Standing up for Canberra

Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2013

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 on which I speak today will help us continue to support excellence in research and build our nation's research capacity. The ARC Amendment Bill is an annual administrative matter. It applies indexation adjustments for existing schemes and spending caps for ARC grants, including Discovery and Linkage grants. The amendments in the bill result in altering three existing financial year funding figures and extend the forward estimates period to 2016-17, resulting in additional spending of nearly $815 million.

Although this amendment occurs each year, it is a great reminder of the importance of research to our nation's future and how this research can deliver cultural, economic, social and environmental benefits to all our citizens. That is why I spoke on the amendment bill in 2012 and that is why I rise to speak on the bill again today, although this year I do so with a great deal more concern about the state of research in Australia than I did last year. I am concerned because the Abbott government's record in science, innovation and research to date has been disappointing and in my view it has been unacceptable. It began with press releases prior to the election, where the ARC's grants were declared increasingly ridiculous, completely over the top and a waste of taxpayer dollars, and then went to the revelation on the very eve of the election that $103 million in ARC funding would be 'reprioritised' over four years under a coalition government. Also, as was pointed out by my colleague, the shadow minister and member for Cunningham, there was the decision not to appoint a minister for science. In addition to that, there was the abolition of the Climate Commission. One of the issues that really concerns me as the member for Canberra is the significant staffing cuts facing the CSIRO.

So far the Abbott government has hardly positioned itself as pro-research. It is no wonder, then, that Labor is concerned that the Abbott government will undo the good work we did in promoting research in Australia, in positioning Australia to be a leader in innovation and technology and in ensuring our researchers work in partnership with our industries. That is particularly important so that we can capitalise on the research that is created in our institutions, we can realise it in industry and bring it into the broader economy and the community.

Labor believes that science and research are the key to a richer, fairer, greener and more prosperous future. That is why under Labor the ARC was restored to its position as the independent authority awarding peer reviewed grants, as outlined by the shadow minister and member for Cunningham. While in government, Labor boosted investment in science, research and innovation to record levels, including $3 billion over four years for the CSIRO and $3.6 billion since 2008 for research funded through the Australian Research Council. We also put research in universities on a sustainable footing, with more than $8.7 billion paid in university research block grants since 2008. We invested $1.5 billion in research infrastructure through the Education Investment Fund, attracting a total investment of $3.5 billion. We supported over 800 of our best and brightest midcareer researchers with Future Fellowships worth over $844 million. That is particularly important for women in research and women in science.

My sister is a neurologist. She is a researcher in the field of neurology. One of the issues that she has raised with me and also advocated very strongly on is the fact that women are falling out midcareer. That is the time when they are having their babies and they are at a relatively senior level in the field, but they are falling out of research and science as a result of wanting to devote some time to their babies, and then re-entry is difficult. There are also the publishing requirements and a range of other research requirements that make it difficult to advance. Those grants are particularly important for those best and brightest midcareer researchers, particularly women.

We have also secured the Square Kilometre Array, which is a multibillion-dollar global investment for Australia and a very exciting project. We opened up research and development tax incentives to more firms and boosted the available benefits. We granted research freedom through compacts with universities and the independent research agencies.

In stark contrast, the coalition, the Abbott government, so far have shown only disdain for Australia's research community. I am concerned about what that attitude to research might mean for Australia's future, for our ability to position ourselves as a leader in research and innovation and for our ability to ensure the diversity of our economy. But I am also concerned about what it will mean for my electorate of Canberra and the ACT more broadly. As members will be aware, the ACT is home to some of the best research facilities in the country—in fact, the world. There is the Australian National University, the University of Canberra, the CSIRO, the Mount Stromlo Observatory and Geoscience Australia, to name but a few.

Earlier this year I attended the launch of a new Space and Spatial Innovation Partnership at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in my electorate. The partnership is an industry-led initiative backed by government and the research sector that will capitalise on Australia's position as home to what will be the world's biggest space project, the Square Kilometre Array. The Labor government pledged $6 million towards this innovation partnership, to be matched in cash or in kind by core partners. I am concerned that this funding is under review by the Abbott government. The partnership at the Mount Stromlo Observatory will also have access to further project funding of up to $10 million per year through the Industry Collaboration Fund for innovative projects with commercial potential.

The partnership will bring on new investment and create high-tech, high-wage jobs in future industries that diversify Australia's economy. The partnership aims to help Australia carve out a 2.2 per cent share of the global space and spatial technologies market, growing revenue by up to $12.5 billion annually by 2023 and creating more than 10,000 new jobs in the sector. It will build vital links between industry, government, defence, research and education to increase productivity, improve efficiencies, grow skill capacity and ensure long-term sustainability and growth of the sector, and it will be a key driver in the continued diversification of the ACT's economy.

