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Tuesday, 20 May 1980
Page: 2893


Mr THOMSON (Leichhardt) (Minister for Science and the Environment) - I have pleasure in presenting the Science Statement for 1979-80 and seek leave to make certain remarks relating thereto.

Leave granted.


Mr THOMSON -This statement is a report on Commonwealth funding of research and development over the past four years. It is the first such statement. It is a pilot document which I hope will be repeated and expanded annually. It is in accordance with the Government's stated policy of advising Parliament and Australia on trends in the nation's research and development. It is a step towards what I hope will be a wideranging discussion, perhaps leading to changes in the future. The statement could not have been produced without the co-operation of my ministerial colleagues and their officers. To all of these, I express my appreciation.

The statement is a post-Budget analysis of research expenditure of all Government departments and provides information is essential for those inside and outside government who are concerned that research activities should be linked to national needs. Research priorities need to be adjusted from time to time to meet new demands brought about by such realities as changing population patterns, changing community expectations, changing world industrial and trade patterns and changing energy requirements. It is of critical importance that the policy makers, responsible for the adjustments, have up-to-date information on the allocation of the resources of both the Government and the community. We should all be concerned about research priorities because research today is the basis of the science and technology that affect the community tomorrow. The Government sees science and technology playing a central role in contributing to national economic health. It is a key to the solution of many of the problems confronting our society. Science and technology now pervade all aspects of our lives. They enhance our lifestyles and provide employment and investment opportunities. In Australia, more than 70 per cent of research expenditure is provided by governments. The effective and efficient utilisation of science and technology resources is therefore a major responsibility of government. This Government has consistently accepted that responsibility.

Some points should be borne in mind when interpreting the statement. It is in part an experiment. The treatment of data has naturally varied according to the source of information. That, however, does not detract from its usefulness. The basic aim has been to present total Commonwealth payments for research. The statement shows that Commonwealth funding of research rose substantially between 1968-69 and 1973-74 and was then maintained in real terms until 1976-77. There was a slight drop in 1977-78 and since then it has been increased to about the previous level in real terms. The statement also shows that private enterprise research and development declined substantially between 1974 and 1977. Preliminary results of the latest survey by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show that this decline has been arrested, and indicate an upturn of 6 per cent in real terms.

Government priorities for energy and manufacturing industry have been reflected in substantial rises in research and development funding. For example, expenditure on energy research and development rose from $ 12.9m in 1 976-77 to an estimated $30m this financial year. Manufacturing industry research and development support rose from $39. lm in 1976-77 to an estimated $66. 8m. These rises are reflected in the trends in research and development funded by my colleagues the Minister for National Development and Energy (Senator Carrick) and the

Minister for Productivity (Mr Newman). Research and development in the areas of health and environment have been well supported in real terms. In welfare research there has been a large relative increase from a low base. Over the four years covered by the statement, the total of capital and other funds available to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation has not been reduced in real terms but in fact has been slightly increased. Some activities have been reduced and new ones commenced. In particular the construction of the new Australian National Animal Health Laboratory is now progressing rapidly. In the same period, support for university research provided through the Australian Research Grants Committee has been maintained substantially at a uniform level in real terms.

In supporting research we must ensure that the work is directed towards national economic and social goals. We must also ensure that resources are used efficiently. In Australia we believe that these requirements can be best achieved through a pluralist pattern which facilitates different approaches for different sectors. Only CSIRO has a wide charter for its research and development interests. This pluralist system has worked well. It works, I believe, much better than a centralised, bureaucratic approach. Our system must place special emphasis on co-ordination and on assigning priorities among sectors. This is a basic tenet of our science and technology policy. We have mechanisms to provide co-ordination, to identify gaps and to recommend on priorities. A wide range of bodies provide scientific and technological policy advice to the Government. The principal independent advisory body is the Australian Science and Technology Council. The Parliament itself has a significant role in this process. The Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment and other committees are important sources of advice.

Given this pluralistic approach, information on resources devoted to research in each sector is critical. I see that as the value of this statement. It informs the Parliament on the allocation of public funds. It provides the various advisory and coordinating bodies with information necessary for their deliberations. Above all, it informs members of the public of the nature and extent of the research and development they are supporting. Having compiled the information, we must look at the effectiveness of our use of the resources. A fundamental four-fold plan is required, firstly, to develop our capability in basic research to provide a store of knowledge and expertise for the future; secondly, to develop our capability in applied research; thirdly, to transfer research achievements, through development, into the market place; and fourthly, to ensure that any undesirable social and environmental impacts of technology are minimised.

It seems to me that insufficient attention is being paid at present to the fourth element of the plan- the assessment of the possible impacts of science and its applications. I believe that, if this situation is to be corrected, governments should give a lead. They should have a greater involvement in the transfer of research achievements, through development, into the market place. In my view, the promotion of applied science would include assessment and the solution of social as well as scientific and technological problems. CSIRO is already heavily involved in the business of getting research results into the market place. I also intend that my Department shall examine what contribution it can make in this area.

Those concerned with science and technology should have a pre-occupation with the future and a concern not only for what is, but also for what can be. The aim is to harness professional skills of prediction to the goals and aspirations of the people in the society in which scientists work and live. Thus we can combine what is and what can be with what our society considers ought to be. The public expects science and technology to improve the future. We are experiencing the benefits of space research in new materials and in applications to meteorology, communications and earth resources management. In the not too distant future we may see the use of space's low gravity extreme vacuum environment to enable us to produce new alloys and other materials. We may see energy beamed from space. Biotechnology, the science of creating new organisms to perform industrial processes, offers exciting prospects.

The public also expects science and technology to contribute to the solution of our problems. I am concerned about our changing population distribution and the decline in some centres west of the Great Dividing Range. I was therefore impressed to learn of research in the United States into small scale industrial technology and rural revitalisation. Such projects could be of great value to a country such as Australia. We are already beginning to see the usefulness of solar energy in remote locations. The growing technological complexity, indicated in my previous remarks, does bring with it the danger of polarisation and conflict. Society is already dividing into those who are familiar with science and those who are fearful of it. There is a rising disquiet in the community about some aspects of science. The possible effect of new technologies on employment is one such issue. There are others. We need to explain the benefits of science. We need to lessen misunderstandings which can arise all too easily. Greater understanding will lessen the potential for conflict over the application of science.

Science policy should emphasise public education to ensure effective public participation in debate on issues which have profound social effects. I believe this science statement will contribute to this public understanding and improve the capacity of people to make informed judgments about science and technology. I commend it as one step in a continuing effort to make the best use of science and technology for the benefit of Australia and Australians. I present the following paper:

Science Statement 1979-80- Ministerial Statement, 20 May 1980.

Motion (by Mr Street) proposed:

That the House take note of the papers.







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