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Science meets Parliament: Speech by Dr Brendan Nelson to the National Press Club : Canberra: 8 March 2005.

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Science meets Parliament National Press Club Speech by Dr Brendan Nelson

Tuesday 8 March, 2005

Thank you very much, Ken, once again for your generous introduction and welcome to me at the National Press Club here on what is really the anniversary of the Foundation of FASTS and when you think what FASTS has achieved over twenty years, we can be extremely proud of everything that you've been able to do. Snow Barlow, President of FASTS; Bradley Smith, Chief Executive; Dr Robyn Batterham the Chief Scientist; Professor Peter Hoj, the Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Research Council; Professor Carolyn Kovac from IBM, to whom we're all looking forward to hearing tonight, or at least we'll look forward to hearing her speak at a function later today. I'd also like to welcome the very distinguished members of the Korean Parliament and the Korean Science Foundation. Welcome to our country and thank you very much for everything that you do and work with us collaboratively in the areas of science. Dr Wyn Ingham from New Zealand Department of Science and Technology, but most importantly, all of you who are members of Australia's scientific and research communities. Thank you for everything you do on a daily basis and in that regard I should also certainly not forget Dr Carolyn Allport, who of course is President of the National Tertiary Education Union.

I firstly remember of course, as we should always, that long before we non-indigenous Australians, there were indigenous people who made involuntary sacrifices, to make possible the construction of this country and make it what it is today. Different but no less important than those made by we non-indigenous Australians and in Canberra here of course, it is the Ngunnawal.

Please continue to eat. Some of you may have been there, but a couple of years ago I gave a fairly heavy oration to the Engineers and it was a dinner event and when I sat

down, for those of you who are Engineers, you'd know they're a pretty serious breed, thank goodness, and when I sat down, the very earnest Chief Executive leaned over and said: "Dr Nelson, I do apologise for continuing to eat whilst you began your speech, but your wife said I should enjoy something while you were talking."

So, needless to say, when I was asked recently by a young man having addressed a conference about leadership, when I'd finished that, I felt in many ways they'd asked the wrong person, but when I'd finished that, one young fellow said: "How do you stop politicians from becoming arrogant in politics?" I said, "Well when you find out can you let me know, but as long as you've got a wife and teenagers, you're pretty right." So, my sixteen year old girl's an expert on the science of ageing. When I turned forty-six, she reflected on the event and said: "Hey Dad, that means you're half dead! What my Grandfather said is unprintable".

As Carolyn and many of you who work in the higher education sector know, when embarking on the journey of looking at Australia's higher education sector, I invoked the memory and the words of Winston Churchill in September 1943, in a world quite different from the one in which we're living, when he'd gone to Harvard University to receive an Honorary Doctorate, and the Americans had asked him to speak that day about the British Empire. And, he essentially said: "Look when the war ends, as it will, the empires of the future will be empires of the mind". And yet, here we are now, sixty years later in a world that is quite different from the 'Churchillian' world of the Second War, and we are 0.3% of world population. We are 1.2% of global GDP, we are less than 4% the gross domestic product of the United States of America, we are 6% of APEC. The one hundred segmented markets that characterise the world at the end of the Second War, have now essentially coalesced into three major trading blocks, and at the same time our country is embarking on trade negotiations bilaterally with countries, as you are well aware, the United States of America which has been concluded, similarly China, and a number of other important countries to us, not only culturally, but also economically.

You come to Canberra at a time of enormous change. Here we are in the early parts of the twenty-first century and we face horizons which are different from those that were faced by my generation when I was going through the formative years of my life and of my education.

In 2004, toward the end of last year, the Productivity Commission Report published its forecast for the next forty years to 2044, and it forecast that if all things remained equal, we will need to increase taxes by 23% just to fund the health and welfare costs of aging over the next forty years. That the gap between revenue and expenditure is expected to be 6% of Australia's GDP and if we continue as we are, if there is no increase in taxes to fund this, there will in fact be a fiscal deficit cumulatively by the Commonwealth and the States, of 7.1% of GDP.

It also correctly pointed out that there are three variables, predominant variables which can influence that future.

The first is our population. Notwithstanding the exaltations of the Treasurer on Budget Night, we're not likely to substantially increase our population in the foreseeable future. I

did have an interesting conversation with my wife on Budget Night.