Initiatives like this are examples of why research funding is so important, and why the 'reprioritisation' of research funding is likely to have a significant impact in my electorate of Canberra and across the ACT more broadly. The cutting of CSIRO jobs is already having a significant impact on my electorate. When those opposite initiated a Public Service wide hiring freeze specifying that non-ongoing contracts would not be renewed, they did so knowing full well that it would have a disproportionate impact on the CSIRO. The nature of the work done by the CSIRO means it has a disproportionately higher number of non-ongoing staff. These are staff who are contracted for a specific project, a specific research task or seasonal work. Their positions may not be permanent, but they are no less significant.

The CSIRO's 1,400 non-ongoing staff are now in limbo. We have heard from those opposite that the CSIRO may shed as many as 600 non-ongoing staff this year. In the words of CSIRO Staff Association secretary Sam Popovski, 'How can CSIRO develop the next generation of Australian innovation if their capacity to conduct research and development continues to be cut?' CSIRO staff deserve to know: how long will the recruitment freeze remain in place? What areas of science and which sites will be impacted? What percentage of work performed by CSIRO staff will be declared critical? How many postdoctoral fellowships and Indigenous cadetships will be quarantined from the freeze? At the elite level in which the CSIRO operates, the research community is a small one, and these job losses will have a significant impact. How can we expect to keep talent in Australia if we cannot provide jobs at our premier scientific research institute? How can we ensure the ongoing diversification of our economy if we do not support those at the forefront, at the vanguard, doing the research and the innovation? We must ensure that Australian researchers, who do such important work, can continue to be internationally competitive while being based right here in Australia, right here in the ACT, right here in the electorate of Canberra.

This year, the ARC has announced over $58 million for 132 Canberra based projects that will improve our understanding of mental health in the workplace, our place in the galactic neighbourhood, the formation of ore bodies and much more. One group of researchers at the Australian National University will use an $857,000 grant to investigate the long-term health and employment consequences of work related mental health issues. Led by Associate Professor Peter Butterworth, the project is based on the fact that mental disorders such as depression are a major cause of disability. Improving mental health can increase productivity and workforce participation. However, the psychosocial quality of work is a factor that overlays the relationship between work and health. Poor quality work—for example, unreasonable time pressures or insecurity—increases the risk of poor mental health, absenteeism and exit from the workforce. This project will analyse data following people over time to investigate the long-term health and employment consequences of poor psychosocial job quality, and consider the special case of mature age workers, which I think is particularly important. It will identify those individuals at greatest risk and the factors that can buffer against the adverse effects of poor quality work.

Also at the Australian National University Professor Matthew Colless will lead a spectroscopic survey of the southern sky using a $350,000 grant. The survey of the southern sky aims to quadruple the number of nearby galaxies with measured redshifts, distances and velocities. Science goals include measuring the expansion rate of the universe to one per cent precision, and combining optical spectroscopy and radio data for each galaxy to measure the rate at which gas is being converted into stars in the local universe. This project supports construction of the TAIPAN highperformance spectrograph that will be used to carry out the survey on the UK Schmidt Telescope. The results of the survey will be made freely available to all Australian astronomers.

Researchers at the CSIRO will also use a $863,686 grant to develop new methods for discovering Australia's mineral wealth, deepening our understanding of ore formation, including the transport and deposition of gold. Dr Weihua Liu asserts that in order to efficiently discover vital new mineral resources for Australia, explorers must understand the fundamental controls on ore formation. The lack of data for soluble metal behaviour in hot fluids at high pressure is a significant impediment to our understanding of deposit formation and the application of industrial processes. This project will gain molecular-level understanding of the fundamental chemistry of gold transport and deposition in hightemperature, high-pressure, carbon dioxide-rich fluids and gold colloid systems, using multiple novel experimental techniques and molecular dynamics simulations that make use of Australia's cutting-edge experimental and computational facilities.

At the University of Canberra Professor Kate Holland will use a $375,289 grant to advance knowledge about how the media shapes public and professional understandings and communication practices about mental health issues. Media processes are mostly studied in isolation, but this project integrates analysis of media with interviews with the community, advocacy organisations, expert mental health services and journalists to find out how mental health knowledge is identified, interpreted and communicated. This research will provide an evidence base for policy directed at promoting mental health and challenging stigma, and this will be done within the context of dynamic changes in digital media environments and media use.

The 132 projects funded in the ACT are diverse and innovative, and they will create jobs and secure our future. Unfortunately, however, those opposite see some of these projects as 'increasingly ridiculous', 'completely over the top' or a waste of taxpayer dollars. Labor believes that through research we can better educate our children, heal our sick, discover new opportunities to help our local communities grow in a more sustainable way and make our economy grow in the future.

Australians can and should be proud of the work that our researchers do in every field. There is bipartisan support for this legislation, and there should be bipartisan support for our research community. I ask those opposite to recommit themselves to science, to research and to innovation. I ask them to support those public servants at the CSIRO who are at the forefront of global scientific research. Their talent is too great to risk losing. I commend this bill to the House.

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