Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2012

It is a great pleasure to be able to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2011 tonight, because the ACT has a very large stake in research. The ANU is one of the greatest research institutions in the world. The University of Canberra is also a great research institution. And I have the Mount Stromlo Observatory in my electorate, which conducts some phenomenal research into what is going on in outer space. This government has made a significant investment in the Mount Stromlo Observatory. When bushfires ravaged the south of Canberra, in my electorate, the observatory was largely burnt out. It was just a shell up there. We have made significant investment in that area now. We have got the greatest technology, new buildings and it is ever expanding, with more and more people driving up that little hill each day to go and do great work for the nation and for the world. So it is a great pleasure to be able to speak on this amendment bill tonight.

As the statutory authority within the innovation portfolio, the Australian Research Council plays an important role in advancing Australian research and innovation globally, while also supporting the highest quality research and training through the fields of science, social sciences and the humanities. The Australian Research Council Amendment Bill will help us continue to support excellence in research and to build our nation's research capacity. We are already at the forefront of the world in great research, particularly in the agricultural sector.

When I was in Afghanistan early last year—in May, I think it was—it was really interesting talking to a number of people there about what we can contribute in providing advice and assistance in the agricultural sector to build up the local capacity in Afghanistan. They have great skills in growing, developed over centuries and centuries on small plots of land, in really rough conditions. They have stinking hot summers. It is 50 degrees in summer and it is minus 50 degrees in winter, so we are talking pretty rugged conditions. In some parts of Australia we get extreme weather, but we do not usually get extreme hot and extreme cold in the course of the year. In speaking to people there, I learned they have this great capacity to grow almonds, dates and apricots, but they do not have the capacity to make it a large business. We have the ability not just to improve productivity, through the research that we do, but also to give advice on capacity building for businesses.

Australians have great, great research that has allowed this country to prosper, particularly in the agricultural sector over the course of this nation's history. I am thinking particularly of the great research that the CSIRO has done in wheat, to allow enormous boosts in production, by 40 per cent over time. We have great skills in this area and it is great that we have this technology and research capacity that we can export overseas.

Specifically, this amendment bill will alter three existing financial year funding figures for indexation and extend the forward estimates period to include the financial year starting on 1 July 2014, resulting in additional spending of $885 million over the four financial years. As I mentioned, the ARC has a long history and it is something that the Gillard government is proud to continue to support. Although this amendment to administer vital funding occurs each year, it is a great reminder to all of us of the importance of research to our nation's future and of how this research can deliver cultural, economic, social and environmental benefits to all our citizens and— I have just mentioned the case of Afghanistan—the citizens of the world.

We must ensure that Australian researchers, who do such important work, can continue to be internationally competitive. One way the ARC ensures this is through the National Competitive Grants Program, a program that nurtures our future scientists and researchers and ensures they have incentives to stay here in Australia. It is vitally important that we keep these great minds in our country, doing great work for Australia. The program does this by supporting the highest quality research, which leads to the discovery of new ideas and the advancement of knowledge. It also provides financial assistance towards facilities and equipment that our researchers need so they can continue to be internationally competitive. It also supports training and skills development for our next generation of researchers. In addition, it provides incentives for Australia's most talented researchers to work in partnership with leading national and international researchers and to form alliances with Australian industry, which is so important. We do not need people coming up with great ideas in the research area which are then just planted in a Petri dish or become some concept sitting on a shelf; the ideas need to be utilised in some meaningful way, and that is where these partnerships with industry are so important. Australians can be proud of the work our researchers do. Many significant global advances have been achieved by Australians working under the auspices of the ARC. Not only has the ARC supported some of our most well-known innovations, such as the bionic ear—a great invention—and the Jameson Flotation Cell, which continues to save the coal industry billions of dollars each year; the organisation also continues to push the boundaries to discover what is possible, what is unthought-of, what is out there, what is the potential that we will inherit. It is working hard to advance science and research more broadly and to ensure that the abilities and skills of Australia's most promising researchers are nurtured and promoted.

I am pleased to report that in 2012 funding will allow the ARC to continue its Australian Laureate Fellowships Scheme, which reflects the Commonwealth's commitment to support excellence in research by attracting world-class researchers and research leaders to key positions by creating new rewards and incentives for the application of their talents in Australia. I am even more delighted to report that, for funding commencing in 2012, up to 17 Australian Laureate Fellowships will be awarded, including an additional two fellowships for successful female Australian Laureate Fellows. Recipients of these fellowships will be provided with the Australian Laureate Fellowship funding, plus additional funding to undertake an ambassadorial role to promote women in research. This is an issue in which I have become very interested in recent years, more so since I have become the member for Canberra and even more so because of the nature of the population in Canberra and its very strong research community.

