House debates

Monday, 25 November 2019


Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading

6:43 pm

Photo of Graham PerrettGraham Perrett (Moreton, Australian Labor Party, Shadow Assistant Minister for Education and Training) Share this | Hansard source

Labor will not oppose the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019, which provides indexation to the Australian Research Council. This government, now well into its seventh year of office, let down Australian universities and undermined research and development in this country. Last year's mid-year update saw $328.5 million cut from research funding over four years. Universities Australia has forecast that government investment in research and development in Australia is set to reach its lowest level as a share of our economy in four decades to just half a per cent of GDP in 2019. I say this deliberately: that is a straight-out sabotage of Australia's future. That's a lower percentage than in 1978. Universities Australia said at the time that such deep cuts to university research were 'a ramraid on Australia's future economic growth, prosperity, health and development'. That is why, at the last election, we committed to a target of three per cent of GDP devoted to research and development by 2030.

I'll give you a snapshot of the ARC, and why this investment is wise. For every dollar spent, Linkage Projects partners get $1.91 back—a dollar in, $1.91 back. Over the 2018-19 financial year, the ARC funded 4,559 projects, and 81.5 per cent of these projects included collaboration from across the globe. The ARC schemes support researchers at all career stages and provide research, training and mentoring opportunities. They invest in the infrastructure and the equipment and facilities underpinning Australia's research competitiveness and encourage university researchers to productively partner with commercial, government, community and international stakeholders. Key findings from the Engagement and impact assessment 2018-19 national report released earlier this year showed that 43 per cent of research projects were rated as having a high positive impact on everyday lives and 34 per cent had a high engagement with end users.

Only Labor understands the value of investment in higher education and research. In 2019, Australia enjoys a reputation for punching above its weight when it comes to the higher education and research sector, and we see the trade benefits of having that reputation. In 2017, Australia was responsible for 2.7 per cent of the world's scientific output, while being home to only 0.34 per cent of the world's population. But we need to run faster to maintain our footing in this ever-shifting global landscape. Labor wants to see our position, our status and the economic benefits continue, and we want the capabilities and the productivity of our nation to thrive. How do we do that? Proper investment in research improves the lives of every Australian through the development of new medical treatments, improvements to drinking water management, innovations using smartphone technology and so many other areas.

For example, Australian scientist Howard Walter Florey was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1945 for his role, alongside Ernst Chain and Alexander Fleming, in the development of penicillin. At the time, Prime Minister Robert Menzies called Florey the most important man ever born in Australia, in terms of improving world wellbeing. La Trobe University's Graeme Clark successfully tested the bionic ear in 1978, which has since gifted over 200,000 people the power of hearing and speech. He later established Australia's first university training facility in audiology, the Bionic Ear Institute—now the Bionic Institute—which furthers research into bionic hearing, bionic vision and neurobionics to improve lives. In the 1950s, concern was growing around the effects of X-rays on pregnant women and their unborn babies. Working at the Department of Health, Australia's David Robinson and George Kossoff built the first commercial practice ultrasound scanner in 1961, which changed the way medicine used the technology. Wi-fi, solar technology, the cervical cancer vaccine and the truly exciting developments made now and into the future—I could give examples all night.

One of my local universities, and one my alma maters, the University of Queensland, has reaffirmed it's position as a leading research institution for science and social sciences, with 28 UQ researchers identified as among the world's most influential scientific minds. Their research was ranked in the top one per cent of the most referenced papers in their fields from 2008 through to 2018. This is an impressive feat. For example, there is Professor Naomi Wray, whose outstanding work in the field of psychiatric genetics has rightly been recognised. She's written 153 publications and been cited more than 20,000 times. Her publication Biological insights from 108 schizophrenia-associated genetic loci has been cited on nearly 3,000 instances. There is Professor David Paterson, the director at the University of Queensland's centre for clinical research, whose clinical work, research and teaching has been recognised internationally as well. His research focuses on the molecular and clinical epidemiology of infections with antibiotic-resistant organisms, with the intent of translation of knowledge into optimal prevention and treatment of these infections. He has recently conducted the world's largest trial on antibiotics for antibiotic-resistant bacterial infections, and his work has been cited nearly 33,000 times. Maybe, just maybe, it might save humanity from some of those issues.

Associate Professor Genevieve Healy is a National Health and Medical Research Council career development fellow at the Cancer Prevention Research Centre in the School of Public Health at the University of Queensland, and an honorary research fellow at the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute and at Curtin University. Her current research builds on the work to examine population-level variation in prolonged sedentary time, as well as the feasibility and acceptability of reducing this behaviour in key seatings, such as the workplace. She is the lead investigator on the BeUpstanding program of research, a program aimed to support workplaces to stand up, sit less and move more for their health and wellbeing.

I congratulate the few that I've listed and many, many more. They are fantastic examples of what Australian ingenuity can achieve. But more needs to be done to connect our world-leading research with businesses and industries. Internationally, we are definitely lagging behind on collaboration with research institutions. The 2016 Australian innovation system report ranked Australia as the lowest of 27 countries of the OECD in terms of our higher education and research institutions collaborating with large businesses and small and medium businesses. We're 27th in the OECD—that's an F-minus. Our research sector and our research capacity is one of the keys to being future ready. It will drive future growth in our economy. We need to ensure that we have the capacity to turn our discoveries into something that has concrete benefits for Australians to commercialise. When we get the balance right with combining our research with industry, the results speak for themselves. We could look at wi-fi and so many examples I have touched on.

