Interview with Thomas Oriti, ABC News

Thomas Oriti
First round of grants for the Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund; CSIRO working in Vietnam in reducing plastic waste; New Artificial Intelligence Expert Group.

THOMAS ORITI: And today, it's interesting, the Government's announcing something in that space it says will further deepen Australia's regional scientific presence; the first round of grants for the Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund are open with a new focus on collaboration within the Asia Pacific. 

Let's get more on that now. We're joined by the Minister for Industry and Science, Ed Husic. Minister, good morning, thank you for your time. 


THOMAS ORITI: I'm well, thank you for that. You might not be familiar with this, the Global Science and Technology Diplomacy Fund, what exactly is it? 

ED HUSIC: Well, it's basically set up to be able to work with partner countries on common problems, I think you build stronger relationships by working and trying to solve problems that affect us both.

And so what we've set up is that, through the 40 million fund is to identify, particularly in our regional neighbourhood, countries we can work with on a range of different issues, be it from health, advanced manufacturing, technology, renewables as well, and be able to then come up with things that will work in both countries to address problems we face. 

And we're opening up the first round of grants; there is about 6 million in the first round of the 40 million program, and it also builds on top of another 10 million investment we've basically set aside to establish an Asia Pacific Regional Office of the International Science Council, again to coordinate scientific engagement across our region. 

THOMAS ORITI: Okay. Partner countries and common problems, as you have just said. Can you give us ‑ you mentioned a few of the, you know, the different technological issues there; renewables, for example. But can you give us an example of what one of those common problems might be? 

ED HUSIC: Oh, absolutely. I mean, for instance, in some of the ‑ in some cases we have looked at, for instance, diseases or illnesses that have affected people in different countries. 

So in the work that's being done with India, for example, there's a particularly nasty disease called "visceral leishmaniasis", which basically causes fever, weight loss, terrible swelling of the spleen and liver. 

Between Monash Uni and the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology, they worked together on a research project to identify three different potential drugs that can help create significant breakthroughs in treatment of that disease, and that was huge. There are additional opportunities that are coming out of that, but they've been able to make headway in helping people that are afflicted by that disease. 


ED HUSIC: And we've also done a lot of good work, particularly the CSIRO working in Vietnam in reducing plastic waste in the oceans around there, and the Philippines as well is something that we're working closely together on. 

But again, these are problems that affect both us and our partners, and being able to come up with those solutions that we can apply in both countries is a big deal. 

THOMAS ORITI: So who's available to apply for the grant? 

ED HUSIC: It'll be scientists and researchers out of different research organisations, be they unis or others, that can step forward. 


ED HUSIC: And we'll also have more information. I mean a lot of the people that will normally chase these type of grants, Tom, will, I can assure you they are very knowledgeable in being able to track down where those opportunities are at present, and then follow them up. 

THOMAS ORITI: Yeah, chasing where the money is to continue their work; no question, and understandable, of course. When it comes ‑ I want to ask you about AI, you've mentioned a bunch of things there, and disease, and renewables, advanced manufacturing. But AI is interesting, artificial intelligence, and it feels like a day doesn't go by where we're not discussing that on this program. 

ED HUSIC: Yeah. 

THOMAS ORITI: You announced the establishment of a new Artificial Intelligence Expert Group earlier this year. I just want to ask, how are things going on that front, and has the group been able to, you know, offer any recommendations or insights yet, or could that be part of this fund? 

ED HUSIC: Well, that group was set up as a result of the release of our interim response into the work we've been doing to find the safe and responsible ways in which to use AI. We went through consultations last year between June and December and then January. We said we'd set up this Expert Panel to identify those high‑risk areas and then work out, well, what are the guardrails that can help fence those risks in. 

They've been tasked with the job of coming back to me by the end of June. They've been basically doing their work through a series of meetings that they've held since we set them up in January/ February. And so I think that work is going to be really crucial for us to be able to start saying, okay, within the framework of laws that we have, or if we have to do something specific, what are the type of measures we need to take. 