We're also lobbied constantly by the business community to increase our population and that debate will continue, but it is likely that we will not move much beyond the 0.3%.

The second, of course, is participation, upon which the Government is actively working. How can we get more people of working age, or those who perhaps don't traditionally consider themselves of working age, into the workforce and to be productive?

And the third, of course, is productivity.

And it is that, all of those three things in particular, and I'd include the science indeed of population forecasting, but those three areas especially, scientists, Australian scientists can make a significant contribution, but especially in the area of productivity.

Our future, the things that are going to determine the sort of country that my kids are going to be living in when they're 'half dead", are going to be determined by our ability to learn how to learn.

The future's going to be moulded, not so much by the things we know, but the things that we don't.

And, amongst my colleagues when I'm discussing scientific issues with them, they understandably have a particular focus on everything from photonics to nanotechnology and complex intelligent systems. I say to them you must not ever forget, that in the end it's not just about knowledge, it's about how we understand it and how we adapt to it.

Most of us, as Australians, are not particularly scientifically literate, which creates its own challenges for us. To live in a society, in a country which is increasingly dependent on technology, but where perhaps less of us actually understand the technology that's driving change and upon which our future actually rests, is a significant risk.

We need to make sure that humanities and social sciences are considered to be no less important in building our future, a future on science and technology. Because in the end, if all of the scientific problems of life were ever solved, in an applied sense, the most important questions would remain unanswered.

I said to the audience who had come to the opening of the National Stem Cell Centre at Monash University recently, that it is about trust. The vast majority of us are not scientists, but we know that our future is going to rely very heavily on what you do. We trust you not only with our money but with our future. We feel a deep sense of uncertainty about living in vast ignorance of the long term consequences, not only of decisions that are made on our behalf by people who profess to lead, but also the emergence of new knowledge and new understanding.

And in order to ensure that that trust is maintained, it requires all of you, as scientists, and those who perhaps seek to represent you in a political sense, to do everything we possibly can to bring the community with us.

My brother, my late brother, the tenth anniversary of whose death my family marks this month, spent the last two years of his death in the quixotic search for a cure from a disease from which he knew he would almost certainly die.

This is repeated in many families, including families within this room, every day of the year. But the most important human emotion in my experience, which is also the most fragile, is hope. And hope of a confident future lies in breakthroughs in health, in medical, in applied sciences, and then also, I would argue, in humanities and social sciences in terms of how we understand and adjust to that.

There are many things that we are striving to do, but I know some of you don't agree with it. The last time science came to Parliament, one young scientist said to me that he was outraged by the destruction that I was reeking on the scientific community and I said, well can you just give me a chance, we'll have the conversation in a couple of years' time.

But, the first thing that we set about doing, ably supported and led by Dr Robyn Batterham, was to set research priorities for our country. Some of my colleagues wanted research priorities to be in particularly narrow fields, areas where they thought we as a nation should be good at and we should make choices. Whether it's in phenome-genome research or in biomedical science, or in genetics or any one of a number of areas. The argument that I put to them, on your behalf and supported again by Jim Peacock and the Australian Academy of Science, was that we need broad thematic priorities. We need to set strategic direction for our country which is informed by science, but also human and social objectives which we consider to be equally important.

And so the four priorities as you know are that we strive to be an environmentally sustainable continent, which means not just fuel engineering technologies and applied science and geosciences, but also - how do we change human behaviour in not only agricultural communities, but also in domestic ones in large cities?

That we promote and maintain good health.

That we support frontier technologies to transform and sustain Australian industries and that we safeguard our country, not just in terms of disease and pestilence and agricultural threats, but also that we safeguard our country in a world of fundamentalism which drives terrorism in many parts of the world.

Consistent with the priorities, the CSIRO has developed and has been funded for, what I see around here, its six flagship programmes and Dr Garrett and the Board of CSIRO attract criticism from various quarters. I just think it's extremely important that we focus upon the things we want to be particularly good at as a country, so the flagships in water resources that we increase by ten fold, our economic, social and economic returns from water.

Promoting good health and the objective as you know is to take Two Billion dollars off health costs by 2020.

