Press conference with Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley and Sally Sitou MP

Subject
Refresh of the National Science and Research Priorities; National Reconstruction Fund; National science conversation.
E&OE

SALLY SITOU: Welcome everyone to Burwood Girls High School. I'm so excited to be here for the announcement today and thank you to the Minister and the Chief Scientist for coming, because we really wanted to spotlight the incredible work that is happening here at Burwood Girls. 

The students here are aiming high. They want to be scientists. They want to be solving the big problems of the world. They're thinking about automation, how do we solve climate change, how do we make this place more sustainable? So I couldn't think of a better school to come to and I want throw it to the Minister for Industry and Science Ed Husic. 

ED HUSIC, MINISTER FOR INDUSTRY AND SCIENCE: Thank you. Thank you very much, Sally. And if I can say I'm so grateful that Sally recommended we come to Burwood Girls High to see what's happening here, and importantly we need more women involved in scientific and technological endeavour in this country, but to see some of the work that they're doing, be it either through biology which we saw a few moments ago through to robotics, and some of the testing that's being done there right now is really something that you can get excited about because you know there's a lot of talent there that we can put to work in solving some of our big challenges. Which is essentially what we're trying to do with the refresh of the National Science Priorities. 

They're very important in giving a focus, some purpose around what we do within our science and research communities, bringing those communities together. But they are way out of date. The last time these priorities were released, The Martian was a big film in 2015, we had Uptown Funk by Bruno Mars, there is no Mars link in all this. I'm just saying it's been a long time since we've had that refresh. 

And it is important to take into account we've had a pandemic, we've had the acceleration of climate change, we've seen technology develop and evolve in that piece of time, and we also need to recognise that our science priorities don't reflect, for example, the contribution of our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities across the country in examining the way that the country lives and breathes and their observations and First Nations knowledge are completely absent from our science and research priorities and we do want to find a way to involve that within that broader piece of work. 

So what we're announcing today is the launch of the consultations that will be led by our Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley, who I'm really delighted - I know applies a lot of energy and determination in everything that she does and we want to use that in the updating of the National Science and Research Priorities. And I'm very, very pleased that she's agreed to lead that national conversation where she'll visit different parts of the country to talk with people, particularly in the science and research sectors, but to open it up as well for what different communities in different parts of the country see are as big priorities, what are the big challenges we need to focus on?  What's the way in which we can prioritise work? What are the type of things we need to bring those priorities to life?  

All very important work. And it also be informed, this effort, by the work that's been done by my colleague through the reviews that he's set up, Jason Clare, the Minister for Education, and the ARC review that's currently underway as well. That will inform some of this work too. 

And once we get the priorities completed we're hoping that they'll be embedded or aiming for them to be embedded within a National Science Statement. Again, it's been a heck of a long time since they've been updated, since 2019, so National Science Priorities, National Science Statement, and then a broader look at what we need to do to lift research in Australia because the amount that we invest in R&D in this country relative to the OECD, we have about 1.8 per cent relative to GDP investment in R&D in Australia, and the OECD average is 3 per cent. We've got a lot of work to do. 

So what we want to do is harness Australian know-how, tap into the smarts of Australians to build a bigger economy, back that up with a National Reconstruction Fund, a $15 billion investment in manufacturing capability, but it always has to lever off smarts and know-how. We've got a lot of that in this country. We need to recognise that more and we do need to have all these things joined up, National Science Priorities through to a National Reconstruction Fund to make a real difference not only to the economy, but quality of life longer term for the country. 

With that I might just invite, if it's okay with you, Dr Foley, if you wanted to make a few words around the National Science Priority. 

CATHY FOLEY: Okay, thank you. 

ED HUSIC: Thank you. 

CATHY FOLEY: Hello everyone. Cathy Foley, Australia's Chief Scientist and I'm so thrilled that the Minister has asked me on behalf of the government to actually go around the country and hold the national conversation to be able to make sure we hear what are the most important things for science and research to deliver on that is needed for us to really tackle the biggest challenges for us as a nation. 

I'm looking forward to going to every capital city, to regional areas and remote areas to be able to make sure that I hear from everyone from looking at - coming here at Burwood Girls High to hear what they've got to say, through to hearing from industry, other researchers and to be able to pick out what are the things that are most important for us. 

I'm expecting us by the middle of the year to be able to come back with what we've heard so that then we can check in that we've got it right, and then be able to pass these on to Minister Husic and the Government because these are cross-cutting that goes across all government departments that will impact every Australian, and we want to make sure we get them right. 

