House debates

Monday, 18 March 2024

Private Members' Business

Science Meets Parliament

6:15 pm

Photo of Zaneta MascarenhasZaneta Mascarenhas (Swan, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I move:

That this House:

(1) notes that:

(a) 20 and 21 March 2024 mark the Science Meets Parliament 2024 event in Canberra; and

(b) Science Meets Parliament provides the opportunity for parliamentarians to directly engage with Australian scientists;

(2) acknowledges the work of Science and Technology Australia to organise the event;

(3) recognises the:

(a) importance of science in helping Australia solve some of its biggest challenges and diversifying the economy; and

(b) Government's commitment to support and celebrate the achievements of Australian scientists; and

(4) further notes the Government's goals to embed science in government policy making.

It's time for Science Meets Parliament. As both an MP and a STEM professional, this is literally a time when my two worlds collide and, as collision theory explains, for a chemical reaction to occur, particles must collide with one another. So I see this engagement between policymakers and STEM professionals as an exciting opportunity where scientists and STEM professionals can share what is at the forefront of Australian scientific discovery. What I hope is that in return policymakers react with more evidence based decision-making.

I have said this before: science in practice today is the technology of tomorrow, and I continue to see that STEM improves our lives in the electorate of Swan. At the inaugural Swan International Women's Day Awards, scientist of the year was awarded to the very talented Dr Parwinder Kaur. Dr Kaur is an associate professor in biotechnology; founder of a start-up; and is advising JETSI. The coolest thing is that she also maps DNA. This is critical for our understanding; we need to know our genetic past to help solve problems of the future. This is groundbreaking research and it's important for Australian biodiversity and agricultural advancements.

Parwinder is also an advocate for science communication. She's doing this by bridging the gap between complex research and public understanding, and this is what Science Meets Parliament is all about. The Albanese government is putting science at the forefront of our decision-making, and I will continue to encourage that this happens because I'm passionate about STEM. Amusingly for my staff, we ended up going to Scitech for our 2023 Christmas celebrations. For those who don't know, that's the WA version of Questacon—a bit smaller though! It's where my copper and tellurium shirt is from. People might think it says 'CuTe' but nerds will know what it actually means! While I'm the only STEM professional in my electoral office, it's clear that my passion for science is rubbing off.

On a serious note, I know that science was at the forefront of helping us function as a nation during the pandemic: vaccines were developed at unprecedented rates; network engineers connected us so that scores of people could work from home; and we saw local innovators and manufacturers develop health and safety gear when our global supply chains broke down.

Amber was one of the nominees for one of Swan's International Women's Day science awards. She was nominated for her work and her volunteering in the health profession during the COVID-19 pandemic. She helped the community to keep people safe and informed—an example of the unsung work often done by STEM professionals. Amber was also recognised for her achievements as an exemplary scientist in a predominately male field.

I know firsthand that women are underrepresented in the field of STEM. Scientifically, I know that diversity is strength and I see a future where Australia is a STEM a superpower. But to do this we need to broaden the mix of STEM professionals. Labor recognises this, and that's why we're working to promote STEM to diverse communities and to provide pathways to it for people from all walks of life. Labor's first step is the Diversity in STEM review. This review will guide changes to STEM programs to widen their appeal to more women and people from diverse backgrounds.

Over the next two days, as the Science Meets Parliament meetings continue, I encourage all members of this House and of the other place to explore the opportunities that science and STEM have to offer—to understand the real tangible difference that science makes to people's lives and to listen to the scientists who are at the forefront of discovery and change. We need to understand how we can collaborate to forge a future of scientific wonderment, where science forges a better life for Australians and secures a stable economy. To do this, the Albanese government has backed in the future by backing scientists and by investing in national STEM institutions and education programs. I hope that everyone enjoys Science Meets Parliament.

Photo of Bridget ArcherBridget Archer (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Is there a seconder for the motion?

Photo of Carina GarlandCarina Garland (Chisholm, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I second the motion and reserve my right to speak.

6:20 pm

Photo of Karen AndrewsKaren Andrews (McPherson, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Can I start by thanking the member for Swan for putting forward this excellent motion, which gives us an opportunity to reach out across what is often a very divided place here and talk about things that are important to the future of Australia, so thank you very much for that.

Whilst I was listening to the member speak, it crossed my mind that there will come a day when I am no longer a politician, but I will always be an engineer. Often I laugh and say, 'Given the opportunity of introducing myself as a politician or an engineer, which one would I choose?' I generally choose 'engineer', given the opportunity. I do that for multiple reasons. But I'm very proud of the fact that I did study engineering—and that my elder sister is a graduate in agricultural science. She's got a master's in ag science and psychology—and multiple things, to be honest! She was a STEM professional who encouraged not only me but many other people to follow a STEM pathway.

