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Economics Legislation Committee
Office of the Chief Scientist

Office of the Chief Scientist


CHAIR: Dr Finkel, thank you very much for joining us. I'm sorry that we've kept you late. I'm not sure whether you will be relieved or offended that we have sort of rushed you through.

Dr Finkel : By my clock we have one more minute to go!

CHAIR: I am wondering whether you've got an opening statement for us then!

Dr Finkel : I do not.

CHAIR: If that's the case, I might turn questioning over to Senator Carr.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you very much. Dr Finkel, because time is short, I'll probably have to be a little bit more abrupt than I otherwise would be. Your appointment as the chief scientist is coming to an end; is that correct?

Dr Finkel : I am in the third year of a three-year contract.

Senator KIM CARR: Yes, that's what I figured. Thank you. Are you seeking an extension?

Dr Finkel : I am in discussions with the minister about the possibility or consideration of an extension.

Senator KIM CARR: Minister, when do you expect that matter will be resolved?

Senator Cash: As the Chief Scientist has said, we are currently in discussions.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm just wondering. Given that it's the third year of your three-year appointment, what do you see as the main role of the Chief Scientist now?

Dr Finkel : It's an interesting question. It's fundamentally, of course to, advise the Prime Minister, the minister for science and other ministers when asked and as relevant; of course, to engage with the public; and to assist with international opportunities that depend on science and technology. I have found that it's been considerably broader than that, so, in practice I have been invited and been honoured to lead a number of reviews that benefit from the insight that a person in the Chief Scientist's position is likely to have. And I've had the opportunity, with support from the department and ministers, to initiate a number of activities—for example, STARportal, a web portal that brings students, parents and teachers together with the providers of extracurricular activities; a science policy fellowship program, which is starting in July; of course, to lead the horizon-scanning reports that come out of the Commonwealth Science Council; and several other things. And I've got the important role of being Deputy Chair of Innovation and Science Australia. I think that, to a large extent, it's to build on the experience of a life in science and technology—and, in my case, business and organisational leadership—bring those skills to bear and see the opportunities to advise the minister and Prime Minister on what science and technology can do for the nation.

Senator KIM CARR: I see. You see the role of Chief Scientist in terms of being a public servant, as independent officer holder or as something entirely different?

Dr Finkel : I see it as it is. My contract is to the Commonwealth of Australia, so I'm not a public servant per se. I'm housed in the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science and I get my staff courtesy of that department, but I think of myself as being an independent contractor to the Commonwealth government and I'm proud of the fact that I act in that way.

Senator KIM CARR: I see. You say independent contractor to the Commonwealth of Australia. Where do the people of Australia fit within that?

Dr Finkel : The Commonwealth, according to my, in this case, lay understanding serves the people of Australia.

Senator KIM CARR: So it's a public position.

Dr Finkel : So indirectly I'm serving the people of Australia.

Senator KIM CARR: Do you see yourself as having a critical function as an advocate for science?

Dr Finkel : Absolutely.

Senator KIM CARR: I'm just interested in terms of—

Dr Finkel : But can I just add that it is not on the basis of science and scientific researchers or humanities researchers having an entitlement. I'm an advocate for what science and research can do for the people of Australia.

Senator KIM CARR: I guess you have to experience the highs and lows of this business. In that regard, you're not unlike a politician. I mean, you've put forward ideas that haven't found acceptance within government—on energy for instance. You would have a sense of frustration about that?

Dr Finkel : No. I have learnt patience in this role in my three years. I look at the electricity review as a great success. We put forward 50 recommendations, and I accept the implication that not all recommendations are created equal. Forty-nine of the recommendations have been accepted and—

Senator KIM CARR: The big one wasn't.

Dr Finkel : through my interaction with the Energy Security Board I'm comfortable with the fact that they are being processed in a fairly vigorous fashion. One recommendation, which I assume you're referring to, is what we call the orderly transition, and the government, for reasons, decided not to accept that particular recommendation. Instead, through the Energy Security Board, it is accepting the National Energy Guarantee. I am comforted that the National Energy Guarantee is a one-for-one substitute for the orderly transition that we recommended.

Senator KIM CARR: Take the case of research funding, particularly on the issue of collaboration, the cultural change. You argued that the issue of the premium rate for the R&D—not just once, but twice, in two separate reports—was critical to securing that cultural shift, given what you said was a significant failing in our innovation system.

Dr Finkel : I would interpret the word 'critical' to mean that in the absence of that action we would suffer significant consequences. My interpretation of what I've twice recommended is that the collaboration premium would be a useful adjunct to encourage in the collaboration that is often seen to lead to better outcomes on research translation. If you go back many years, there was inadequate collaboration between Australian research institutions and Australian innovation-active companies. Things have evolved. In the last few years we have seen a number of things change.

The formula used in the research and development block grant for funding indirect expenses, in research in universities, has been modified through the Watt review. There's a component in there now that rewards engagement by the universities with industry. Very importantly, through the December 2015 NISA enactments, the Australian Research Council was asked to develop a new metric for evaluating university research and performance. Up until now, the government's evaluation of university research performance has been purely focused through a mechanism called the ERA, Excellence in Research for Australia, on research quality as measured through publications and citations, in the main. That had an unintended impact on directing researchers to focus on their bench research and publications efforts rather than engaging elsewhere.

Senator KIM CARR: I would correct your record on that. That's not right.