I know the research community and the scientists in Australia are really keen to support this and I'm just really pleased to be part of it. So thanks, Minister, for giving me that opportunity. 

ED HUSIC: Thank you. 

CATHY FOLEY: And we're really looking forward to hearing from everyone across Australia. 

ED HUSIC: Thank you. Thank you, Dr Foley. If there are any questions more than happy to answer them. 

JOURNALIST: Yes, Minister. Of the three potential priorities you've identified, the climate change, emerging tech, how did you arrive at those already and are they essentially locked in as being some of the new national priorities?  

ED HUSIC: When we looked at the previous priorities, the 2015 ones, I think they did a major disservice to the country in reflecting the political priorities of the Coalition and the way they interpreted some things, as opposed to allowing the science to drive a lot of the work. 

We've said as an incoming government we want to put science back in the centre of policy agenda and the thinking of government, and we don't think we need to meddle with or try and reshape thinking that exists within the scientific and research community. 

So if you looked at what their previous priorities were in terms of energy, you just realise how dated and how political they were and we wanted to take things differently. 

So we do know, for example, and I think it's widely accepted we've got to be able to respond to the pressures of climate change and what we can do in that regard and put that as a priority. We thought that would be a logical thing to do. Emerging technologies, we're seeing more and more of that development that is occurring, particularly in areas like quantum that we're working on. And the Chief Scientist, I've been very grateful for her leading the work on the development of a National Quantum Strategy which I'm now taking into account and we'll be responding to. 

But a lot of this technology, and quantum computing, for example, and the processing power that that might unleash, and the way that if it's applied could answer big questions that have been beyond our fingertips because we just haven't had that computing power. 

Being able to develop some of those things long term but we really need to lean in and work on them, are very important. So we figured technology, like climate change, very important. And I just think there's an issue around the fact that we've had so much knowledge built up in our First Nations communities that have not been factored in and that if woven in with other scientific knowledge, conventional scientific knowledge, can make a difference. 

I referred, for example, in the use of First Nations knowledge around the embedding of spinifex and the development of that as a material that could be used and applied in different purposes. There is a whole lot of multi-generational knowledge that's been built up that we have just not regarded and disrespected, frankly, over the years, and I think we should have an open mind that those insights come from different corners of the country and we should apply them with a sense of national purpose and priority. 

Those are the reasons why, if you look at climate change, technological evolution, levering off First Nations knowledge, we think that they can add value to our scientific and technological and research endeavour and that's why we've sought to include those in.

But we're open, and that's why we're having a consultation process with communities, to others that people want to put forward because there is a lot of work there and we want to be able to get the focus right. 

JOURNALIST: And one for Dr Foley. 

ED HUSIC: Sure.

JOURNALIST: I'm just wondering if you can explain how these sort of priorities are received in the research community, what sort of impact they have, and do you get the feeling that they were out of date, was that the feeling within the scientists and research?  

CATHY FOLEY: So I have to say Australian researchers and scientists in particular are really committed to doing work that makes a difference, and if there's any leads for them to say, "Go this way or that way" that that encourages them to pick the right topics to work on. 

Having the way to solve big problems and bringing teams in almost like a mission-like approach is a real transition from where we've been in the past. I think you're seeing just over - since 2015 a different approach where we're looking at bigger teams coming together playing different roles, knowing that also the Australian research sector is just one part of a global scientific engagement. 

So part of this will also identify what we're good at, what's important and also where there are gaps so that we need to know who to partner with in order to fill those gaps or to build them, if that makes sense. 

So it's evolutionary from a perspective of how researchers respond to the government of the day's desires of making sure science is at the centre of what they're doing, and we're hearing from the Prime Minister and Minister Husic about evidence based and the role of science in providing that evidence is critical to them in their decision making, and we're all looking forward in the research sector to be able to put that evidence forward. 

JOURNALIST: Back to the Minister, sorry. 

ED HUSIC: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: Just on the funding piece, because the science groups sort of repeatedly say that is all well and good but it needs to be accompanied with a much bigger contribution from the government. 

ED HUSIC: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: With these sort of initiatives. Once the priorities are established when do we expect some funding decisions or the funding support to be announced?  

ED HUSIC: If I can say their interest has well and truly been registered and I think it's not going to be the hardest thing in your lifetime to ask a minister if they want more money. I'm always open to that. 

But what we want to do is do it in a structured way. This is part of a process, as I indicated earlier, we do the refresh of the priorities, we look at how we embed it in the science statement and longer term I do think we need to have a hard look at the investment in research and development in Australia and what we can do to give that uplift. 

