Monday, 25 November 2019
Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019; Second Reading
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".
I second the amendment. It's a great pleasure to make a comment on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019 and also to endorse the amendment that's been moved by the member for Moreton. I really enjoyed the passion that the member for Moreton brought to the address he has just given. I know he's been a very staunch defender of our researchers, our scientists, in Australia and in particular has been arguing in favour of proper investment in the skills we need to grow our future economy. I'm grateful for the amendment he's moved to this bill. The bill before us is not particularly controversial—it's an update to the Australian Research Council's funding cap—but the second reading amendment allows us to put some very important points on the parliamentary record with respect to the coalition government and its approach and record on critical areas related to research, science, universities and innovation in Australia generally. And I'm very pleased to make a contribution on those matters.
When the shadow ministry was reshuffled five months ago, I was very lucky to be given the role of spokesperson on innovation, technology and the future of work. One of the absolutely brilliant parts of my role is to be able to spend time with scientists, researchers, inventors and entrepreneurs—some of the most extraordinary people in the Australian economy. When you sit in a room full of these people you think it is eminently possible that we as a society can solve any problem. It's actually an exhilarating area to be working in—and more so because one of the most important things Labor's thinking about at the moment and dwelling on as we go into the next three years is how we're going to make sure we can secure the high-wage, high-skilled jobs of the future for Australians.
There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that there is a massive opportunity here for the taking. When we look around this beautiful country of ours, we've got all the ingredients we need to become an innovation nation. The thing that worries me, and the thing I think is missing when I talk to global experts about our innovation system, is government and the important role in other economies where the government is playing that critical role of stitching together the different parts of the economy that make up an innovation nation. We see a great deal more engagement and leadership on these questions when we look around the world at best-practice countries. What we see when we look to the Australian government, unfortunately, is inertia—I think 'innovation' and 'research' are dirty words that they don't like to use unless they absolutely have to. We are going to have to change that approach if we are going to attract the jobs of the future to Australia.
The bill before the parliament is about research. It's a good opportunity to have a quick reflection on why this matters so much to building the jobs of the future. Put simply, the research that's conducted in businesses, in our universities and in other parts of our economy is our pipeline for future jobs and growth in this country. If we're not getting good ideas, inventing things in this country, thinking about those critical scientific research questions and conducting research that gives us new knowledge and information, we're not going to go far in a knowledge economy. All the research that's the subject of this bill is part of our pipeline; it's part of our ticket to a high standard of living in the future.
When we look at the economic future of our country, if we're looking at things like R&D and investment in our universities—the critical building blocks for growth in the future that, frankly, a lot of governments probably don't get much credit for investing in—they are being profoundly underinvested in and the government is profoundly lacking in focus in the way it is going about it. Innovation is part of my portfolio. We did some research looking at the recent election campaign and found that the Prime Minister uttered the word 'innovation' just four times that we could find during the entire election campaign. There's a pretty obvious political reason for that, and that is that we had the failed Turnbull experiment where for a brief moment innovation was put at the centre of our political discussion. Because that was seen as not being particularly politically useful in the way that it was done, the government will not talk about these matters anymore. They won't talk about innovation, they won't talk about research and they won't talk about the strategy for our universities. As we roll on into the seventh year of this lengthy but not particularly notable government we are losing time, while other countries around the world have been much more effective and strategic.
I think a killer statistic bears this out if we want the government's approach to research and development in a nutshell: between 2015-16 and 2017-18, so two full financial years, the federal government's research and development expenditure fell 19 per cent in real terms. We lost one-fifth of our spending in two financial years. That's absolutely unbelievable to me. Here's another one: in 2019 there are 2,000 fewer people working in government funded R&D projects than there were in the mid-1990s. Think of how much our economy has changed in that time, yet there are fewer people working in government funded R&D than there were in the mid-1990s. Last year's midyear budget update alone cut $328.5 million from research funding over four years.
Of course, it's not just the Labor Party raising these issues and trying to get the government to focus and pay a bit more attention to them; Universities Australia has forecast that government investment in research and development in Australia is set to reach its lowest share of our GDP in four decades. That's lower than back in 1978, before a number of us were even born. Universities Australia, when it released that research, emphasised the impact of those deep cuts to university research. They described it as a ram raid on Australia's future economic growth, prosperity, health and development.
