MOTIONS;National Science Week – 20 Aug 2015

What science has given our society cannot be underestimated. Science, particularly in the last two centuries, has totally transformed the human experience. It has expanded our life spans, provided us with technology and experience almost beyond imagination, and has made life much, much easier.

I am glad that in this place we can mark National Science Week 2015, which runs from the 15 to 23 August 2015. It is extremely important in this country that we celebrate and promote science through the events held in National Science Week. It engages all sectors of the broader Australian society, but particularly children, with the importance of science in our lives. It encourages children to be inquisitive about the world around them, to show them that science can be interesting and fun and that there are exciting science careers available that can help those around them. Whether it is engineering, medicine, ICT, mathematics, pathology, chemistry, physics or one of the hundreds of other jobs that are science based, a career in science is interesting, challenging and meaningful. There are over 70 National Science Week events planned in my home state of Tasmania during this National Science Week, and I encourage people to go out and participate. I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate the organisers of these events and the 1,500 National Science Week events around the nation.

Science has become so ingrained in our society that we often do not stop to think about it. It does not cross our radar—to use a science-based metaphor. And this is in some ways worrying, because unless we are aware of the ways that science affects our daily lives, we forget the importance of science research for the future of our society.

The other problem is that it makes it easier for governments, like this Abbott government, to cut funding to organisations like the CSIRO. This government cares so little about science that they did not even have a science minister for the 15 months from 18 September 2013 until 23 December 2014. That was the first time since March 1931 that Australia did not have a science minister. That is rather a despicable situation.

The Abbott government’s anti-science agenda is extreme. I do not think we have seen in this country before a government that is willing to attack science so publicly or so vigorously. They attack science because it deals with the facts that do not conveniently fit into their ideological model. In less than two years this government has tried to cut $3 billion from science, research and innovation. I will repeat that: this government has tried to cut $3 billion from science, research and innovation in less than two years. They should be condemned loudly for these cuts. These cuts include: CSIRO—$114 million cut; Australian Research Council—the ARC—$75 million cut; Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation—$27.5 million cut; Cooperative Research Centres—CRCs—$80 million cut; Research Training Scheme—$173.7 million cut; Commercialisation Australia abolished—$260 million cut; National ICT Australia Ltd to be abolished—$84 million cut; Geoscience Australia—$16.1 million cut; and Defence Science and Technology Organisation—$120 million cut.

This Liberal government made a large number of cuts to programs for innovation in the 2014-15 budget. These cuts include reductions in the value of the R&D tax incentive, estimated to save around $1.7 billion in lost incentives for businesses to invest in R&D; the abolition of Commercialisation Australia, $260 million; the abolition of the Innovation Investment Fund venture capital; the abolition of Enterprise Connect, $152 million; a cut of $45 million from clean technology programs and a move to abolish ARENA; the abolition of industry innovation precincts, $298 million; the abolition of Enterprise Solutions, $28.7 million; the abolition of Researchers in Business; and the replacement of a number of these programs with an ill-conceived Entrepreneurs Infrastructure Program, now known just as the Entrepreneurs Program, which tries to deliver programs similar to Enterprise Connect and Commercialisation Australia with around half the funding. In the 2015-16 budget, the government made additional cuts to innovation, including $27 million from the Entrepreneurs Infrastructure Program, and a further $31.7 million from industry grant programs abolished in the 2014-15 budget.

CSIRO alone has lost 1,200 science and support staff in the last two years, the largest job cuts in the organisation’s history. Those 1,200 jobs represent 20 per cent of the total staff of the agency, a drastic and unwarranted cut. These cuts have been particularly hard in my home state of Tasmania, with 76 jobs lost at CSIRO’s world-class research labs, which has significantly impacted on the important work they do—and, of course, it has not helped staff morale any. CSIRO has also closed or merged several of its research sites, including eliminating the world-class irrigation research team at Griffith in New South Wales and consolidating sites in Canberra. The agency has also asked the National Capital Authority to rezone the Ginninderra field station site on the Barton Highway as ‘urban area’ in the next amendment to the National Capital Plan, due out next year. Do you know why it needs to do that? It needs to do that because that would allow CSIRO to sell or build on the site for commercial development. CSIRO should not have to sell off the farm and would not have to if the Abbott government had not slashed $115 million from its funding in the 2014 budget. Senator Rice made some comments about some of the inventions, but let’s remember that Australia and the world can also thank the CSIRO for inventing wi-fi, plastic banknotes and the hendra virus vaccine, amongst other things.

The Abbott government also decided to abolish the Education Investment Fund—which funded the construction of Australia’s only blue-water research vessel, the RV Investigator—and transferred the money to its failed Asset Recycling Fund. The previous Labor government invested $120 million to build the RV Investigator, a world-class vessel that is capable of spending 300 days a year at sea. Yet the Abbott government took a short-sighted decision in its 2014 budget to provide funding for the RV Investigator to spend only 180 days at sea. That is just 60 per cent of the sea time per year that the vessel was designed for. For the sake of saving $7 million a year, the Abbott government has consigned the RV Investigator to spending an additional 120 days a year tied to a dock when it could be at sea making new discoveries to support our marine economy and environment. I am pleased that Hobart is the home port of the RV Investigator. However, we all need this ship to be out at sea doing the important scientific research it was designed to do. This government needs to properly fund the RV Investigator.

