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Tuesday, 20 May 1980
Page: 2895


Dr KLUGMAN (Prospect) - It is not easy for me to reply quickly to a science statement which contains nearly 70 pages of figures and which was given to the Opposition only in the last couple of hours. I am not complaining about that. I am just explaining why I will not go into detail to any large extent in respect of the actual scientific content of the paper. It is impossible to deal with such a statement in detail now. I hope that when honourable members have had a chance to have a good look at the paper they will be given an opportunity of dealing with it in greater detail.

I think it would be fair to say- and I do not want to be too aggressive about this-that the statement of the Minister for Science and the Environment (Mr Thomson) is a complacent review of the state of scientific research in Australia. The Minister is quite happy with the way things are going. I refer to an article which appeared in the Australian Financial Review of 9 May 1980 which quotes Sir Geoffrey Badger, the Chairman of the Australian Science and Technology Council. It states:

Australian reliance on imported technology will make it more difficult for governments to regulate the pace at and extent to which it is introduced, according to a leading technologist.

Sir GeoffreyBadger, chairman of the Australian Science and Technology Council, called for a Government science policy to oversee technological change.

We perform about 2 per cent of the world's research and development as measured by the number of scientific publications, ' Sir Geoffrey said.

On the other hand we have a substantial deficit in our technological balance of payments.

Our receipts from overseas for patents, licences and royalties amount to only 1 1 per cent of the payments we have to make to overseas companies.

The technology we use is mainly imported and cannot be subject to regulation by governments in terms of the pace and extent of its introduction, at least in business enterprises. '

Delivering a keynote paper at Melbourne's La Trobe University Meridith Memorial Lectures this week, he described the low level of industrial research in Australia compared with other developed countries.

Figures for 1973-74 showed industrial research and development was 37 per cent of all R and D but by 1 976-77 it had fallen to 2 9 per cent of the total.

Compared with other OECD countries, that figure was less than half the level for every other member country with the exception of Canada.

Surely that is depressing. If we look at the figures- and as I mentioned earlier I have looked at only the first few pages- we see that estimated Commonwealth Government funds expended on research and development in 1978-79 as compared with 1973-74 have decreased in real terms by 18 per cent. Secondly, and in some ways even more depressingly- it ought to be more depressing for honourable members opposite- although private enterprise contributed some 33 per cent of total expenditure on research and development in 1968-69, its contribution was down to 1 8 per cent by 1976-77. The Minister said today in his ministerial statement on science that there has been a slight upturn- I think a 6 per cent upturn- in private business expenditure. However, it is important to remember that this contribution has reached a very, very low level- a depressingly low level.

Let us look at the research position in Australia. I speak with some feeling on this because I started off my adult life as a researcher in science. I graduated with honours in physical chemistry at the University of Sydney in the year that the atomic bomb was dropped. I was then on the staff of the Department of Chemistry at the University for two years before I decided to change over to medicine and start a completely new career. The situation even then was depressing in terms of the sort of research facilities which were provided in universities. I was involved in work on spectrophotometers. I knew that it took some two or three months to get a number of figures and a number of results that people in the United States could get within hours with better equipment. I could not see any future in continuing that work. Maybe I was easily dissuaded from doing my work, but I think this is probably an indication of the sort of thing which faced other people interested in scientific research in Australia.

I think it is true to say that Australia 's research effort in our academic institutions is very small in terms of international comparison. Under the present Government it has declined to dangerously restricted levels. Considering our long term national interests, it should be much higher. I know that pleas are made by people who are involved in research just as pleas are made by people who are involved in anything else. This applies to politicians when they go before the Remuneration Tribunal and to people who come to Canberra for Budget discussions. Farmers might speak to the Minister for Science and the Environment, who is at the table, in his capacity as their local member. A lot of special pleading goes on and as politicians we are aware of this. But I think that generally speaking there is agreement among authoritative bodies and persons in Australia that Australia is not expending adequate funds on research in general and on research in academic institutions in particular.