Dr Finkel : Through the new engagement and impact metric, our researchers are now being actively encouraged to reach out to industry and translate their research out and bring industry research directed projects into their research activities. If you look at the totality of activities that are encouraged in collaboration, the landscape has improved a lot. Would it be better if the collaboration premium were there? It would certainly add to that landscape. But I don't regard it as critical to the collaboration activities.

Senator KIM CARR: I had something to do with the introduction of ERA. I really strongly contest what you're saying. I strongly contest it. The point I'm getting to, though, is that you've indicated, in a number of reports, positions in regard to what's needed to be done. Do you feel you have an obligation to defend your own reports?

Dr Finkel : I'm certainly going to defend the accuracy, relevance and importance of the recommendations in the reports I have been involved with—

Senator KIM CARR: Let's take the Clark review.

Dr Finkel : but I'm not so naive to expect that every recommendation that comes out of my pen will automatically be accepted.

Senator KIM CARR: That's the nature of government. I understand that. You said, on 1 June:

I was on the Clark review as a panel member, and I totally stand behind all of the recommendations there. The natural follow-up is the roadmap exercise that I led last year …

And so on.

The Clark review made a number of recommendations, particularly around quantum and questions such as EIF, which you haven't followed through on. Do you think there is a need for consistency in advice?

Dr Finkel : You say that I haven't followed through. Of course, the recommendations are there. Others, perhaps, haven't followed through, but the Clark review did a deep analysis on the funding envelope—that's what you're referring to—that would be appropriate for a country of our size with the expenditure that we do to be invested in national-scale research facilities to support our research effort. I'm pretty sure that the numbers that it came up with were based on roughly an eight per cent investment into national research facilities of that component of government funding that's directly going to research—in other words, not the research and development tax incentive. That would have put the funding in the vicinity of $550 million per annum. We are making progress towards that. I notice that Charlie Day, the CEO of ISA, made the comment that one can't expect that a long-term plan be implemented and effected right at the very beginning. We've made substantial progress. In December 2015, the government announced through the NISA package $150 million of virtually indefinite funding for the existing facilities—which had been a very sore point for the national research facilities—another $52 million a year for the Synchrotron, and additional funding for the Square Kilometre Array. That was over $200 million a year, and that's somewhat indefinite.

Senator KIM CARR: What did Clark recommend?

Dr Finkel : Clark recommended $550 million.

Senator KIM CARR: It was $6.6 billion over a decade.

Dr Finkel : Yes. Okay.

Senator KIM CARR: You're a long way short of that.

Dr Finkel : There was a range there, and I think $6.6 billion might have been towards the top end, but the numbers are there. So we've got an ongoing commitment of over $200 million from NISA. If you look at the number, which I know that you've been talking about a lot today, of roughly $2.4 billion invested into national research facilities—that's the $1.9 billion plus the other related activities—you're looking at another $200 million per annum. Now we're looking at over $400 million per annum, which in 10 years would be over $4 billion. Have we reached the level that the Clark review recommended? The answer would be no. But have we moved a long way towards that? The answer would have to be yes.

Senator KIM CARR: The proposal that was actually put forward in the earlier review was for an independent committee to assess the research investment plan, and what's happened is that the government's come forward with a proposition to review the investment plan. How adequate is that by comparison to what the review originally intended?

Dr Finkel : It's different, but I think that, when you look at what's come out of the government's response to the National Research Infrastructure Roadmap that I led, there are two things that are important. The first is the one that we've just been discussing, which is the funding envelope and the funding commitments, but the second is a distinct change in the way that government is seeing its commitments to the national research facilities. So what we're seeing is long-term funding, and that's a healthy thing. The government is committing to two-year updates to the National Research Investment Plan. The government has accepted that it is its responsibility to fund the national research facilities, all the while looking for co-funding. The government has recognised that the institutions and the facilities can't effectively hire and retain staff if they've only got surety in their funding for the next one or two years, so the government's committed to doing five-year contracts for these facilities. And the government has committed to repeating every five years the Research Infrastructure Roadmap. So, if you look at the growing funding coupled with the attitudinal change to make longer-term investments and long-term contracts, I think that we're moving towards the kind of arrangements that Clark was foreseeing, but not the exact arrangements.

Senator KIM CARR: Dr Finkel, it's been put to me that you've been talking to people and discouraging them from making public comment about the government's science agenda. Is that the case?

Dr Finkel : I would never discourage people from making public comments.

Senator KIM CARR: Critical comments?

Dr Finkel : No. I have spoken to my colleagues and indicated to them I would be publicly indicating that the government has really shown commitment and progress and that, as a community, we should be appreciative.

Senator KIM CARR: Dr Finkel, you've moved, have you not, from being an adviser to government to being a partisan of government?

Dr Finkel : Not at all. I'm expressing what I genuinely believe.

Senator KIM CARR: Thank you.

CHAIR: Dr Finkel, I've got some questions for you, but I think I'll put them on notice considering the time. Congratulations on getting near the end of your term. From a chair's perspective, you're one of my favourite witnesses to appear at estimates.

Dr Finkel : Thank you, Chair.

CHAIR: So I'm hoping you kick on through.

Dr Finkel : You are my favourite Senate estimates chair.

CHAIR: That's what I love to hear! It's a breath of fresh air! Thank you, Dr Finkel. We'll let you go.

Proceedings suspended from 18:45 to 19:45