The substance of this motion, in my view, is really talking about the opportunity for parliamentarians to engage with scientists. Of course, during this week we have the opportunity, as individuals and collectively, to meet with many great scientists. I would also encourage everyone here to do all that they can to take the opportunity to meet with the scientists and listen to what they are saying about the areas in which they have specialised. Some have incredibly deep knowledge that they have garnered over many, many years. We have an opportunity to learn from them and look at what the potential practical implications will be at the intersection between industry and science, which I will come back to.

The Deputy Prime Minister and I established Parliamentary Friends of Science well over 10 years ago now, and we have co-chaired it since that time. He and I have done all that we can, in a very bipartisan way, to encourage our colleagues to meet with scientists, to engage with science, to understand all that science can deliver for this country. I think that we would all agree that where we saw science most recently at its best was during the COVID pandemic, when, as a nation, we relied so heavily on so many scientists from so many backgrounds. I can remember taking the call from the minister for health at the time, Greg Hunt, when he said that we needed to manufacture invasive ventilators here. I remember him telling me that we needed 20,000 invasive ventilators—and, quite frankly, we weren't even sure that that was going to be enough at the start of the pandemic. But what happened was that our industrial specialists, our manufacturers, led by our scientists, came together to work out how they were going to make those ventilators here in Australia, and they achieved it. They delivered exactly what was asked of them. They basically started from scratch, because, as we would all remember, it was very difficult to get products in and out of this country. So it was almost a first-principles design from those scientists and engineers who were involved in building those ventilators. Then we saw the work that was being done more broadly across the health sector, with so many professionals stepping up to make sure that they did their very best to keep Australia as safe as they possibly could.

These are really very simple and perhaps topical examples of the interaction of science with our everyday lives. I think that it's incumbent upon all parliamentarians to ensure that they are supporting the various science agendas that have been put forward by successive governments. I thank the current government for the work that they're doing, and I would like to reflect, in the last minute or so that I have here today, on some of the work that was done under the coalition government to support science in our communities. The standout for me was probably the $1.1 billion National Innovation and Science Agenda. At the time it was quite groundbreaking in terms of what it was doing with industry, innovation and science, and in some of the work that was established there. Things such as crowdsourced equity funding legislation, the $200 million CSIRO Innovation Fund and tax incentives for early-stage investors actually were really positive things to do.

What I would hope is that over the coming years we all work together to make sure we build on the strengths of the past and we look forward to all that we can do to ensure that science has a key role in what we are doing here in this country.

6:25 pm

Photo of Carina GarlandCarina Garland (Chisholm, Australian Labor Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Of course, this week marks Science Meets Parliament, an event that has become an important one on the Canberra calendar for more than two decades, and an annual highlight for parliamentarians. Science Meets Parliament is open to all Australian STEM professionals in academia, industry and government. This includes PhD students through to leaders in the STEM sector. I'm very grateful to have the opportunity to speak about this today, and I thank the member for Swan for her motion.

Science Meets Parliament provides the opportunity for parliamentarians to directly engage with Australian scientists and is increasingly becoming a powerful vehicle for deep engagement between the STEM sector and policymakers. It plays a crucial role in building relationships and helps to bring STEM expertise deeper into the service of the nation. Activities in the parliament this week include expert-led professional development, a welcome reception, a parliamentary forum, a national gala dinner, a televised National Press Club address and opportunities for delegates to meet in small groups privately with parliamentarians.

Science & Technology Australia is Australia's peak body in science and technology, representing more than 225,000 scientists, engineers and technologists. It goes without saying that Australian scientists and science both save and improve lives. I really want to congratulate the team at Science &Technology Australia for all their terrific efforts in pulling together what is sure to be yet another fantastic week for Science Meets Parliament participants. This year's event is the biggest yet, accommodating 391 delegates, 154 early- and mid-career researchers and representatives from 105 federal electorates.

Our government is on the record as stating that we both recognise and support the contributions that Australian scientists and science make to our nation. Not only does science play an important role in helping Australia solve some of its biggest challenges but it also plays such an important role in bringing diversification to our economy. Indeed, Minister Husic, during Science Meets Parliament activities last year, stated:

Science isn't a nice-to-have only when times are good. It is essential to the prosperity of this country. To our national wellbeing. To being a modern economy.

In my own electorate of Chisholm, we are so fortunate to have some truly outstanding and world-class science organisations, and scientists and researchers based at organisations such as the CSIRO and the Monash Victorian Heart Institute. Earlier this month I had the great pleasure of hosting Minister Husic in my electorate at ANSTO and the Australian Synchrotron for a Monash Precinct Network roundtable. We discussed a range of topics with the minister, including access to the National Reconstruction Fund for small and medium enterprises, ways to support Australian science and manufacturers, helping innovative companies to scale up and building STEM aspirations in young people.

