existed and will exist in the future for Australia.

Ms Driver : I approach the question in three parts. The first part is the that vast majority of the content that Questacon—in the two campuses of the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra and the exhibitions and programs that we take across the country, which is the larger part of our national outreach—is actually created in Questacon by Australian STEM educators, by scientists and through collaborations with organisations like CSIRO and Australian researchers. We're showcasing that but in a different perspective.

The second is we also have a number of young Australians who go out and present programs and are role models for people—teachers, young people, communities—and who show that a scientist is more than just a person in a lab. We have the Shell Questacon Science Circus, for example, that travels across regional Australia every year. That is staffed by 16 Masters of Science Communication students who have come through science disciplines. That is the role modelling aspect.

The third aspect is in things like our digital exhibition called Enterprising Australians. As we travel around the country, we actually collect and curate video stories of little-known Australian innovators and inventors in the communities we're visiting. That goes back to the role modelling thing.

CHAIR: I hope you share those videos with the Film and Sound Archive.

Ms Driver : Having heard their evidence, I will actually check that we are putting them alongside the Film and Sound Archive's activities. That has the benefit of a person being from a young person's community and being there after we've moved on to another town—a role model and a person who is actually practising Australian science, doing Australian innovation in their community, who has been part of a national exhibition that can be viewed internationally as well. I don't know that it would be true to say we're not modelling Australian stories; we're showcasing it from a different perspective.

CHAIR: Do you participate in the PACER program?

Ms Driver : No, we don't. We have a knock-on benefit. Quite a significant proportion—I would have to take on notice the actual percentage, but it was either in the high 80 or early 90 percentage—of schools that come to Canberra on the PACER program do the additional discretionary spend on a visit to Questacon. That has translated into additional bed nights in some cases, but it's also seen the growth of our Q By Night product. We have a product that is a little bit more exclusive. The centre is open until about half past nine at night for booked school groups. They come to have a dinner package and go through. While we don't get the formal PACER funding, we certainly have a benefit because those students are already in Canberra.

Ms BRODTMANN: How much extra is that package for students?

Ms Driver : The Q By Night program is a booked school group package. We have booked school group rates that are less than the ticketing process, but I would have to confirm the Q By Night pricing so I'm giving you accurate information.

Ms Mulcahy : Apparently 80 per cent of students who visit the centre come on that program, but we are like Questacon.

Ms BRODTMANN: You're not part of the formal process. But is it free for them to drop in?

Ms Mulcahy : No, they actually pay.

Ms BRODTMANN: How much do they pay for that?

Ms Mulcahy : It's $10 per student, and there is one teacher who enters free-of-charge per 10 students, and then we have other programs on top of that. For example, we have the DNA program, which is $15 per student and, again, one free teacher per 10 students.

Ms BRODTMANN: Do they get a little meal or snack or anything? How long is that session?

Ms Mulcahy : It's a 90-minute session. They don't get a meal.

Ms BRODTMANN: Could we get some more details in writing—

Ms Mulcahy : Yes, we can do that.

Ms BRODTMANN: about the base $10 program and then what you get for the $15 one. We'll get Ms Driver's in writing as well.

Ms Driver : The two products are quite different though. It's not comparing apples and apples. A visit to the CSIRO Discovery Centre gives a different outcome to a visit to Questacon.

Ms BRODTMANN: I'm not suggesting that they're in any way connected or similar.

Ms Driver : Quite often we'll have several school groups booked in waves through the evening, so we might have a 5.30 group of three or four buses and then another three or four buses at 7.30. They might buy a dinner package; they may not. It just depends. We can get you the pricing on notice.

Ms BRODTMANN: It is so I can have an idea. You have the groups coming up here and you're saying 80 to 90 per cent of the students pay the extra to take part. I would like an idea about yours as well, Ms Mulcahy.

Ms Mulcahy : We will.

Ms BRODTMANN: I don't know whether you saw the ACT government's submission, but they've recommended that Questacon become a statutory authority after expressing concern that there are a number of legacy issues. The Simpson review of 2008 made a strong recommendation for you to do that. Their main concern was the fact that, given your current governance arrangements, you aren't in any real position to fundraise. I'm just going back over my notes so I can get the exact language. Do you have a response to that?

Ms Driver : I don't know that our governance arrangements have prevented us from raising funds. We are currently 51 per cent self-funded through revenue. That includes our tourism business as well as sponsorships and philanthropic donations. So I'm not sure that would be the deciding factor. Certainly our fundraising comes from a few different perspectives. A number of views have expressed the need to look at us as an independent statutory authority. It's a vexed issue. We've been operating this way for 30 years and we have been able to attract fundraising from different perspectives over time. We link it to fundraising of exhibitions, programs and so on. Recently, the government requested Questacon and our parent department to look into the establishment of a philanthropic foundation. That was established in the recent budget. Deductible gift recipient status was given to that foundation. That's entirely separate to Questacon. That's an independent body. It was established by Mr Eddie Kutner, who's an Australian philanthropist and businessman, and the trust deed of that entity is for the benefit of Questacon's activities and programs. So we've managed over time to find ways to fundraise in any event.

