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Wednesday, 25 February 1987
Page: 694

Mr BALDWIN —My question is directed to the Minister for Science. What was the basis for a record award of nearly $600,000 in the Australian research grants scheme for a stellar interferometer? At a time of acute stringency in funding, can this sum be justified?

Mr BARRY JONES —I thank the honourable member for his question. As the University of Sydney is in his electorate, I know of his keen interest in Australia's research capacity. On 11 February I presented a cheque for $250,000 to the University of Sydney as the first instalment of a payment of $598,000 in this calendar year towards the cost of building the world's most powerful instrument for measuring stars. This is the largest single grant ever made under the Australian research grants scheme. The grant will be used to build a very high angular resolution stellar interferometer for the university's Chatterton Astronomy Department. It will be sited at Culgoora in the electorate of the Deputy Leader of the National Party of Australia, about 20 kilometres north of Narrabri in north-western New South Wales. It will be built back to back, if honourable members will excuse the indelicacy, with the Australia telescope. The device was designed by Professor Robert Hanbury-Brown of the Sydney University and is being further developed by Dr John Davis and Dr W. J. Tango. The project is also being supported by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation and the University of Sydney, and it should attract significant private support from industry under the 150 per cent tax deductibility scheme because of its implications in optics, microengineering and microelectronics. The machine will be capable of measuring stars with a resolution equivalent to measuring the width of a human hair at a distance of 100 kilometres so that the interferometer--

Mr Braithwaite —Can I hire it?

Mr BARRY JONES —It could find a hair on the head of the honourable member for Dawson, if anything could. The interferometer will allow astronomers to study the fundamental properties of stars, including temperature, size, mass, atmosphere, composition, evolution and nuclear processes, which cannot be done with conventional telescopes. It will also contribute to the establishment of a precise distance scale in the universe. The interferometer is at the forefront of high science and high technology, and I am very proud that the development work and the vast majority of the equipment are Australian. It has received the highest level of international support for any Australian scientific project so far, and I think it deserves the full support of everybody in the House as an achievement that we can be proud of.

The importance of the project was recognised by the Whitlam Government in 1974, with the award of a $75,000 grant for a design study of a successor to the earlier interferometer at Narrabri. Under the Fraser Government, high levels of support were given by ARGS. Because of the success of its prototype built in North Ryde, the new instrument will be built for about $4m, that is, one-tenth of the original estimate. Australia is recognised internationally as the world leader in the field of very high angular resolution studies of stars. This will keep Australia at the forefront of this science, but the size of the ARGS grant reflects a new philosophy in that body. The time has come for more targeting of grants, especially at a time of financial stringency. We should have fewer grants but larger ones of a more useful size and the setting out of priority areas, including the provision of funds for capital equipment. The dribble or spray effect, egalitarian though it is, has its limitations. Among the priority areas could be new industrial materials, molecular electronics, artificial intelligence, marine science and astrophysics. I repeat: This is a project of enormous significance, and it should be a matter of great national pride.