Also, agri foods are adding three billion dollars to the export value of our food industries. Energy transformed which is about doubling light metals (inaudible) energy transform which is about halving greenhouse emissions from new energies and doubling their efficiency. And light metals of course, which is about doubling our exports and supporting new light metals industries and oceans being the other flagship, in terms of better understanding the oceans and the economic potential of the benefits that it offers to our country.

There are lots of things that attract the attention of the media, and you'll find as everyday people that are trying to do your research and feed your kids and your mortgages and everything like that, when you come to Canberra you quickly come face to face with not only us, but also the media, who play a very important part in this country.

But frequently the media focuses on, and its representatives, focus on issues which they considered to be most controversial and have the most potential to cause embarrassment to me, or the Government.

Arguably the most controversial thing that we have embarked upon is the research quality framework.

This year we will invest 5.4 billion dollars of your money from the Federal Government's perspective in research. Now that, the OECD average is 0.61% of GDP. We are at 0.8% of GDP which is ahead of the United States, Japan, France, Germany and the UK, which is at the OECD average. Business expenditure in R&D whilst increasing, is still well below the OECD average although it's increasing at twice that rate.

As Australia's Minister for Science, I cannot assure the average Australian that we fund the highest quality research in all circumstances. The research quality framework is about the quality of research and it's about the impact of that research. And, Sir Gareth Roberts will be chairing it and has already commenced that process. We envisage it will take at least a year. A discussion paper to inform the research quality framework will be released later this month. There will then be an appropriate approaches paper that will be produced and delivered to the broad community.

My Department, through Grahame Cook and his staff, will be conducting formal consultations with the scientific, research and business communities about the different options for research quality framework.

We will bring all of you together, our ambition is at least in June, and then we will trial a limited number of research quality frameworks through to the end of the year and then there will be a recommendation put to me to consider the adoption of one research quality framework to inform the distribution of Australia's research effort for the foreseeable future.

To also assist in that process, and we expect humanities and social sciences to also be involved in this, 27% of the ARC Budget is quite rightly given to research in those areas.

I provided half a million dollars last year to the Council of Humanities and Arts and Social Sciences which we have established to basically look at the quality of the research of its members, to look at the extent to which it can collaborate with applied scientists and to what extent, and I understand this is limited, that commercialisation can be applied in humanities and social sciences.

We are as a relatively small country not in the position of being able to afford research which is not of the highest quality and in a moment I'll speak about universities and I said it, I think I might have said it the last time I was here, that we need to understand, and I think people in this room do understand it. That many of us as Australians are struggling to come to terms with it, that the only benchmarks, the only ones that are going to count increasingly are international ones on standards. To be the best in New South Wales or Queensland, as admirable as that is, or to be the best in Australia, is a great achievement, but increasingly it's where do we rate with the rest of the world and as a relatively small country we cannot afford to support and fund anything less than the highest quality. And the worst of all people to decide what is high quality, is Government. It is in your hands. The easy thing for me to do as the Minister is to do nothing. To simply sit back and allow research resources to be distributed the way that they currently are. But in my view, that would be an abrogation of my responsibility and the responsibility we collectively have to the next generation.

We're also determined to look at infrastructure and over the period of backing Australia's ability, the ten year period, there's an additional 1.8 billion dollars being committed to infrastructure. There's been too much (inaudible) in Australia. Rory Hume is currently developing with his expert advisory group, a strategic road map if you like for making key infrastructure decisions over at least the forthcoming five years. We are determined to make sure that the decisions that we make are not based on parochialism, that are not based on (inaudible) and I hesitate to say this, but short term political expediency.

We've got to make sure that the decisions that we make about allocating our limited resource, infrastructure money for research, are the very best decisions that meet a broad strategic framework we've got to have for Australia. Complementing all of that of course is the research accessibility framework.

We are also in the process, and Mike Sargent has agreed to take on chairing this role for us, of developing an e-research infrastructure which enables not just you as researchers, but we as lay people, to get immediate access to data which is being stored and research which has been produced and has been published.

All of these things are a part of building a world class research culture in Australia.