I want to talk about some of the specifics of the way in which the R&D program is being designed and funded in Australia. I think the big picture, though, which is really an inescapable fact for us in this House, is that our R&D spend in this country is not high enough at the moment to sustain the improvements to the standard of living that Labor would like to see spread across the Australian community. Our national spending on R&D at the moment is about 1.8 per cent of our GDP. World-leading countries are spending more than four per cent. The OECD average is 2.4 per cent. In fact, 2016-17 was the first year that R&D in Australia went backwards. We actually spent less that year than we did in the previous year.
You're probably aware that R&D is usually measured in private and public sector spend. Our low level of private sector R&D spend is also a critical problem for us. We are massively behind leading countries and we need to do better, and I'll talk about some of the ways I see that that's possible a little bit later. The most important mechanism we have for facilitating private sector R&D spend is the research and development tax incentive. The whole point of that policy is to incentivise R&D spend, and $2 billion of taxpayer funds a year is actually a very large amount of money. In a $450 billion a year federal budget, it's quite significant. I think it's pretty clear that there is a reform opportunity here. If we're putting in quite a bit but we're not getting out of the system an impressive amount of private sector R&D spend, I do think we need to put this on the agenda of the very long list of national concerns that we have about how this area is being handled.
I want to say something quickly about basic research, which is research without a specific commercial goal in mind. It's the research that scientists usually do in a lab because they've found, with their curious brains, a question that they don't know how to answer. They seek to answer that question, and in doing so can make enormously profitable discoveries, although the focus of that research really is just about scientific curiosity, something that you would think the government would want to nurture. In the 1990s, about 40 per cent of our R&D spend was invested in basic research, and today, even with all I've said about how difficult and low our spending on R&D is in Australia, the figure being spent on basic research is 23 per cent. That has huge ramifications for our economic future, but there are also really immediate impacts on these wonderful scientists, whose work we want to support and nourish in this country. Largely because the funding amounts are so limited, the application process that our scientists have to go through to get research funded is insulting to these incredibly smart people who are just trying to do the right thing by the country. Sometimes it can take scientists months of their year to just submit these applications. Remember that, when they're in the lab, they're often breaking new ground globally in the science that they're doing.
In the last round of NHMRC grants for mid-career scientists—I'm talking about the level 1 leadership program here—just over seven per cent of the projects that were submitted for funding actually got funding. That meant 93 per cent of the scientists who put their blood, sweat and tears into creating these research programs basically didn't get funding for the important work that they were trying to do. A competitive process is something that Labor support; we're very much in favour of it. In leading countries you'll see a funding success rate in the order of 30 or 40 per cent. We're talking here about seven per cent of scientists getting their research funded. It is beyond demoralising as a success rate. If a government policy was to be designed to show these brilliant young scientists that we don't value their work, I think this would be a great way to go about it.
When the shadow minister for science, Brendan O'Connor, and I talk with scientists—as we do frequently—we hear that we are losing some of the smartest people in the country to Silicon Valley, Oxford and Cambridge—places where they are not having to go through this dispiriting process that indicates a lack of interest in the work they're doing. In a survey for young scientists, one responder said:
We are the most educated people in the country and we can barely provide for our families and have at most 3-4 years' job stability.
Research from the Australian Society for Medical Research tells us that a very large number of young scientists have considered leaving a career in research, and that 61 per cent have considered leaving the country to continue their work. At a recent roundtable that Brendan O'Connor and I had with leading scientists, we heard of an Australian researcher who had trained at one of the most prestigious universities in Australia. She went overseas, studied again at a leading American university and then returned to Australia to build a career in research. Instead of the encouragement and nurturing that she wanted, she faced a life of precariousness and funding uncertainty. She later left science to become a real estate agent. I hear these stories over and over again.
I want to quickly go back through some of the brief history of our research and development, because there are some very important trends here about the way that we are funding research and development that I think need to be put on the record as issues for the parliament to discuss and resolve. In 1996, when the Keating administration left office, Australia ranked 14th in the OECD for research and development spend. Labor increased our ranking to 12th. By 2017 we had fallen back to 17th place, with countries like Slovenia and Iceland in front of us. Over that time, OECD average expenditure on R&D as a proportion of GDP increased from two per cent to 2.4 per cent. Australia's increased from 1.6 per cent to 1.8 per cent. So what you see is that, around the world, countries are seeing the big opportunity. They're increasing quite significantly, they're spending on research and development, and we're doing ours just a tiny little bit—nothing like what other countries are doing.
