Science and Technology Australia President & CEO Forum - Sydney


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Ladies and gentlemen, it’s great to be here, and I would like to thank STA for the kind invitation.This is a great opportunity for us to come together to share insights into Australia’s great science and technology sectors. As many of you would know, I am an engineer. I studied mechanical engineering at university before working in power stations and the broader petrochemical industry.

So I came to politics with real-world experience and a genuine understanding of the importance of science and technology to developing cutting-edge innovations, creating business opportunities and improving the lives of Australians.

This forum brings together the very people that the government needs to engage – science and technology experts with frontline experiences and perspectives.

With this in mind, I strongly encourage you to push the envelope today on the issues you think are the most critical for science and technology in Australia looking forward.

But to understand what needs to be done next, we must first consider what has been achieved to date.

As an unabashed supporter of science, I can say with pride that the Coalition Government has made significant commitments to bolster our national science, research and innovation efforts.

We have demonstrated our commitment time and again, developing considered policies, to get the right settings, and providing unprecedented funding, informed by expert advice. The National Science Statement, released in 2017, set out our vision for an Australian society that is engaged in and enriched by science. We want to engage all Australians with science, build our scientific capability and skills, produce new research, knowledge and technologies, and improve Australians’ lives through science. But policies alone cannot affect change – they must be backed by funding.

In this regard, the Coalition Government continues to make significant investments in science, research and innovation – smart, strategic investments that will deliver stable support for our researchers across the coming decade. Our $2.4 billion investment in Australia’s research, science and technology capabilities in the 2018–19 Budget is positioning Australia for the future.

This funding includes $1.9 billion for national research infrastructure over the 12 years to 2028–29, as well as $140 million to upgrade vital supercomputers at the Pawsey Centre in Perth and at ANU in Canberra. It also includes over $260 million for Geoscience Australia to develop advanced satellite positioning technology that will underpin future innovations like autonomous vehicles. We’re also investing $500 million over 10 years in the Genomics Health Futures Mission. This will save and transform the lives of more than 200,000 Australians through precision medicine and research.

This suite of investments is strategically targeted, strengthening our science and research system, and positioning Australia for the future. It will bolster our nation’s capacity to innovate and help to deliver on the Coalition Government’s firm commitment to provide more investment, more jobs and stronger economic growth. These commitments come on top of those made under the 2015 National Innovation and Science Agenda – a bold initiative that acknowledged science as a critical economic enabler.

Under NISA, the Liberal National Government committed $1.1 billion over four years, across 24 measures, with a focus on four pillars: Culture and Capital, Collaboration, Talent and Skills, and Government as an Exemplar. These commitments and more were made by Coalition because we understand that science is critical to our continued prosperity. By comparison, The Liberal National Government has invested $1.5 billion dollars more into our science agencies than Labor when they were last in office. This includes $53 million more for AIMS, $97 million more for CSIRO and $126 million more for ANSTO.These investments are particularly important as we move from being reliant on our natural resources to our natural talents.

NISA set a range of activities in train, with important impacts and benefits that continue to be realised. All these investments have been informed by expert advice. Specifically, we have two critical expert groups that work hand-in-glove across science and innovation – the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) and Innovation and Science Australia (ISA). The Commonwealth Science Council was refreshed as the NSTC late last year, in recognition that there was a need to focus on scientific and technological expertise. The NSTC is made up of six expert members who bring a diversity of knowledge from across the science, technology and research sectors.

The Prime Minister continues as Chair, and I continue as the Deputy Chair. The NSTC met for the first time in Sydney in February and we had very productive discussions on a range of topics including artificial intelligence, STEM skills, and research infrastructure. I look forward to the NSTC delivering a stronger voice for science and technology in the national conversation, and ensuring they drive positive change in the lives of Australians.

The work of the NSTC is complemented by ISA, which provides the government with expert advice on how to make the most of excellent Australian science and research, with commercialisation of great Australian inventions a key priority. Through the NISA we sought to support business innovation and commercialisation, and develop, attract and retain students and researchers to this wonderful country. We also made long-term commitments for research infrastructure – providing sustainable funding for the Australian Synchrotron and committing a decade of support for the lauded National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy program. At the same time, we committed $293 million over 10 years to contribute to the build and initial operations of the Square Kilometre Array – a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Australia to play a critical role in jointly hosting the world’s largest radio telescope.