We want to get the best out of artificial intelligence while also clearly ring‑fencing the risks and being able to know how to manage them better. 

THOMAS ORITI: I am interested in the regional focus here, Minister. I note as well the Government's made a $10 million investment to establish an Asia Pacific Regional Office of the International Science Council as well. Once again, that idea of coordinating ‑‑

ED HUSIC: Yeah. 

THOMAS ORITI: ‑‑ that scientific engagement across the region. Why are you focusing on collaboration in the Pacific now? 

ED HUSIC: I just think that there are a lot of common problems that confront us, and that we do need to work together to sort them out. Our researchers and scientists are well‑regarded, and I was very keen for us ‑ we inherited a fund when we came into office that reached out to different parts of the world, and I thought that it was very important for us to focus in our neighbourhood on those issues, be it, you know, environmental issues, particularly for Pacific Nations that are confronted by the impact of climate change. 

That manifests itself in different ways, one of them being, obviously, disease that gets carried around by mosquitoes that are travelling further south in areas that they never did before climate change impacted on people, and also being able to use technology better across a range of different areas, not just economic, but social as well. 

And so the key thing has been that we can strengthen the way we work together by having these type of initiatives, and it's really important that we strengthen collaboration with our nearest neighbours. 

THOMAS ORITI: Another key player with eyes on the Pacific though is China. I just want to ask you about Wang Yi, the Chinese Foreign Minister meeting with your colleague, Penny Wong, in Canberra today. I understand it's not your portfolio, but are you concerned at all that things like this expanding Australia's scientific reach with the Pacific, that could be potentially cause some friction? 

ED HUSIC: I think it's important that we be able to do things from the perspective of what's good for people in our respective nations. I don't think we take a backward step in wanting to promote those type of things, I think their vital. 

And the way we've approached, particularly in terms of improving the relationship with China, is to understand that there will be differences from time to time. The way you manage those differences are important. We don't need to be, you know, engaged in megaphone diplomacy, we've got to sort those, got to stand on our values, but you know, deal with those issues in a smarter way and a better way. 

We'll have those difficulties from time to time, there's no doubt about that, but you've seen that that approach that we have been engaged in has taken its steps to try and transform and improve the relationship with China, and clearly the visit today is yet another marker or another testament to that effort. 

THOMAS ORITI: And with what you've described as common problems in the region, common, you know, things that you'd like to see solved, just building on that, could you see a time in the future when the Government could collaborate further or work with China on scientific research or projects? 

ED HUSIC: Yeah. I do, you know, obviously think that at some point that will be more than likely to occur. We have in the past, through bilateral agreements that we've had with China, so I don't think that's, you know, beyond our frame of view. I think we could potentially quite feasibly do that. 

THOMAS ORITI: Can I just ask you before I let you go, Minister, some uncertainty today about whether changes will be made to religious discrimination laws, the Prime Minister informed the Party Room yesterday. He discussed two pieces of draft legislation with the Opposition Leader, but really making it clear, "I'm not proceeding with this unless I have Opposition support."  Are you able to share any insights on that? 

ED HUSIC: Well, I mean obviously I'm careful about what I'll say to you about what's occurred in Caucus; you get reports out of that in a more formal way. I think the bigger point here is social cohesion depends on a lot of us, not some of us, and working together on some of these issues is really important.

What the Prime Minister has flagged is that we want to be able to, based on the mighty work that's been undertaken by our Attorney‑General in working with different groups that have got different interests in this space, we are keen to progress it, but we don't want to have it ‑ we think the best chance of success is having a bipartisan pathway towards that. 

And so I think we're signalling that, you know, we think it's important that all parties within the Parliament work together on it, and in the absence of that, it would be, I think, present a risk in terms of social cohesion if we were to make this the subject of a political football as opposed to being able to resolve what has been, I think, this issue's been hanging around for seven plus years off the top of my head, we need to be able to have a better way to do this that maintains social cohesion and doesn't relegate it to a political football or sparring match. 

THOMAS ORITI: Minister, great to have your company this morning. Thank you very much for joining us. 

ED HUSIC: Thanks.