In 1854, George Bull, (for the mathematicians here, I think Gareth's here), would know that George Bull produced his bull in algebra. And most people at the time thought well that's interesting but what use is that? It wasn't for another ninety years until Claud Shannon in the 1940’s took George Bull's algebra and developed it as the language of the computer and the basis of digital computation. (6 of 10) [10/03/2005 11:10:15 AM]

The point is we don't know what we don't know. We often don't understand the importance of new discoveries. For us, again as a relatively small country, competing with outstanding countries in science such as Korea, we have to collaborate. It's about quality, it's about collaboration, and it's also about commercialisation of research.

20% of the ARC's budget is now committed unashamedly to regional and large scale collaborations. Of course there will always be a role for individual researchers, but increasingly we've got to get access to platform technologies and infrastructure in other countries, and the key to it is collaboration amongst our own researchers, across disciplines and portfolios, and also collaborations with researchers in other countries.

The CSIRO programme, the flagship programme into which we've put 305 million dollars over the seven years, is as much about collaboration as it is about prioritising our research effort in a broad strategic sense.

On that note, one of the other priorities from the many I've got in terms of reform for this term, is looking at the relationship between the Australian National University and the CSIRO.

ANU was ranked, I think, sixteen in the Times Higher Education Supplement recently and fifty-third in Shanghai Jiao Tong. No matter what lead table you use, ANU is closer to the top of Australia's universities internationally than it would be regarded to be at the bottom.

It currently has nine research schools in the ACT and one research centre in the Institute of Advanced Studies.

About 30% of its student load are post-graduates and the other 70% are under-graduates.

ANU is outstanding at investigative driven research. Original research. Absolutely brilliant. It’s commercial outcomes are not quite so strong. Only 0.2% of ANU's research revenues are actually attributed to licence revenues. It's about 300 thousand dollars. About the same as the University of South Australia in terms of commercialisation of research.

CSIRO has eight divisions which are based in the ACT. Five of them are principally based in the ACT. It has about fourteen hundred staff here and at the moment there are eighty-six collaborations between ANU and CSIRO, and last year sixty-seven papers that were published jointly. About 5% of all CSIRO's published papers were joint ANU/CSIRO.

The challenge for us, not just those of us who profess to lead, but to you as leaders in science; how do we take a fifty year view? If we take a fifty year view, CSIRO, its strength is in broad, strategic research which is addressing long term problems and objectives which then might have practical applications and lead to commercial outcomes. If we take a fifty year view of it, I suspect, that ANU will be a fully research intensive University. In 1960, when it amalgamated with the Australian University College, or the Canberra University College, it had been a University that was research

intensive and for post-graduates.

Our vision has got to be without any coercion from Government, but creating a framework in which it might be facilitated to see that CSIRO, which by any standard, is a world class institution which cannot afford to stand still, that CSIRO and ANU in particular, form much closer collaborations and relationships as we go forward. There should never be any coercion from Government in driving collaboration, no matter how close it is, between institutions like this. But we've got to create a framework where we can envisage a future where not just CSIRO and ANU, but other institutions in this country in every sense of the word are world class. Understanding necessarily we have a relatively limited tax base, a collapsing aged dependency ratio and a limited population.

Another priority as I mentioned is commercialisation. Now, this is an area where many of you I know have problems with the idea of commercialising research and seeing it as a priority. My job, amongst many things, is to constantly think of the concerns of the average every day person. The average truck driver, the average shop assistant, the policeman or nurse, or plumber, or gas fitter, or tiler, teacher, wherever they come from, we are custodians of their hard earned taxes. We turn money into research. We should not be frightened of turning research back into money so long as that is not our main priority of research. At the moment, as you're probably aware, 82% of the licence revenue that's aggregated from the University research has been generated by three Universities - UNE, Melbourne and UQ.

Mike Vitale, I noticed in reading Biotech in November, I think the November edition last year analysed the research commercialisation data. Vitale is as you know Professor at AGSM. Six Universities in 2002 received 83 million dollars for research. The total licence revenue was less than 20 thousand dollars and it was generated by one University and that's CQU. Not one employed a single person to work full time on commercial outcomes from researches conducted.

The next seven Universities received, sorry six universities received 170 million dollars in research revenue, for total licence return of 475 thousand dollars.