The question of our governance is an interesting one because it hasn't really stopped us performing and it's about the way that we've structured our entire business and our entire mindset. It's important to see the difference between a museum and a science centre in this perspective. Science centres are slightly different beasts. Globally amongst the science centre sector, Questacon is quite unique in terms of our capacity to sit within a government department and feed back on-the-ground experience into the policymaking process. That is actually quite unique worldwide and does give us a certain amount of agility that we otherwise wouldn't have. The flipside of that is that we are trying to run a tourism business and philanthropic fundraising activities within the paradigm of a government department. You have to work around how budget rules can be managed, how a special account can be managed for placement of funds, drawdown and so on. But it hasn't stopped us. It warrants consideration, but probably when the time is right. It's not really a first-order priority right now. I'd defer to my colleague Mrs Manen from the department, because we've actually been talking about this in the context of the science agenda and how that unique flexibility and the two sides of this question can actually be a benefit and possibly a barrier that we've managed to work around over time.

CHAIR: It was recommended in the Simpson review in 2008.


Mrs Manen : I just reiterate what Kate has said in terms of the real benefit of having Questacon in the department for policy development purposes and being able to have a two-way exchange of information between Questacon and the policymakers in the department about what works, what works well and how we can harness what already exists, not only from within the Commonwealth but also around the country in terms of the really broad network of activities underway in science engagement, with which Questacon has a really broad-ranging national network. I just reiterate that, yes, it's right that it's continued to be considered in the context of the environment and the operations going forward, but certainly it hasn't prevented an enormous amount of success for Questacon to date and there are extraordinary benefits in having Questacon placed in the department.

Ms Driver : There are pros and cons for it. You would have heard from our colleagues across the cultural sector about some of the challenges they face. We're possibly better supported at times as well because we sit under a larger department. It goes in swings and roundabouts and it's part of a broader question about how the government sees Questacon as the National Science and Technology Centre and as an asset across the Commonwealth government, with the agility that we may be able to actually have in terms of working with all of the Australian science agencies in a very close collaboration, performing the kinds of activities we do in terms of programming, exhibitions, teacher development—those kinds of activities.

CHAIR: You're currently exploring commissionable rates. Can you update the committee on that issue?

Ms Driver : We've been a successful tourism business for 30 years. In fact, we're going for the Hall of Fame in the Australian Tourism Awards this year. In fact, we've got five days left before the period closes. We're trying very hard to see if we can actually win three in a row and become part of the Hall of Fame as the best tourist attraction in Australia. We're pretty proud of that. That has shaped the way we do things. In terms of commissionable rates, there are two different products: the domestic product and the international product. Commissionable rates, for the benefit of the committee, are around being able to place our product with tour operators. We do a lot of booking of school groups and visiting touring groups through a lot of Australian tour operators. We've recently become part of the group booking system that NCETP, under the National Capital Attractions Association, is running here in Canberra and we hope to see a bit more benefit from that. Our membership of the NCETP allows us to market into the sector in Australia.

Going forward as international flights have opened up into Canberra, we think that there is a unique offering not only for Questacon but for the Canberra product with the inbound groups from places like Singapore, who have a requirement to do international travel as part of their formal education system. We can look for an opportunity to have good-quality STEM content products and good-quality cultural experiences. It's actually a really good opportunity for Canberra to sell that product. We are exploring a few pilots, possibly in the next financial year, to see if we can place some commissionable products in places like Singapore and New Zealand, because the direct flights are the markets that we're more likely to attract people to.

CHAIR: That's an amazing opportunity. I didn't realise Singapore had that arrangement as part of their formal education. With the direct flights, there should be a very good opportunity to support—

Ms Driver : It's an opportunity for that Canberra product. It's a quite unique offering in the Australian context, and NCAA have been very strong in supporting all of the attractions in the educational tourism space in looking at packaging that product and sell the Canberra culture, the Canberra STEM experience, to that market.

Ms BRODTMANN: What is the NCAA?

Ms Driver : The NCAA is the National Capital Attractions Association. It's one of the part-owners of the National Capital Tourism Education Project.

CHAIR: They're going to appear before us as well. Thank you so much for your attendance here today. If you've been asked to provide any additional information, please forward it to the secretary by Friday, 6 July. You'll be sent a copy of the transcript of your evidence and will have the opportunity to request corrections to transcription errors.

Proceedings suspended from 12:23 to 12:55