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National Science Week launch

Canberra

10 August 2017

Thank you for being up so early, and thank you to all of you students who have come to Canberra to brave the cold with the rest of us. For the student from Tassie, he would be  thinking this is all pretty good, it’s a bit balmy actually. I’ll take my t-shirt off.

Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional custodians on the land on which we meet, the Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to their elders past and present. This is the best event I will do all week by a long shot I’ve got to tell you.

For me this is selfish because you inspire me in what I do and that’s very important in politics to get the inspiration from the people who are doing the work, and I’ll have more to say about that in a minute.

Now there are a lot of you in this room who think that every week should be National Science Week, and that should be our ultimate aspiration as a country. And I want to get to the stage where we revere our scientists and our artists in the same way we do as our sporting heroes.

Because so much of the future of this country rests on you: on the scientists of today and the scientists of the future. We’ve got in the audience people like Brian Schmidt, a Nobel laureate, now the vice-chancellor of the ANU – great to have you back in Australia doing all of this.

Now, this is the thing, as a scientist growing up in Australia, one day you can be a Nobel Prize winner, and you can be someone who has helped to change the world or how we see the world. That’s part of the excitement of science. So for me, this week is about reaching out to as many of our fellow Australians as possible and saying science is important, science works, get with the program.

Now, the thing about science is it’s not a body of settled conclusions; the work is never done. It’s a process, of working through propositions, testing them. There’s an old cliché about beautiful theories that are slain by ugly facts; but that’s the nature of the game. That’s how we accumulate knowledge. And even when we do a big project that doesn’t actually lead anywhere itself; simply by understanding what went wrong or didn’t go right, it actually can lead us in another direction, we learn from that. It’s important for is to put as much focus on basic science – on blue sky research – as we do on applied research. It’s very important for us going forward as a country that we do that. And in the National Science Statement I released earlier this year, the Government was unequivocal in its support for basic research, as well as the more applied research.

Now, science affects what we do every day. And in a lot of ways that we take for granted; whether by driving a car, using a phone, turning on the lights – at the a very basic level. And then at the more macro level: improving the health of our citizens, building a more productive economy, sustaining our natural environment. And what we’re trying to do with Science Week is demonstrate through the projects – which are occurring across the country – all of these sorts of outcomes that come from doing science properly. And the ultimate prize in this is to inspire a generation of young Australians to take up science, to take up technology, to take up engineering, to take up maths and associated disciplines. Seventy per cent of jobs in the future are going to come from some form of or combination of- or use those disciplines in some way or another. The future is coming at us; we can either just allow the future to run over us and allow others to mould the future, or we mould the future by using science, and technology, and engineering, and maths.

And it can be a great future. Graham painted a great optimistic future. And it can be like that. Winston Churchill used to talk about the fact that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity, and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. And that’s the challenge for Australia. Too often in the past I think we’ve said, “Oh, this is all getting a bit hard, the pace of change is very quick, and how are we going to cope with all of this?” Well, we have to cope – for our own sake and for the sake of future generations. Our adaptability as people has to increase and that means having a science literate country; not only younger generations, but older generations as well.

Now, I notice in here that the ABC – bless them – are going to have a survey of smart phone users and all the rest of it. I predict, without contradiction, that the place in Australia which has the greatest addiction to smart phones is Capital Hill, where you are right now.

I go to so many gatherings where I see all these people looking down and I say is something dropped on the floor? Is there a problem here? No, they’re all looking at their phones. And it’s been proven I think medically that actually for a lot of people it’s a similar effect to serotonin – they actually get a buzz. And I realised the other day could I really be an addict and not even know it, when I’m looking at my phone? Anyway, the point is the ABC are contributing, the CSIRO are contributing, Science Teachers’ Association are contributing, Questacon are contributing. I’m particularly gratified at that involvement of Questacon because Questacon is a national icon. It really is.

And the importance of Questacon is not just what they do here in the ACT it’s also the outreach across the country, and this science week is about that outreach. I’ve written to all of my colleagues – members and senators – and asked them to participate in events during the week. I’ll be participating in an event in a school in Gundaroo towards the end of next week, and that’ll be a virtual classroom being run by the CSIRO – a bit of a webinar. But there are all sorts of things happening all across the country in all sorts of weird and wonderful locations – in museums, in libraries, in all sorts of settings.  And one of my aspirations with this is that we reach as many Australians as possible.

One of the, I suppose, the values or the principles that underlines science is, you don’t judge a person by who they are, what they look like; you judge them by what they bring to the table, by their contribution. In other words, we celebrate the diversity. And to do that we’ve got to make sure that every Australian – Indigenous or non-Indigenous – every Australian – whether they’re in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney or they’re in the Kimberley, or remote parts of the country – have as much of an opportunity to get a really good education and to get exposure to really good science.

And one of the legacies I want to leave in the portfolio is that we have really world-class research infrastructure. As a country, we really punch above our weight when it comes to the creation of knowledge, to the basics of science. I want to make sure that we have the research infrastructure that goes with that. And we have really world-class infrastructure; we need to be rehabilitating it, renovating it, keeping it up to date;  because that makes us valuable partners for other countries when it comes to collaboration. And in this increasingly interconnected world, you need that collaboration if you’re to do really important and big science.

I’ve just been in Western Australia at the Square Kilometre Array; a fantastic project which is really going to go well, once it’s come to fruition and we’ve signed off all the agreements and all the rest of it: $294 million from the Federal Government. I go to the Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation. They’ve taken over the Synchrotron, in Melbourne. Fantastic, we’ve put $500 million into that. These are pieces of big science which allow us to have a big voice in the international scientific debates; and it’s important for us to do that.

The other point I’ll make about the exercise that various school children across the country have been undertaking in terms of our planet earth and implementing the UN Sustainable Development Goals through the work they’ve been doing; it is very important for us to understand the impact we have on the environment. And this is one area where, when it comes to climate science, it’s important for us to understand that things are happening, things are changing, we need to do things about it. We need to keep moving on that. But I always welcome debate about the science because as I said at the beginning, nothing is ever fixed, things are always changing. And it’s important for us always to adopt the scientific method. And I hope that one of the benefits of this week is to remind people that science is all about continuing to improve things. When something has gone wrong, cut our losses and move onto the next thing and keep going.

So ladies and gentlemen, it’s a great privilege for me to be science Minister. It’s an even bigger privilege to be in the presence of people who are doing really good science, and in the presence of the next generation, who are going to do even bigger and better science for Australia. You know there’s an old cliché in politics: politicians often use it when they’re on the way out. I remember John Howard on election night in 2007, making the point – and in fact I gave him this point – about …

… that when he was signing off, having lost the election, he made the point Australia’s best days lie ahead of her. They always lie ahead of her if we stand together and help to develop the next generation of great industries and great activities. And all of you in this room in some form or another contribute to that great task. It’s a pleasure and privilege to open National Science Week. Have a great week. I’m certainly going to enjoy it. Thanks very much.