The short point is: we're not keeping up. I think that's really evident in some specific areas of innovation. Investment in energy R&D, for example—Australia should be a global energy powerhouse; I'm hardly the first person to say that. In the final year that Labor was last in office, the multisector R&D spend on energy and the environment was $464 million. Last year it was $296 million. This is in real dollars. If we're going to secure this new energy future and the great wave of jobs that can come with innovation in these areas, we're going to have to invest. That's what we seem to be failing to do at the moment.
Medical innovation is another pertinent example. Anyone working in this area would know that this is a core area of expertise for Australian scientists. In the final year that Labor was last in office, the multisector spend on the National Health and Medical Research Council was $223 million. Last year, under the coalition, it was $8 million less. It's very problematic and very concerning. These are areas of natural comparative advantage for us here in Australia, and to see the government not just underinvesting in R&D but ripping dollars out of these crucial areas where we should be spending more is a bit of a problem.
Finally, I want to make a few comments about the research and development tax incentive. Bill Ferris conducted a review of our innovation system for Malcolm Turnbull when Mr Turnbull was Australia's Prime Minister. He talked about this balance between providing direct and indirect support through the way that we fund research and development. This is something else that I think the parliament needs to have a really close look at. When we look at best practice countries, we see far more support being given directly. The government is able to design and drive much more of a strategy about how we spend our research dollars, as scarce as they are, in this country. I think that, along with some of the other issues that I've mentioned, there are real opportunities for improvement here.
The upshot of all this is the opportunity. There's a huge opportunity for us to create a new wave of employment for Australians to give the very best for our kids. We're only going to get it if we get that focus and energy from the government and, unfortunately, that's what's missing today.
As the member for Hotham and other speakers before me have mentioned, the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2019 is a non-controversial bill which really is only about amending the Australian Research Council Act to apply indexation to the existing appropriation amounts for approved research programs in the forthcoming financial years. The amendment that we have moved to that bill mentions that, whilst we welcome a second reading of the bill, the House also notes that the government has cut research funding, interfered in independent peer-reviewed grant processes and abandoned nation-building investment in education and research infrastructure. While this is a very uncontroversial bill, I take this opportunity, as did the member for Hotham, to talk about research, talk about the ARC and talk about higher education.
I'm no stranger to any of those processes. As a professor and academic, I had or was part of four ARC grants. The first Australian Research Council grant that I was involved in was actually for my PhD. That was a discovery grant where the findings of my research informed Australia's first metric measuring behavioural responses to the fear of terrorism. A few years later I was successful in getting an early career research grant, which looked at—gosh, I don't know if I can remember what it looked at! Actually, I do remember: it looked at victims of terrorism and their contributions to policymaking on counterterrorism. In that period I was also involved in a linkage grant that involved several universities. We developed supercomputer software to look at scraping so that I could analyse trends in online terrorism. Then, just before I entered parliament, I was successful in a second discovery grant, which was a collaboration with a university in Dublin and the University of Haifa to look at the nature of terrorist propaganda influence.
So I'm no stranger to ARC grants and I can tell you with absolute surety that the process that an individual researcher goes through to get an ARC grant is a gruelling one. It often involves many years of preparation. It involves many years of undertaking things like pilot studies, building up your reputation as a researcher and building up your publications in your particular field just to get a look in to get an ARC grant. When I was an academic, they introduced the ARC early career researcher grants because the discovery grants had such a low success rate, and many of us who had had our PhDs for fewer than eight years—what were called early- and mid-career researchers—were just not competitive in getting discovery grants. So they introduced the early career research grants.
Even the early career research grants of the ARC are very gruelling in their process. It is an extremely rigorous process. The application for a research grant, whether it's a discovery, linkage or early career grant, takes you at least a year to develop. You have to develop your project. You have to have written about your project and had that published, often in some of the high-ranking journals. You have to show how your research has a benefit to the research community, a national benefit and an international benefit. It is no easy task.
But, what we've seen is an unprecedented case where the previous minister used his ministerial veto to restrict funding for research that doesn't support his particular world view. What we have seen is unprecedented political interference in an independent, peer-reviewed grant process. Absolutely, it is a shame, because, as I said, nobody can assess the value of a piece of research except experts in that field. For a minister to think that he or she has the skills, the knowledge or the experience to make an informed decision about which research projects go through and which don't is a slap in the face to every single person who has put their blood, sweat and tears into getting a PhD and into becoming an academic and going down that path of contributing to Australia's research knowledge and our research capability.
