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Thursday, 20 April 1972
Page: 1959


Mr GRASSBY (Riverina) - I desire tonight to deal briefly with the position of science in Australia and also to rebut the statement that was issued a few days ago by the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser). There is no doubt that science in Australia today is in the doldrums and that there is a disillusionment among many scientists and a disenchantment with science by a growing number of Australians who do not see science solving the problems in the way they had hoped. The reasons for this are to be found very directly in the Government's neglect of research. Some figures that have just been made available dealing with the expenditure on research and development in Australia compared with other countries show that we are one of the lowest nations in the Western World in relation to expenditure on research. I thought it important that the House should know this so that there can be a debate on the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, which is the major scientific force in the nation md indeed the nation's research instrumentality. Australia spends a lower proportion on research and development funds in industry than any country in Western Europe except Spain and Norway. The figures speak for themselves. The figures that have been compiled by Dr Clive West show that Australia's expenditure on science as a proportion of the gross national product is 1.19. This is among the lowest in the world. The figure for the United States of America is 3.56. The situation is a serious one. The Minister for Education and Science said that there was no muzzling of CSIRO. I W deal with that point later. The Minister also said that the expenditure on CSIRO has been quite adequate. The position of CSIRO in the nation makes it important that it is adequately funded. In the expenditure on research and development in Australia in 1970-71 the Commonwealth Government sector amounted to $1 65m, the State Government sector to S33m, the universities to $68m, industry to $120m and the private non-profit sector to $6m, making a total in that year of $392m. The biggest single amount in the Commonwealth Government sector went to CSIRO.

The Minister said that there has been an adequacy here. It is interesting to note and it should be noted that for 7 long years, from 1960 to 1967, there was virtually no increase in the number of scientists on the national payroll. After 3 years of this financial drought for the nation's scientists there was some movement forward to expand the work and scope of the organisation. Over the subsequent 3 years there was an increase of about 100 positions a year spread over nearly 50 divisions. The ratio of these appointments is one research officer to an assistant. So, it can be seen that the nation's gain in scientists was minor. In the past 2 years only maintenance allocations have been provided to the CSIRO. That is the situation in regard to the financing of this organisation. In fact, it has been asked to do additional work and the funds have been maintained at a constant or maintenance level which means that there must be reductions. It is a matter of concern that the effective work of the CSIRO is being reduced and must be reduced in existing projects because there is just not the money being made available for these to continue.

The other matter with which I wanted to deal tonight was the constraints which are imposed on the nation's scientists. I made the statement that CSIRO research officers in the main at present are muzzled and that the CSIRO is becoming the silent service of the seventies. My complaint in this respect has been echoed by Sir Otto Frankel who was the Chief of the Division of Plant Industry for many years before his retirement. In an address recently at the Academy of Science in Canberra Sir Otto said:

Constraints on the, roughly, one-third of Australian scientists and technologists employed in government departments and instrumentalities constitute a significant deprivation of the 'public interest'.

I think that statement speaks for itself. The new chairman of CSIRO, Dr J. R. Price, in an address to the Victorian Society for Social Responsibility in Science sounded a warning. He said:

However, owing to the Organisation's role as advisers to the Minister and through him to government, and since public interest is frequently associated with matters which may be under active political examination by the Government, or may be so in the near future, 'it is obviously undesirable for anyone expressing a personal opinion to appear to speak on behalf of CSIRO'. This applies particularly to senior members of CSIRO likely to be called on for advice to the Government ...

Dr Pricesummed up by saying:

Hence, members of CSIRO should 'restrict public comment on matters falling within the legitimate areas of expertise of the Organisation to factual statements'.

If we examine that statement we find that it means that anyone who is engaged on research into aspects of pollution is permitted to give the detail of the findings in relation to the effects of pollution, but if he is asked to comment on the causes of pollution he cannot do so. That seems to me to be a most serious constraint at a time when we need scientific bases for our programming to take this nation out of the arthritic present into, I hope, a somewhat more dynamic future.

To refer specifically to the restraints which are imposed, only today a complaint was lodged with me by a representative of private industry who has been engaged in some work with an officer of the CSIRO in a cap/.ai city. The result of that work has been that they are launching a new project, and so an invitation was issued by the private sector to the officer concerned to take part in the opening so that they could acknowledge his good research :rid public work. However, to their concern, he was refused permission even to tike part in the opening of the project. That seems to me to be part of a muzzling which is going on in a continuing way. I do not think that the Minister can afford to brush these things aside and say that adequate finance is being provided to the CSIRO when obviously the figures tell a different story. I do not think he can say there is no muzzling and no constraint when obviously there have been. We should take the gags off scientists so that they can deal not only with the factual matters that they have under their care and responsibility but also with the causes of the problems they are studying.

This is the plea that I make tonight: It is important that there be a national debate on where science in Australia is going and what will be the future use of the nation's major scientific instrumentality, the CSIRO. I feel that it should be a matter of concern to all of us that for 2 years the estimate for this Department have not been properly debated in Parliament. There has not been an adequate alloc ation of time to examine those estimates in detail and, in fact, there has not been an adequate allocation of time to review the programmes which currently are going forward. This ls important for both sectors. It has been suggested that new work on the environment should be undertaken by the organisation. That is very desirable and very commendable. It has been suggested that work should be undertaken in the mineral sphere. This, again, is desirable and needed. But unless funds .ire made available some of the existing research will have to be reduced if that work is undertaken. Half the efforts of the CSIRO at the moment are directed to the primary sector. That research has been supported by the primary industries themselves. But those industries are not in a position to continue that support. In the absence of Government initiative that valuable segment of research will be reduced.

In summation, I suggest to the Minister for the Environment, Aborigines and the Arts (Mr Howson), who is at the table, that he convey this submission to the Minister for Education and Science (Mr Malcolm Fraser) so that he may review the constraints that I have, mentioned and so that he may look at the research project within the CSIRO which has been held up in order to evaluate what is being done and to indicate needs in a forward way. This survey which started in 1968-69 still has not been completed. The question may well be asked: Have the brakes been applied to that survey? Is it another example of the desire for secrecy, for muzzling and for gagging the nation's scientists?







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