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Address to Science Meets Parliament

24 March 2015

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It’s a delight to be here with you this evening as the Minister for Industry and Science – your champion in Cabinet.

And it’s also a delight to welcome you here to Parliament House for Science Meets Parliament.

While this marvellous venue has hosted many significant events, it’s a fitting location to bring together some of our nation’s most astute scientific minds.

The support for this event shows that in both the political community and the science community we are all aware of the strong connection between policy and practical outcomes, and we are all committed to strengthening the relationship to ensure science continues its role in the national debate.

As a pragmatic and practical person, I value science for its practical applications.

Science keeps us well, it treats our ailments, it provides us with nutritious food, clean water and electricity.

But these are only a handful of the most obvious ways science improves our lives on a day-to-day basis.

Just as importantly, science is fundamental to our national prosperity, and it has a very clearly defined place at the table when it comes to economic policy.

Australia’s best scientists stand alongside the best of their international peers as equals.

Our institutions, universities, science agencies and businesses have the capacity to provide a strong platform on which to build the Australia of the future. 

It’s perhaps the downside of the meticulous, detailed and often long-term work that you do, that our science and research community runs the risk of being perceived, unfairly, as cloistered away in academia.

This is not the case and we want all parts of the community to recognise and value science.

All of us in this room know the truth – that there are few disciplines that are more directly relevant to each and every Australian.

But herein lies the challenge and the area in which we must improve as a nation of policy makers and scientists, if we are to capitalise on our advantages and claim our role in the changing international economy.

Australia’s future depends on the commitment of all of us to work together across disciplines and sectors.

We must be entrepreneurial.

Our research institutions and the business sector must collaborate.

We must translate our ideas and research into real goods and services, technologies and life improvements.

And we must do it on a scale not attempted before.

The evidence for the need to act can be found in a few important statistics:

Australia is average for school students’ performance in science and mathematics literacy compared with 11 European countries, the United States and Canada.

We rank 81st out of 143 countries on the Global Innovation Index Innovation Efficiency Ratio which compares innovation inputs (including research), with innovation outputs.

In other words, we are close to average in turning ideas to our advantage.

And we come last, 33rd out of 33, in an OECD survey on the rate of collaboration between business and research organisations – last in the OECD in working together.

Less than half of Australian firms identify themselves as innovators and just 1.5 per cent of Australian firms developed new to the world innovations in 2011, compared with 10 to 40 per cent in other OECD countries.

As I said, we have to change.

The Government’s role

For my part, I understand that if we are to improve these statistics and key indicators, the Government must continue to work with the science community on a long-term vision and a long-term strategy.

That’s exactly what the Government is doing.  And importantly, we are taking a cross-discipline approach.

Science is at the heart of the industry portfolio, but it’s also central to so many other parts of Government, from education and training, to health and defence to name just a few.

We must ensure our science and research structure works to deliver a stronger future for Australia.

And we must ensure that Australian science is also in-step with industry.

I can assure you the Government’s work to facilitate this is well underway.

We have established new ways to ensure we get the best advice on science policy with the Commonwealth Science Council, which provides advice directly to the Prime Minister.

We also have a range of existing and new initiatives that are placing science at the centre of industry policy and our economic agenda.

This includes the Industry Innovation and Competitiveness Agenda, and Boosting Commercial Returns from Research, which set the parameters for the Government’s initiatives to increase collaboration between science and industry.

It also includes reviews of the R&D tax incentive, and the Cooperative Research Centres programme to ensure they are operating as effectively as they should be to deliver outcomes to the benefit of the Australian economy.

The Government’s $188.5 million Industry Growth Centres Initiative will foster better use of research by industry, and deliver increased commercial returns from the investment in research in the identified sectors.

And the Research Connections element of the $484.2 million Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme is helping small and medium businesses to collaborate with the research sector to develop new ideas with commercial potential.

So the foundations are in place.

However, tonight I want to continue the conversation with you about what science policy should include as we continue to strengthen our economy and create new opportunities for Australian industry.

Our goals

Our science policy is underpinned by very clear objectives.

We want to support the next generation of Australian scientists and researchers by nurturing talent and scientific interest in our schools.

We want to create an environment where industry and science are in-synch, working together to identify and respond to challenges, create and capitalise on new opportunities, make new discoveries, and deliver new products and new jobs.

And we want to change the range of ways in which good science is recognised and rewarded, so scientists can work in industry and in academia and cross between the two without limiting their careers.

Achieving these goals will require Government, industry, academia and the education sectors to work together more closely than ever before.

How to deliver

To maximise the benefits from greater collaboration between science and industry and a greater reach for science across our economy we must be more strategic about what we do.

Although the potential and scope of what science can achieve is limitless, the reality is that our resources are not, therefore we need to set priorities.

We are investing around $9.2 billion in science, research and innovation this year.

This is substantial and significant.

But we are still operating in a conservative financial environment.