We made these commitments because we listened to the needs of the community – our best and brightest require access to world-leading tools to do cutting-edge work. This is paying dividends, with our science and technology research having tangible impacts on the lives of Australians.

As just one example, researchers have used the Synchrotron to develop a new application of an advanced imaging technique that will improve breast cancer screening. The new technique offers better image quality, a more accurate diagnosis, and a smaller radiation dose. And it causes no discomfort for patients. So it is improving breast cancer detection rates and ultimately saving lives.

Last year, I also visited CSIRO’s 3D printing facility – known as the Lab 22 Innovation Centre – in Melbourne. Lab 22 is making metal 3D printing more accessible for SMEs, enabling them to develop prototypes for new products without buying expensive high-tech equipment. Melbourne biotech company Anatomics partnered with CSIRO and St Vincent’s Hospital to capitalise on this technology. Together, they developed a 3D printed titanium heel which was used in world-first surgery on a Victorian patient with heel bone cancer. It took only two weeks from the first initial phone call to surgery, and it saved the patient’s leg from amputation. So partnerships like this are transforming healthcare and enhancing the quality of people’s lives around the country.

On that note, we understand that we need a pipeline of talented people to do the work that impacts all of our lives. STEM skills are critical to this endeavour, and we simply can’t afford to be missing out on the talents of half the population.We need to leverage the entire pool of talent to support a more innovative, inclusive and prosperous economy.

I mentioned earlier that I studied engineering at university. In fact, I was one of the first two female mechanical engineering graduates from the Queensland University of Technology, and I then pursued a career in what was a very male-dominated profession. Unfortunately, gender imbalance remains in place today right across the STEM fields. In fact, a 2016 report from Australia’s Chief Scientist found that women comprise only 16 per cent of the qualified STEM population, and only 27 per cent of the STEM workforce. One of my personal goals is to do what I can to change this inequity and ensure women progress and shine in STEM fields.

In the 2018–19 Budget, the Coalition Government committed $4.5 million over four years to support long-term strategic approaches to encourage and enable more women to pursue STEM education and careers. This funding is supporting the development of a Women in STEM Strategy as well as a Decadal Plan, being led by the Australian Academy of Science with input from the sector. I know that many of you will have been engaged in the development of the plan and the strategy, with both almost ready to be released. The funding also provides for the appointment of a Women in STEM Ambassador, and the development of a toolkit to help school-age girls understand what a STEM career can involve.

And can I just say that Professor Lisa Harvey-Smith, as our first-ever STEM Ambassador, is doing a fantastic job championing gender equity. This suite of activities comes on top of the $13 million committed under the NISA to address issues of parity, which has underpinned our Science in Australia Gender Equity project, the Male Champions of Change for STEM, and the Women in STEM and Entrepreneurship grants program. And we will continue to look for ways to make further inroads.

The Industry, Innovation and Science Women’s Advisory Roundtable is a group of experts that advise me on the opportunities for women in industry, innovation and science. And we are doing more right across the economy. For example, we will continue working to address issues including training, attracting and retaining highly-skilled scientists and researchers. We will seek to increase engagement in and participation by students in STEM subjects to raise awareness and literacy across the community. And we will continue to attack the issue of gender parity and representation in STEM careers. At the same time we know that we need to be even more forward-looking, to position our scientists, researchers and businesses to leverage opportunities as they arise and to compete internationally.

We will continue to work with you to identify issues and opportunities, and most critically work to improve the lives of our citizens through supporting the important work that you do every day. Science and technology have led us to where we are today – a modern, prosperous nation with high standards of living. Our scientists have made it possible to safely monitor the health of unborn babies, prevent cervical cancer, and transmit information wirelessly. Our researchers have helped people with hearing loss to regain their hearing, burn victims to heal faster, and hundreds of thousands of heart patients to breath normally. Science and technology will underpin our future too.

In this, the science and technology sector can count on strong and ongoing support from the government – to access critical research infrastructure, to commercialise world-class research, to build the STEM capability of all Australians, and much more.

By investing in science and technology today, we’re underwriting Australia’s prosperity tomorrow.

I thank all of you for your contribution to this endeavour.