In recent years the Government has ignored the call for increased funding for research by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examiners in science and technology, the Australian Science and Technology Council, the Universities Council, the Tertiary Education Commission, the Australian Academy of Science, the Industries Assistance Commission, academic staff associations, the Committee of Inquiry into Education and Training and the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment. Whilst each body emphasises particular benefits to be accrued from increased funding for research, the range of arguments for increased research funding usually includes economic well-being and material progress. Research contributes to industrial development, mastery of technological innovation, improved use of resources, energy self-sufficiency and an increased standard of living. In the case of social and public welfare research, benefits include improved insight into the working of our society and the hope of improved services and better social mechanisms for coping with such issues as the social ramifications of technological change itself. Finally, the extension of knowledge is used as an argument in favour of increased research. It is generally argued that it is necessary as a matter of national prestige that we participate meaningfully in the extension of knowledge, particularly in matters related to the Australian skies, sea and land mass, and of course areas of the Antarctic under our care. Such activities contribute to the intellectual and teaching vitality of our academic institutions and may form the basis of practical applications.

However, there is evidence of neglect in research funding. Adequate funding levels have not been maintained through recurrent expenditure, special research grants, allocations by research funding committees or the granting of Commonwealth post-graduate awards. Firstly, under the present Government's announced programs, recurrent funding for universities and colleges of advanced education during 1980 and 1981 will be held in constant prices at the 1979 level which was about $12m below the needs recommended by the Tertiary Education Commission. The Commission has protested, saying:

One particular area of concern to the Commission is the impact of these funding restrictions on research activities. The proportion of universities' recurrent expenditure devoted to research activities has steadily declined.

The Australian Research Grants Committee was allocated $ 13.9m in the 1979-80 Budget. In real terms this represents a cut of 8 per cent compared with the amount allocated in 1976-77. The National Health and Medical Research Council was allocated $14m for the current year which represents no change in real terms. That sum is equal to 0.2 per cent of the total health budgetonefifth of one per cent- compared with 0.4 per cent four years ago. The Council has been able to fund only 37 per cent of grant applications for the next year. I think there is a depressing future in relation to grants given by the National Health and Medical Research Council. An important aspect is the post-graduate studentship awards. I have been in contact with post-graduate students in my capacity as a representative of this House on the Council of the Australian National University. I think they have an excellent case; and I am not often persuaded by cases presented by people. The Commonwealth Postgraduate Award Scheme allocation of $8.9m in 1979-80 represents a 9. 1 per cent cut in real terms in overall funding. The number of new Commonwealth post-graduate awards decreased from 725 in 1974 to 555 in 1979. Following the anomalous decision to tax only post-graduate studentships awarded by the Commonwealth, it is estimated that the real value of each award has declined by 50 per cent over the five year period. Compared with average weekly earnings, the award is at its lowest level for at least 10 years. Many of our ablest students of mature age with dependants are being forced to live in conditions close to poverty.

Finally, I wish to quote, with regard to fundamental and applied research, from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development examiners' reports on science and technology in Australia. It reads: . . in Australia a disproportion exists between academic research and I.R. & D. Furthermore, we suffer ... a timidity in investing innovative projects. As a result, little science flows into indigenous development, because it is insufficiently concentrated.

I think that is an important point for those of us who are also interested in manufacturing industry. The quotation continues:

Little fragments of information and expertise are not enough to start a development, build an export program, or calculate multi-million dollar risks.

Last year the Senate Standing Committee on Science and the Environment said:

At present no clear national policy for science and technology exists in Australia. In consequence there can be little coherence, sense of purpose or direction in government support for industrial research and development.

In the first volume of the ASTEC report entitled Science and Technology in Australia 1977-78 ' it was stated:

The long term survival of manufacturing in Australia requires a high level of modern technology and of technological innovation.

I think that is very important. On the general philosophical argument I agree with the Minister when he talks in his statement about the growing technological complexity which brings with it danger of polarisation and conflict. Society, as he put it, 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. Nuclear energy is a very important issue for this country. In many cases there is a lack of understanding on both sides about the benefits or dangers of nuclear energy.

If we want to compete in the world of the 1980s, the 1990s and 2000 and beyond it is terribly important that we have an intelligent and educated community which is able to take advantage of technological advances and a significant proportion of which is not terribly scared of the disbenefits of science. I am one of those who are optimistic about science. I believe science will solve most of the problems which face us, as it has in the past. I think it is important for the Government and for scientists as a whole to continue to try to persuade the community at large that huge threats are really not involved and for those arguing for and against to put on the platforms not extremists who take only one point of view but people who are obviously able to see both sides of the issue and are able to provide us with intelligent leadership in the future.

Debate (on motion by Mr Young) adjourned.







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