Creating these industry links has been found to more than triple productivity growth in business and increase other performance measures. For example, Queensland Health and Griffith University have enjoyed a longstanding, mutually beneficial partnership ever since Griffith University first offered health degrees back in the 1990s. This partnership allows for clinical placements of health students as well as an array of joint research projects. Queensland Health is a major employer of Griffith graduates. The colocation of Griffith campuses—for example, alongside the Gold Coast University Hospital, or, in my electorate of Moreton, the QEII hospital at Nathan, alongside the Nathan campus of Griffith University—enriches this relationship. This training also facilitates the transition from study to employment, as Queensland Health attracts top graduates who already have hands-on knowledge of their systems and processes. Research collaborations between the university and Queensland Health greatly benefit the two parties, and the benefit then flows out to the community as a whole. Collaborative research projects between Griffith University and Queensland Health continue, and to date have spanned a broad spectrum of areas including nursing, patient management, suicide prevention, cancer diagnosis and treatment, and a range of genetic studies. It is creating jobs and improving productivity.

Continued research and development could see Australia expand our capabilities and prosperity. The University of Queensland's partnership with Australian wastewater management technology has developed a new way to treat wastewater which reduces corrosion of wastewater pipes, which obviously lowers maintenance costs. This has led to savings of $400 million for the Australian water industry. La Trobe University has been effective at taking advantage of this, creating its research and innovation precinct with the help of the Victorian Andrews Labor government. It has partnered with 14 industry organisations such as Rio Tinto, Agriculture Victoria and GeneWorks. It is a significant new step forward which will act as a catalyst for economic growth, innovation and, most importantly as far as the Labor Party is concerned, jobs creation—particularly in vital areas of health and wellbeing, digital and cyber innovation, agriculture, food and fibre; the jobs of the future.

The benefits of action are clear, and Labor is committed to working with universities and industry and taking on research and turning it into jobs, successful businesses and opportunities for future generations. What is vital for universities is ensuring they are in the position to build their research and development capacity. But what have we seen from this Abbott-Turnbull-Morrison government?

Sadly, we've seen cut after cut after cut. For them education is a place holder, a portfolio to be taken from, not invested in. Their decision to cap student places by ripping $2.2 billion from the sector was a disaster. What has been the result? Ten thousand students missed out on a place at university in 2018 and 200,000 more students will miss out over the coming decade. Universities have been unable to lift their student profiles, and it's showing in their budgets. Is it any wonder that we have seen articles coming out recently with titles such as 'Enrolments flatlining: Australian unis' financial strife' at a time when Australia's population is increasing? Macquarie University has had to resort to budget cuts due to zero enrolment growth next year. Its vice-chancellor, Bruce Downton, said:

Enrolment growth domestically and internationally has slowed significantly at a time when our base operating costs continue to rise […] Current projections are that there will be zero growth—

on this government's watch. In 2018 the number of students starting a bachelor's degree fell for the first time since 2003. As I remind you, our population has been increasing over that time.

Increased reliance on international students is making up the shortfall, but we can't rely on that forever, especially those universities that are nudging towards having international students as 50 per cent of their student population. Enrolment from key source countries such as China has stabilised this year. Labor is very concerned about how the government is planning on dealing with a drop in international student enrolments, considering education is our third-largest export industry, representing $33 billion to the Australian economy. So when you look at those trains full of iron ore or coal, the next one to consider is our universities.

On top of this, the children born in the boom of the mid-2000s are about to reach university age. With the end of the demand-driven system there is no additional money to fund those extra students. What do we see from those opposite? The minister certainly doesn't have a plan. The Prime Minister doesn't have a plan. Without any decent plan, universities could have falling enrolments for both domestic and international students, which will place further stresses on their budgets. That will mean more staff cuts and less money for our world-class research, which will be a further strain for universities in the bush in particular. There are reports that staff at the University of Melbourne are bracing for cuts in response to the cut of $150 million from their university over four years. Up to 100 staff at Charles Darwin University are likely to lose their jobs by next year. That is unacceptable.

Labor is very concerned to hear that the ministerial veto has been used to restrict funding for research that doesn't support the education minister's personal world view. Political interference in independent peer reviewed grant processes is completely unacceptable. That's the sort of stuff that goes on in totalitarian states, not in modern Australia. The Australian Research Council has an independent and rigorous process for coming up with its recommendations on research funding. When you lock someone out of an education, you are locking them out of a job, but when you block research you damage Australia's international competitiveness and undermine growth in good, well-paid and skilled jobs.

So Labor calls on the previous minister and the current minister to explain their decisions, which they have not done, and on the government to reinstitute a rule for ministers to publicly explain why they have vetoed ARC recommendations. I ask for Education Minister Tehan's new tick-a-box form notification to be readjusted, because when it comes to notification of ministerial intervention it doesn't go anywhere near far enough. He must be prepared to front up and explain such interference in the ARC's decisions. Only Labor will restore independence and integrity to the Australian Research Council and Australia's research sector. That is why I move:

That all words after "That" be omitted with a view to substituting the following words:

"whilst not declining to give the bill a second reading, the House notes that the government has cut research funding, interfered in independent, peer-reviewed grants processes and abandoned nation-building investment in education and research infrastructure".


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