Now, I know many of you might be offended by me sighting that sort of data, but therein lies a significant part of our challenge and one of the things we need to think about in the context of Gareth Roberts' review, is whether there is a place for the so-called fourth arm in terms of research funding. Vitale asked the rhetorical question in Biotech: "When researchers apply for competitive grants, whether ARC or NH & MRC, should not one of the questions be - to what extent does the institution within which you conduct your research actually support and drive a commercial outcome?" Good question. It's not my place to provide the answer, but I invite you and your community over the next year to tell us what you think the answer should be because it's a valid one, that not everyday Australians might be thinking about with too much frequency, but nonetheless which would pass their mind.

The final thing which has caused a bit of consternation recently and those of you who are members of the NTEU will be reassured to know that Carolyn has warned me politely but very strongly in relation to this issue and that is the national protocols for Universities. (8 of 10) [10/03/2005 11:10:15 AM]

The Hon Dr Brendan Nelson MP - Media Centre

Look, I am not - it's not my nature to simply go around causing, you know, upsetting people for the sake of it, but we've got to constantly think about that global context. We currently have five protocols that define a University under different circumstances in Australia which are agreements of the Commonwealth and States and Territories and none of it's going to change unless there is agreement, unless there is a consensus. But somebody's got to start to raise these issues. The nonsense that I've had to go through in the last two years (inaudible) Melbourne University Private. Then I notice that fourteen publicly funded Universities either fully own or are major shareholders in subsidiary companies that offer teaching only campuses, with contracted staff. Not much research going on there. I wonder why the University of Southern Queensland has an education centre in Sydney or why La Trobe thinks it's necessary to have an education shop front in Brisbane. Not much research going on there. I also notice that at Central Queensland University of 39% of load is in business and management but it's only 1% of their research effort. I notice, for example that 29% of their load is in ICT, but only 2% of their research effort.

In every University in the country, there are educational or teaching courses that are being run where there is no research going on in that particular field. If teaching is so important, if teaching is to be informed by research, what are Australia's teachers doing? Which is another inquiry that I'm looking at the moment.

The fact is that we face different challenges and the only benchmarks are quality. We need to ask ourselves: Why does every University have to offer all things to all people? The reforms that have already been introduced and passed will in part drive rationalisation of course offerings and collaboration. But we need to ask ourselves: Why does every University, thirty-eight of them, public ones, why do they all have to be doing research, teaching and scholarship and struggling to do it in so many areas? Why can't we have Universities that make a conscious decision to specialise in outstanding teaching and scholarship but do very little research? Why can't we have formal affiliations, one specialising in teaching and another research, between our domestic Universities?

As you know, the South Australian Government is trying to get Carnegie Mellon into South Australia. We've got a variety of Universities throughout the world that are considered by any standard to be world class, where very little, if any, research is undertaken.

I suspect that if we set a very rigorous quality benchmark in the three areas of teaching, research and scholarship, I suspect there are some Universities in the country at the moment that would do well in research but would struggle in quality of teaching and there are others that would excel in teaching, but struggle in research.

So, the protocols discussion paper has been released. My Department will also be conducting formal consultations on that. We will be having a national forum here in May with all of the stakeholders, but there are some encouraging signs from some of the States already at least to consider the idea. John Kenneth Galbraith once said given the choice of change or proving it unnecessary, most people get working on the proof and that's exactly what's happening at the moment.

And, my critics in fact, I think Jenny Macklin, is speaking to you tomorrow, who’s one of the Shadows who works me over, her response to this was that these were all about 'Mc Degrees’. And inherent in that is a basic criticism of the kind of training that's offered at McDonalds and similar operations and I said to my staff, I said, 'You know if it's about 'Mc Degrees’, the average person would think does that mean that I'm going to get a high quality, efficiently delivered, consistent product wherever I go, and if it's not good, somebody's going to do something about?' Because, you know, I know you'll laugh, but the average person listening to the 'Mc Degree” thing would think 'Yeah, what's wrong with that'. So, of course we don't want low quality or anything of the sort, that is the worst possible thing we could do, but there is a reality which isn't spoken at the moment and that is that all Universities are not the same. They are not the same in structure and they are not the same in quality and it's time that we, at least you and the scientific community, that we all have the courage of our convictions to stand up to that and drive quality higher, wherever it's actually occurring.

So, look I'll finish at that point because I know that the 'public stoning' needs to commence and get on with that. So thanks Ken.