I've also seen the value of science meeting parliament in initiatives like the STEM Ambassadors Program. This has allowed me the opportunity to connect with Dr Julia Gilmartin-Thomas, an expert in medicine safety and dementia research and Chisholm's local STEM ambassador. Not only has this program allowed Julia to gain a better understanding of policymaking processes but it has provided me with an improved understanding of the application of science. I really look forward to all of my meetings with Julia and our continued engagement through the STEM Ambassadors Program, including through an allied health research forum later this year.

Our government believes that, by employing Australians' research skills and expertise, we can create new economic opportunities for the country and become a global STEM superpower. Every day in my electorate I see the opportunities with, as I said before, the world-class researchers and world-class scientists there, who want to work in collaboration with one another to help solve the problems that confront our nation and our region. Our government wants to ensure the next generation of scientists has all the skills it needs to solve tomorrow's problems, and events like Science Meets Parliament allow us to take big strides forward and build important and deep relationships between policymakers and scientists.

6:30 pm

Photo of Aaron VioliAaron Violi (Casey, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

Science, industry and innovation form the cornerstone of Australia's economic prosperity. These sectors drive advancements in technology, infrastructure and productivity. They foster growth and competitiveness on a global scale. Through scientific research, discoveries are made that lead to groundbreaking innovations, and create new products, services and industries. And industry relies on innovation to remain dynamic, adapting to changing market demands and staying ahead of competitors. This symbiotic relationship fuels economic development, generating jobs, attracting investment and enhancing Australia's reputation as a leader in many fields.

There is no doubt that, with the economic challenges we face as a nation, we need to invest in science and innovation and industry more than ever, and that's why many in the industry are worried. This motion notes the importance of science in helping Australia solve some of its biggest challenges and diversifying the economy. But I know industry is worried and scientists are worried due to reports earlier this month of some unrest in the cabinet about spending. To quote the Age article:

Industry, Science and innovation Minister Ed Husic had complained directly to Albanese that the cabinet's powerful expenditure review committee—responsible for overseeing ministers' submissions for budget measures—was shutting out ministers from decision-making.

Husic also raised concerns about what he saw as the influence of the committee of two unelected bureaucrats. Finance department secretary Jenny Wilkinson and Treasury secretary Steven Kennedy. Some critics claim the pair are holding the government back from spending on Labor policy initiatives. That's a concern for industry—at a time when we need to invest in science and back science, the minister is at war with the Treasurer and the Expenditure Review Committee about what funding will go into this important area. It's another example of the Albanese Labor government failing to understand this new dynamic economy that we operate in. Nothing shows that more than their lack of appointing a minister for the digital economy. The need to drive industry, to drive capital investment and to continue to drive those innovative products we have and we require. Again and again, this government is missing these opportunities to drive economic growth through for country. So I hope the member for Swan, who moved this motion and is passionate about science, speaks out tomorrow in caucus and asks this Prime Minister this Treasurer if they are actually going to back science and put money behind it.

I also want to commend Science and Technology Australia for the important work they do. The Science Meets Parliament event is a great event. It's one of the events that I've really enjoyed since becoming a new member of parliament. I particularly want to thank and acknowledge Professor Geoff Brooks from the Swinburne University. He's a resident in Casey. Over the last 12 months, he's been working with me as my science expert through this program. It's been great to talk to Professor Brooks about his different areas of expertise, but he also has the ability to connect me with other experts. One of the things I admire about Professor Brooks is that he knows what he knows, but he's also willing to admit when he's not an expert in an area, which is something we should also do. It's an example of the importance of science and technology and the importance of elected officials relying on experts while also understanding that experts have expertise in that narrow area. Professor Brooks said to me that he looks through problems with a straw, and we need to look broader than that. I appreciate his advice and his counsel.

I look forward to speaking on a panel at Science Meets Parliament on Thursday to share my experiences since being elected. I'm looking forward to meeting and engaging with some scientists that are coming to my office this week. We in Australia have a strong scientific community. It's important that we respect them, that we engage with them, that we listen to them and that we continue to work with them. The Science and Technology Australia event is one of these really important forums to continue. I note, as the member for McPherson said, that the Deputy Prime Minister is a co-chair of the Parliamentary Friends of Science. I hope he can also lend his weight to the member for Swan's work in talking to the Treasurer and the Prime Minister and making sure that science and industry gets the support it needs from this government to help alleviate some of the significant economic challenges we face as a country.

Photo of Bridget ArcherBridget Archer (Bass, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The time allotted for this debate has expired. The debate is adjourned and the resumption of the debate will be made an order of the day for the next sitting.