My little sister is a research neurologist. She has done some great research on strokes as well as in a range of other areas. One thing that she has highlighted to me, as have her colleagues and other women in Canberra who are in this field, is that women in the early stages of their career find research grants quite accessible. It is when they go into the phase where they have had a few babies and they want some part-time work that their publication rate reflects the part-time nature of their work. They do not have as many publications as their male colleagues who have not had babies, who have not taken a bit of time off work or who have not gone part-time. Of course, you cannot compare a part-time mother and her publication rate with a full-time male researcher. So there is an in-built discrimination in terms of their ability to get grants as a result of their not being able to publish as much as their male colleagues. There are also some other systemic issues here.

The government has been doing a great deal, as have research councils such as the NHMRC, to improve the number of women, particularly those at that mid-career level, in the research industry and improve their access to grants. It is vitally important that young women go into this field. We need more women in science. We need more women in research. These young women go into this field with bright ideas, great ideas, and with aspirations. So early in their career they need to incentives to stay in the research field and to continue to stay in it right throughout their career. They should not have their careers stopped as a result of their choice to have babies and work part-time. These fellowships are very welcome news, and I applaud the ARC for instituting them.

This measure is important because, at the inception of the Australian Laureate Fellowships Scheme, in 2008, only 12.8 per cent of the applicants were female and, in 2009, 17.5 per cent were female. The ARC continues to work hard to improve the research funding opportunities for women and, as I said, not just at the beginning of their careers but throughout their careers. I believe these additional fellowships will go a long way to promoting women in research.

The Discovery Early Career Researcher Award will also continue this year. This is another way that the ARC is working hard to support and advance our promising researchers who are in the early stages of their careers. Proposals are now open for this funding to commence in 2013.

The ARC is also working to advance the representation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders working in research and innovation. Funding will commence this year for the Special Research Initiative for the ATSI Researchers' Network. The network's core functions will be to build Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander research capacity, mentor new researchers and advance research in Indigenous knowledge systems.

As well as supporting Australian research and ensuring incentives for research at home, the ARC is also supporting research that will have a long-term impact on the lives of Australian families. The ARC is working to support our ageing population, which is so important, through its population ageing research. This research will transform thinking about population ageing, inform private and public sector policy and yield outcomes that will improve the wellbeing of the aged and their social and economic environment.

The organisation is also on track to deliver the bionic eye—a breakthrough that will be welcome news for people suffering progressive vision loss. With an ageing population, that number will probably only go up. This initiative was one of many that came out of the government's 2020 Summit here, in Canberra, in 2009. The ARC awarded $50 million for this special research initiative. The technology is now at the point of being tested, and this is just one year after funding began. It just goes to show what our Australian researchers can do with the funding we are providing to them with this bill.

This year the ARC has committed funding for a total of 778 proposals for Discovery Projects—that is, funding for research projects that can be undertaken by individual researchers or research teams. I am proud to say that 93 of those grants were issued to researchers from the Australian National University and the University of Canberra in the ACT alone. In 2012, more than $327,000 has been granted to researchers at the ANU to examine factors that may improve the mental health of welfare recipients, promote employment outcomes and help the Commonwealth government develop welfare reform policy.

The ANU has also been awarded $420,000 for research into next-generation tsunami warnings. This project will generate the science for rapid tsunami forecasts to maintain public confidence in tsunami warnings, enabling emergency managers around the world to make well-informed decisions about imminent tsunamis.

Also, $390,000 will be given to the ANU for the very first digital imaging survey of the entire sky of the Southern Hemisphere. It is amazing. This work will underpin a number of significant national science programs of international prominence, and I am sure that it will be one of them. The survey will be carried out using the university's SkyMapper telescope near Coonabarabran. It was built to replace the ANU's previous telescope located at Mount Stromlo Observatory, which was sadly destroyed in the 2003 bushfires. According to the ANU's Professor of Astronomy, the ultimate plan is to create a database that will be accessible for anyone in the world. Astronomers anywhere will be able to learn about the characteristics of the Southern Hemisphere stars and galaxies. It is very exciting. At the University of Canberra, $210,000 has been committed to researchers examining productivity and work-life balance in virtual work environments, helping to unlock the impact technology is having on our ability to have a life outside of work. I would be very interested to see what the outcomes of that research will be. I know none of us are strangers to work interrupting our family, particularly with the technology we have now, so this will be of interest to many people, I am sure.

In all, more than $32 million has been invested in researchers here in the ACT this year. This funding will go towards a range of projects from disciplines as diverse as pure mathematics—which was a huge challenge for me at school—to historical studies and everything in between. This is a significant investment in research and I commend the ARC for making that investment in Canberra. It is important to remember the contribution researchers make to the future of Canberra, and indeed Australia. Our research holds the key to our growing and developing economy. It helps shape our jobs of the future, and ensures we can better protect and understand our natural environment. Through research we can better educate our children, heal our sick and discover new opportunities—new worlds, like we are with the Southern Hemisphere stars—to help our local communities grow in a more sustainable way and to help the world.

I commend this bill to the House.

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