House of Representatives- Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2008

I rise today to support the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2008. Breakthrough, world-class research is the backbone of the Australian knowledge economy. This bill will create 200 new ‘future fellowships’, providing $140,000 per year to Australian researchers from 2009 to 2012. The researchers will be what are called mid-career researchers. This is going to be a very important program to build on skills that already exist within Australian universities, to build on the human capital that Australia already has.

I rise today to support the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2008. Breakthrough, world-class research is the backbone of the Australian knowledge economy. This bill will create 200 new ‘future fellowships’, providing $140,000 per year to Australian researchers from 2009 to 2012. The researchers will be what are called mid-career researchers. This is going to be a very important program to build on skills that already exist within Australian universities, to build on the human capital that Australia already has.

The Future Fellowships scheme will add to the $326.3 million appropriated for in the current budget. It will be administered under the Discovery element of the National Competitive Grants Program, which is run by the Australian Research Council. The reason why these future fellowships are being legislated for by an amendment to the Australian Research Council Act is that it is the Australian Research Council that provides advice to the government on research matters and makes recommendations to the minister on the allocation of funds within the National Competitive Grants Program. There are two elements within the National Competitive Grants Program: Discovery projects, which fund individual researchers; and Linkage projects, which support cooperative research between higher education providers and industry, government and community organisations. The future fellowships are located, as I have indicated, within the Discovery projects part of the program, which is administered by the Australian Research Council.

The Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Carr, has been working throughout this year to develop the Future Fellowships scheme, which gives effect to a commitment made some 10 days before the last election by the then Leader of the Opposition and now Prime Minister, Mr Rudd. That commitment was, as it was put by the now Prime Minister on 14 November last year, to keep ‘our brightest and best in Australia’ by means of this Future Fellowships program. The fellowships are quite valuable at $140,000 a year, to be available to some 1,000 of Australia’s top researchers in the middle of their careers. That was announced by the Prime Minister shortly before the election. That is the commitment that is being given effect to in this legislation.

The fellowships provide funding to mid-career researchers in a critical stage in their research careers. It is funding which will foster the growth of Australian research output and build on what has to be recognised as the already outstanding calibre of Australian researchers. There is a long, long list over the last couple of centuries of Australians engaging in world-class scientific research. One can think of multiple Nobel laureates who have changed the world of science, such as Lawrence and William Bragg, Peter Doherty and Sir John Eccles. Perhaps a more recent example worth mentioning is Professor Ian Frazer of the University of Queensland, whose world-class work in the cancer area has discovered a vaccine that will assist in preventing a cancer that currently kills 250,000 women every year. If one is in any doubt about the value of research, that is a very concrete example which shows us all why research, and research at the highest possible level, is well worth supporting.

This bill gives effect, in part, to the government’s commitment at all levels to supporting education, to funding education and to ensuring that Australia is not left behind in the very clear competition Australia is engaged in across the world in the development of the human capital of our country. It has been recognised for many years that investing in human capital will produce a return that will repay the investment many times over—a high rate of return. It is not simply something that sounds like common sense to anyone who has looked long and hard at education; it is this notion of human capital. Indeed, human capital economics is a discrete field of study. There are human capital economists like James Hickman at the University of Chicago—who won a Nobel prize for economics in 2000—who have been conducting research in this area for decades to show not simply as a matter of first principles or common sense but by hard research that public spending on education and skills produces high rates of return on investment for countries that go down that path.

It is quite clear that there are many countries in the world that are well aware of the returns that are to be obtained by investing in education and skills. One has only got to look at the example in our region, Singapore, and, further afield, Israel to see that there are countries that almost entirely lack physical resources and are beset by various difficulties in the regions they are in, which, through measured and considered and consistent investment in skills and the human capital of their countries, have immeasurably added to the prosperity of the people of their countries. They are but two examples. Australia, which of course does not suffer from the disadvantage of being resource poor but has very many natural advantages and many other advantages as well, should build on those natural advantages and engage in investment in its human capital similar to that which Israel and Singapore have been engaging in for some time.