When you apply for an ARC grant, you have to put in a particular code, and that code determines which panel of experts—can I just repeat: panel of experts—will assess your application. That code is necessary for that panel of experts to assess your application, because that panel of experts are experts in the field you have selected your research to be assessed under. It's not like somebody who is a specialist in communication is assessing a research project on genomes. It's not like somebody who has a PhD and an international reputation in international relations is assessing a PhD on business in Malaysia. It's not like that. The ARC College of Experts and the panel experts are the top Australian experts in their field. So for the minister to undermine such an independent and such a rigorous process is really quite disgraceful.
The fact also needs to be stated that all of the research projects that were vetoed by the minister were in humanities and social sciences. As a social scientist, and somebody with a humanities background, I find that particularly disturbing. They were across a range of fields in the humanities—history, the arts, music and journalism. It was as if those fields could easily be judged on their worth and on the amount and the level of knowledge that they add to Australia's research capabilities by a minister, who—correct me if I'm wrong, Mr Deputy Speaker Goodenough—I'm pretty sure has no background in history, the arts, music or journalism.
The other issue is how we found out about this. Senate estimates was told in October 2018 that 11 grants totalling $4.2 million were secretly vetoed by the then education minister in 2017 and 2018. There were six discovery grants, three Discovery Early Career Research Awards and two Future Fellowships. I particularly think it's damning that the early career researcher awards were vetoed, because many early career researchers, or those who apply for early career research awards, are women who, for one reason or another, usually through having children, have had their academic progress and their academic careers disrupted. Until Senate estimates, the universities and the scholars had absolutely no idea that these applications had been rejected even though they had been approved by the college of experts, who are best placed to determine the worth of an ARC grant application.
Apart from this unprecedented undermining of the independence and expert process of the ARC, the government has also made three attempts to abolish the nation-building Education Investment Fund. The most recent attempt is currently before the parliament. The EIF was established in 2009 by this side, by Labor. The purpose of the EIF was to provide important capital funding for transformational education and research infrastructure which would enable Australian universities to compete internationally. We have a very good reputation in terms of education. It's important that we keep that reputation. It's important that we continue to be held up as a great example of a great place for people to come and study and get a good education. Our universities are internationally renowned, but without a commitment to research and without universities being able to do the kind of research that informs teaching and makes us competitive on the international stage, there is a real danger that we are going to lose that reputation and we will stop having students coming here from overseas to study in Australia. It's one of our biggest exports; I think it's our third-largest export. It would be a huge blow to the economy if we were to lose large numbers of international students because our research could not keep up with international trends.
The Education Investment Fund was the key plank in the Labor government's move to transform Australian education and research capability. We introduced it in 2009 to address years of underfunding and underinvestment by the coalition government during the Howard era. We doubled, or nearly doubled, the Higher Education Endowment Fund. We brought in the EIF to make substantial investment in renewal and refurbishment of universities and vocational institutions as well as major research institutions. Under Labor, around $7 billion was provided to co-finance the update and modernisation of our vocational higher education and research facilities across 71 projects.
Just before I decided to get distracted by a political career, I set up one of those research facilities at Edith Cowan University in Mount Lawley. I set up a research program and the infrastructure to look at global issues. So I know how important the funding for this kind of infrastructure is and how important it is to enable our universities to partner and have MOUs with universities overseas and to develop our international reputation and the international reputation of academics.
There was once a time when academia would have been a very attractive option for somebody to work in. You did your PhD, you got your PhD, you joined academia and you devoted your life to your subject area and to increasing knowledge and developing the skills of future generations in a specific subject area. Whether that is something like counterterrorism, whether it is medical research or whether it's in the sciences or the humanities, it's all contributing to knowledge and contributing to our knowledge pool as a nation. Increasingly, academia is becoming less of an attractive option for young people in particular. The member for Hotham mentioned one particular case, but there are many like that where young people are leaving research in droves because they can't get funding, because their ARC grants are being knocked back, vetoed by a minister who knows nothing of their particular area and who continues to undermine the experts of the ARC.
In closing, I would urge this government to really put their money where their mouth is and support research, because it's the future of our country. It's the future of Australia and our competitiveness on the international stage.