So we must make sure that our current investment delivers the outcomes that we want for our future and we must be smarter about how we do that.

To be more strategic, our path is clear.

We must have a vision, define our priorities and build our capabilities to achieve our goals.

Setting priorities

The Commonwealth Science Council is currently finalising its consideration of national science and research priorities.

These are aligned with our national interest and industry needs.

A proportion of the Government’s investment in science and research must address national challenges, and establish critical mass in areas of national importance.

This is not revolutionary – countries like the United States, for example, have been prioritising a proportion of their research spending for decades.

Once further consultation and consideration is complete we will be releasing the priorities and importantly, we will highlight the areas where we hope to make a difference in the real world.

Building capability

Success in this endeavour – bringing science to the service of national interest - all begins with education:  inspiring and nurturing a passion for science from a young age.

A strong science and maths presence in schools – starting at kindergarten – is critical to increasing Australia’s future scientific performance.

So too are community programmes and informal learning opportunities like Questacon and museums, which play a vital role in encouraging young people’s interest in science.

We need this passion to produce a steady pipeline of Australians studying scientific disciplines in higher education and entering the workforce.

Science is not just for scientists. Science is in everything we do.

From the cars we drive to work in the morning, to our smart phones, and to the advanced medical therapies we can now access.

So we need to engage people of all ages and from all walks of life if we are to make the most of Australia’s scientific potential.

And we should capitalise on the opportunities of the modern age – where new technologies enable citizens to contribute to scientific endeavours in larger numbers and in real time.

It means science is no longer fenced away from the general public who must wait for long lag times before learning of new scientific breakthroughs and applications.

Similarly, most online news outlets have a dedicated science section providing detailed coverage of science and bringing an everyday science literacy into people’s homes and to their workplaces.

And of course significant scientific achievements are still to be found on the front pages of our national newspapers.

While I expect we will always marvel at the wonders of science, this increasing media coverage and more engaged community conversation about science, scientific ideas and applications is essential in creating a greater level of familiarity and comfort with science throughout our society.

This in turn will be essential in translating the widespread interest in science across our community into a readiness to pursue science as a career option, or a greater willingness to incorporate science and research into business problem-solving, market reach and job-creation.

I have spoken before about the importance of inspiring, engaging and educating our workforce so that it has the skills and capability needed to underpin a globally competitive economy.

We must also ensure that we have the international connections and the local expertise to leverage that knowledge, address our problems and create opportunities here in Australia.

The Government will review the science and research system to have a clear view of where we are investing and our baseline performance in science and research.

We also need the proper infrastructure to support research.

In the coming months we will announce the outcomes of the review of research infrastructure and develop a system to support continuous improvement and bring stability to the management of our national science infrastructure.

We will consider the way research is funded and will ensure that how we invest minimises administration and maximises direct support to research.

Achieving our Goals

Our science policy will build on the Government’s Industry innovation and competitiveness agenda and Boosting the commercial returns from research strategy to:

  • create stronger incentives for research-industry collaboration
  • support research infrastructure
  • provide better access to research
  • increase industry relevant research training; and
  • improve measurement of research outcomes and knowledge transfer with industry.

This year, the Government will deliver a set of changes to ensure the system supports the contribution of scientific endeavour to national interest.

The Government will respond to the recommendations made by the Chief Scientist in his paper Science, technology, engineering and mathematics: Australia’s future.

My Parliamentary Secretary Karen Andrews will be working on this with the Commonwealth Science Council.

The Government’s response will address the need to improve the STEM skills pipeline through the education and training sector, improve industry competitiveness, strengthen our international engagement and improve our research.

We will continue the development of the Industry Growth Centres.

We have announced Chairs for the five Growth Centres, as well as an independent Advisory Committee, who will provide a direct link to both the Australian and global business communities.

Growth Centres will epitomise the sort of close collaboration between industry and science that we need to best position Australia for the future.

We will have the results of the reviews of research infrastructure and CRCs, and examine the R&D tax incentive through the taxation white paper, and use that work to inform the systemic changes needed to support high quality research and collaboration.

We will continue to build on our strong record of international collaboration, through mobility programmes such as the New Colombo Plan, Endeavour scholarships and the Australia Awards, as well as supporting engagement and collaboration with the world’s two emerging super science players – China and India – through the extensions to both funds.

Conclusion

We aren’t working in isolation and will continue to consult with you.

To get the best results for Australia, Governments, industry, researchers and academics must work together.

Our national science policy will underpin a nimble and prosperous economy and help us capitalise on our national strengths.

It demands we work together strategically to define our priorities and build our capabilities to achieve our goals.

Science is at the centre of Australian industry and our economic agenda and we are putting science at the centre of our efforts to support Australia’s future growth and prosperity.

I look forward to working with you to further consolidate its reputation and further capitalise on the practical applications of science right across our community and our economy.

Media contacts: Mr Macfarlane's office 02 6277 7070