Again in my home state, Tony Abbott’s budget cuts have attacked the University of Tasmania, Tasmania’s only university. This budget reduces funding for undergraduate student places by 20 per cent, and this will cost Australia’s universities $4.4 billion over four years from 2016. Research funding was also cut, with $263 million cut from the Sustainable Research Excellence program. This will impact on Tasmania dearly, with UTas cuts totalling $125 million over four years. In the 2015-16 year alone, UTas will see $13.9 million cut from the Commonwealth Grants Scheme, $2.9 million from the Sustainable Research Excellence program and $1.7 million from the Research Training Scheme. This is an absolute disgrace, and the government should be condemned very loudly for these savage cuts. Tasmania has a wonderful international reputation for research. These cuts, which are even more savage in the coming four years, will see jobs lost and our best and brightest researchers forced to leave Tasmania. That makes absolutely no sense. UTas Vice-Chancellor Peter Rathjen is clearly worried about the viability of the northern campuses under the Abbott government’s plan for deregulation. Professor Rathjen said earlier this year:

We got cut again and, in particular, what got cut was the support for our research programs which hits us quite hard.

The huge 20 per cent cut to undergraduate places will mean Tasmanian students will suffer. Already UTas has nearly one-third of all its students coming from low-socioeconomic backgrounds. This is nearly double the national figure and the third highest in Australia, and it beggars belief that the Abbott government is going to deny more students from less well-off families the opportunity to go to university. UTas has a high proportion of mature-age students, who will also be forced to abandon their university studies because of the Abbott government’s deregulation agenda.

The Abbott government has decided to de-fund National ICT Australia, or NICTA, from June 2016, which will see even more scientists and innovators lose their jobs. This will be another devastating blow to a science and innovation sector already reeling from savage cuts from the Abbott government. NICTA has been one of the most successful government industry research and innovation partnership organisations in Australia, and its abolition once again should be condemned. Nowhere in the world has an organisation that combines cutting-edge blue-sky research, training for hundreds of PhD students and industry-focused application been able to survive without government support. Labor is pleased that NICTA has found a path forward in a merger with CSIRO, although almost two-thirds of NICTA’s 310 jobs might be lost. Labor strongly believes NICTA should never have been de-funded. This government is fuelling a science brain drain in our country and they do not even seem to realise.

The Abbott government is stuck in the past and its cuts have seen federal government investment in knowledge and innovation slip to its lowest level in 30 years. Australia now spends less on scientific research than the OECD average. This government has completely failed to understand and advocate for basic research, and it should be strongly condemned for this because the way Australia has become such a prosperous nation is through its strong investment in research and innovation. The way that Australia will remain prosperous nation is through strong investment in research and innovation.

This government just does not understand the importance of science to all sectors of the economy. Scientific research transforms practices in farming, in manufacturing, in medicine and health provision, in electronics and in communications. Research in science and technology will be the difference between Australians designing, refining, operating and maintaining the machines of the future or being replaced by them. Scientific research is the key for creating and sustaining the jobs of the future, but this government does not and will not understand the importance of Science. Labor does.

Labor has a vision. We have a vision of a clever future with a great national goal: to dedicate three per cent of our national GDP to research and development by the end of the next decade. We know that three in every four of the world’s fastest growing occupations require STEM-skills and knowledge. Government, universities, research centres and industry must all work together to reach this goal.

In our schools participation in science subjects has fallen to the lowest level in 20 years and maths and science literacy has fallen. At the same time, other countries in our region continue to improve their results. In classrooms today about 40 per cent of teachers teaching science and maths to Australian students between years 7 to 10 do not have a tertiary qualification in the discipline. We need to improve this, and Labor will.

Labor will support better training for 25,000 current science, technology, engineering and maths teachers because we want our hardworking teachers to have the skills and the confidence to help more students fall in love with science. We will create 25,000 new scholarships for STEM graduates to encourage them to continue their study and become great teachers. Teach STEM will provide an incentive payment to attract more STEM graduates to become teachers. Students who have just completed a STEM degree or are within five years of graduation will be able to apply for a $15,000 incentive payment. Five thousand dollars will be paid upon commencement of the course of study, with the remaining paid after their first year in the classroom. We will also write off the student debts of 100,000 science, technology, engineering and maths students upon graduation. This will encourage more Australians, particularly women, to have the opportunity to study, work and teach in these fields.

Science will be at the centre of a Labor government not just in words but in actions. Science will underwrite jobs in health, education, construction, ICT, mining and agriculture as well as the jobs our children will do—in many cases jobs yet to be invented.

This government has failed the science and research sector. It has thoughtlessly cut funding to the current programs and agencies that provide a nationally significant role in improving all facets of Australian industries. It has failed to provide any vision for the future and failed to plan and fund the research that we need to create the jobs of the future, and it should be condemned for that also.

National Science Week is an important opportunity to lift the profile of science in our community. Unfortunately, this visionless government has completely failed in this area.