If you look, at the moment a lot of money directed through universities that are doing tremendous effort, and we're very grateful for that effort, but we do need to have a wider look at business contributions in R&D. There are some firms that are doing some great things. There are others that, you know, will regularly say they don't have the money for R&D yet I see a lot of money going forward into share buybacks and money that could be made available towards advancing the cause of those businesses through research and development and applying that more widely. 

So I do think, again, as part of that conversation and part of the thinking and having some structure around what we're doing that we get to that point. We're also trying to, if I may say, bring - we've got to recognise as well, we've got a budget that we've inherited and we've got a trillion dollars of debt and we're trying also to deal with one of the biggest economic challenges that have big impacts on industry and the wider community I might say, is inflation. 

And so being able to get the balance right about the amount of money that a government puts into the economic system and dealing with those challenges, there's a lot of things that we're having to factor and take into account as we make decisions around, for example, scientific investment. But again I think there is a recognition, and the reason why we're doing all this, so there's a recognition but this is an investment in terms of know-how and applying that know-how to not just build a stronger economy and create more jobs but improve quality of life. We've seen that happen through very smart Australians making contributions in different fields, from health to environment, for example. We want that to continue. We want that investment to be there, and we'll make those decisions in a very structured way. 

JOURNALIST: Just on the NRF while I've got you. 

ED HUSIC: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: The Prime Minister yesterday linked AUKUS to industry policy. 

ED HUSIC: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: And the NRF specifically. Both the NRF and AUKUS are probably going to come with significant funding with them. 

ED HUSIC: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: So how will that be leveraged for a company, say a quantum company that might a dual use in the Defence and disability, how would that money - like how are you going to leverage that money, where should that come from?  

ED HUSIC: If you look at these initiatives in terms of AUKUS or the National Reconstruction Fund and the broader consideration about policy to support industry, the PM singled out in terms of our own know-how and our own smarts, in terms of innovation, science, technology and the way it can be applied in different areas, can and does make a difference. 

In Defence, Defence is one of the priority areas for the National Reconstruction Fund. We want to be able to have that growth capital available for firms that can make a contribution in terms of national security and Defence, and through the course of that obviously generate economic, commercial value and create jobs too. 

So that is a priority in amongst those seven priority areas of the NRF. And there's obviously a lot of thinking going on within AUKUS and the application of Defence procurement for industry ends and outcomes, a lot of that thinking is happening too. 

And we are very conscious of the fact - I mean we've got this new AUKUS arrangement that the Coalition has brought in after fumbling, frankly, a lot of Defence procurement and big projects in times past. We need to get stability in that space so that we can see really good industry outcomes. 

And there's also recognition within government that we do invest a lot of taxpayer dollars, and particularly in terms of Defence procurement, there are a lot of taxpayer dollars going in there. The maximisation of that and the maximising the value of that procurement onshore as much as we can is really important, too. Industry policy can help guide that, plus some of the other levers that we're bringing to bear in this space. And the great thing about what the Prime Minister is doing is connecting all these things together to have the maximum effect and benefit for the country. 

JOURNALIST: And just finally, yesterday your department officials confirmed they hadn't briefed you on the link between the NRF and national security. Nevertheless, you and Mr Albanese have made that link -

ED HUSIC: Yes. 

JOURNALIST: What are you basing that on and have you had briefings from elsewhere, from Defence or from national security agencies?  

ED HUSIC: It's common sense. You look at what AUKUS is expecting. You look at some of the areas of technology where they're expecting capability to be brought to the table, for example on quantum, and you figure that for a lot of the firms that we have, and we have a growing number of quantum related firms in this country, where they do need capital to help them grow, investment support, to make sure they stay on shore. And many times they've struggled. It's been really hard for a lot of our quantum-related firms to find that investment capital and backing. 

Now our point is in a climate where you're seeing VCs revalue and in some cases take out support, we can't have a quantum winter when it comes to investment and backing of those firms. Because the consequence of that is if the capital isn't here for local quantum firms and those firms have to go offshore to chase capital and we lose that capability, it's quite obvious and common-sensical that that is a situation we cannot stand by and let happen. It's why we've set up the NRF and it is completely bewildering that when we have this massive investment in Australian manufacturing that is being put on the table, the Coalition has said no. They've said no to the jobs, they've said no to the capability, and they've said no to future technological capability and backing that in. 

They can squirm, the Coalition, as much as they like, but they have to understand there is a consequence for the decision that they've made and the signal they're sending that they do not back growth capital for local quantum firms and others that can contribute to national security. 

ENDS