Standing up for Canberra

Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2010

The Australian Research Council Amendment Bill (No. 2) 2010 is an appropriation bill to support the ongoing and incredibly valuable research and work of the Australian Research Council. This bill applies indexation against existing schemes and adds the last year to forward estimates. This will add an additional $824 million over four financial years. That said, this bill does not alter the substance of the act or increase departmental funds. The ARC is a statutory authority existing under the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research. Its mission is to deliver policy and programs that advance Australian research and innovation globally and to benefit the Australian community. To achieve its mission the ARC advises the government on research matters and manages the National Competitive Grants Program, which constitutes a significant component of government investment in Australian research and innovation.

Many in this chamber will also be aware of the ARC’s role in monitoring the quality of Australian research and ensuring it is hitting the mark internationally. The ARC achieves this through the Excellence in Research for Australia initiative. The ARC has a long history in this country, beginning in 1946 with the establishment of the Commonwealth Universities Research Grants Committee to advise government on the allocation of research grants. Initially, this was an interdepartmental committee under the Department of Education. In 1965 it was more formally established to advise government on the allocation of the Australian Research Grants Scheme, the predecessor of today’s Discovery Grants scheme. In 1966, almost $4 million was received by 406 successful applicants to the scheme. That was a significant amount of money in 1966 terms. In 1988, under the Dawkins reforms of the Keating government, the ARC was established under its current name. In 2001 it was created as a statutory authority and given broader advisory functions and full responsibility for the assessment of grant applications.

The grants awarded by the ARC play an essential part in ensuring that Australia develops and attracts the highest quality of research talent from our own country and overseas. It also plays a vitally important role in retaining researchers in Australian institutions. This is particularly important. In addition, the ARC plays a crucial role in supporting the research and innovation that makes Australia the clever country. It is through this funding that Australia has been able to develop key innovations that have a direct impact on the lives of Australians and people across the globe. Innovations such as the bionic ear have their origins in ARC funding. There are many types of grants that the ARC manages. Each type is designed to foster a different kind of outcome and broadly fall under the categories of Discovery Grants and Linkage grants. There are many layers to the onion, as I have discovered in doing the research for this speech. Discovery Grants scheme recognises the importance of fundamental research. The scheme recognises that a strong capability in fundamental research will result in the development of new ideas, the creation of jobs, economic growth and an enhanced quality of life for all Australians.

Funding under the discovery schemes goes towards developing early career researchers to make sure that Australia has a high-quality and ready pool of local research talent. It also goes to those researchers with a proven track record of results in research. The Future Fellowships scheme under the discovery program promotes research in areas that have been identified as being of critical national importance. This program aims to attract the best mid-career researchers with a proven track record to work on problems important to us all. The Linkage program, as the name suggests, aims to encourage collaborative approaches to research between researchers, business, industry and community organisations. As someone who has been involved in business and also actively involved in industry associations, I can say that I really appreciate this kind of effort. It is really good to get research ideas realised through business and industry. Linkage grants support the transfer of skills and knowledge to provide direct and tangible benefits to Australian society. The ARC awards grants through the Linkage, Infrastructure, Equipment and Facilities scheme. This scheme ensures Australian researchers have the latest and best equipment to further their projects.

Institutions in my own community have been successful in achieving some of these grants. The Australian National University, University of Canberra and the CSIRO have all been successful in gaining funding in 2011. Some of the projects that have been funded include over $196,000 for a project at the University of Canberra to investigate how DNA can be better used to identify physical traits and solve crime—very CSI. University of Canberra researchers also received $105,000 to investigate how mistletoe can be used in the treatment of cancer. A further $80,000 went to the University of Canberra to investigate the social and economic impacts of Fragile X syndrome and the benefits of early diagnosis. The Australian National University has also been a significant contributor to the nation’s knowledge bank through the ARC. In 2011, $556,000 has been granted to researchers at the ANU to develop materials for a more efficient solar cell. This is an important aim given our current climate challenge, which some opposite deny. The ANU has also been given $330,000 to look at how recent reforms to the Community Development Employment Program have affected the livelihoods of Indigenous Australians. In all, $40 million has been invested in ACT institutions to fund 111 projects to improve our knowledge of the world. This is a significant investment and I commend the ARC for making that investment in Canberra.

As I stated earlier, the ARC recently completed its Excellence in Research for Australia 2010 national report. The report was the first comprehensive review of research conducted at Australian institutions. It was an incredibly large and comprehensive piece of work. This review covered 333,000 unique research outputs and 55,000 researchers across eight disciplines. It showed that Australia has many areas of strength where we are the very forefront of global research. In particular, we excelled in the fields of history, immunology, and quantum physics. These were all standout areas. The report also identified gaps and areas where we need to improve. That is the beauty of reports of this nature, of these transparency measures. They highlight our strengths, but they also highlight our weaknesses. The government has undertaken a project to address the identified gaps because of our continued commitment to innovation. It has become cliche to attack academics and researchers as being aloof and distant from the problems of the real world. By extension, it is often easy to question government research grants. However, Australia is a small nation and we are a nation that runs a first world economy on what some would call a third world climate. The only way we have been able to survive as a nation is through our investment in research—research into resilient wheat, for example, and a whole range of other things to deal with the climate challenges we face. Our research holds the key to meeting the challenges that we face today from climate change.

Our research also holds the key to growing and developing our economy, to healing our sick, to educating our children, to ensuring we all have jobs and a roof over our heads and, particularly, to ensuring we are prosperous in the future. Far from being divorced from the real world, I know from my time at the University of Canberra that academics are serious people, committed people, who are deeply concerned with answering the real and large key questions that lie before us. While I may not always understand their work, I appreciate the results of their work and I commend this bill to the House.

I would like to add that International Women’s Day is coming up next week and I am looking forward to celebrating the achievements of 100 years of International Women’s Day with the sisters. I am also looking forward to working out ways we can continue to fight against the barriers that women face, particularly in achieving equal rights and equal opportunities. One of the areas I would like the ARC to consider looking at is the barriers to women achieving their goals in postdoctoral work. In speaking on this bill, I would like to ask the ARC to examine the introduction of a protected funding pool for female grant applicants. I welcome the initiatives they have had to date, but I wonder if there is more they can do. I would also like them to consider increasing the duration of part-time postdoctoral grants from four to six years and to examine the introduction of female postdoctoral advocates for each grant area. I would like the ARC to look at developing leadership career coaching and network-building programs for postdoctoral women and, finally, to explore possible sources of implicit bias, particularly in the science arena. Again, I commend this bill to the House.

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