Nations which compete with Australia are well aware of the need to invest in human capital. Those countries have been acting on that awareness. In stark contrast, Australia has not been acting on that awareness. You only have to look at the statistical work that has been published in recent years by the OECD to see just how accurate that statement is. I am going to use some of the statistics provided by the OECD, but I could not go past a very pithy introduction to the OECD’s Education at a glance: OECD indicators 2005 publication, which deals with the point I have been attempting to make about investment in human capital. It reads:

Education and lifelong learning today play a critical role in the development of our economies and societies. This is true in the world’s most advanced economies as well as in those currently experiencing periods of rapid growth and development. Human capital has long been identified as a key factor in driving economic growth and improving economic outcomes for individuals, while evidence is growing of its influence on non-economic outcomes including health and social inclusion.

If you go to what the statistics published by the OECD show, you see a shameful decline in public spending on education, particularly public spending on tertiary education, in Australia on the Howard government’s watch. Between 1995 and 2004, public funding of tertiary education increased by an average of 49 per cent across the OECD countries but declined by four per cent in Australia. So, in that period, very distinctly on the Howard government’s watch, Australia was the only OECD country where the total level of public funding of tertiary education decreased.

One sometimes hears those on the other side speaking of an increase in private investment in tertiary education, which in Australia in the period that I am talking about—1995 to 2004—went up by some 98 per cent, but even that compares very poorly with the average OECD increase over that period of 176 per cent. Most of our competitor nations managed to increase their expenditure on tertiary education at both the public and the private level by very substantial amounts in this period. Regrettably, the policy adopted by the Howard government for its nearly 12 years in office seems to have been confined to an attempt to shift responsibility from the public sector to the private sector. So, rather than leveraging more private investment and having some kind of partnership with private investment in tertiary education, we saw a shift by the Howard government towards private investment, with a complete decline in public investment in education. What that has meant at a practical level is that there has been a shifting of the burden to individual students and their families, who are being required to pay more through higher tuition fees.

I appreciate that people tend to tune out when they listen to statistics, but sometimes they tell a very important story, so I would like to mention one more. Australia is falling behind its competitors in the number of graduates in key scientific areas. In the period that I am talking about—1995 to 2004—we are way behind the OECD average for the number of engineering, manufacturing and construction graduates. We are much lower than the OECD average for the number of science and agriculture graduates.

As well, one could look at the statistics for expenditure on research, which is the subject of this bill. Countries in our immediate region—Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, mainland China—have had a startlingly large increase in research output. Mainland China is now the second biggest investor in research and development in the world. But we are simply limping along here in Australia. We are, to put it directly, underinvesting in the human capital of this country not just in the long run; one suspects that in the medium term it is going to start to affect our global competitiveness, if it has not done so already.

The Future Fellowships scheme will grow Australia’s research capacity. That is its purpose. It is a very welcome addition to the higher education sector. As I have attempted to show, it is a sector that was starved of investment of public funds by the coalition government in its 11½ years in government. The document that I have been referring to, the OECD’s Education at a glance report from 2005, is properly described as a report card on the coalition government’s education programs. Perhaps I will mention a couple of other statistics from that report. It showed that Australia’s public spending on education as a whole was 4.3 per cent of GDP compared to an OECD average of five per cent. It showed—and the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of this yesterday in the House—that Australia ranked 19th out of 27 OECD countries in education expenditure.

The purpose of this bill is to establish these future fellowships, which are going to provide very important support to mid-career researchers who are recognised at that point as needing research support. We are all familiar with the tendency to promote bright young things, as it were, people who just come onto the scene, because they are the next best thing. I think we can accept that people who reach a certain level of eminence at the latter stages of their careers are also well supported. But this is the work done by Senator Carr over the course of this year to develop this Future Fellowships scheme and this program picks up something that is regarded as being something of a problem, that there is a lack of support for mid-career researchers, who often fall away and often cannot obtain the necessary funding for the research projects they wish to engage in. This program is going to fill that hole.

I am very certain, if I can be a little parochial for a moment, that the influence of this Future Fellowships program is going to be directly felt by the tertiary institutions in the south-east of Melbourne where my electorate is located, most notably Monash University, which I can say with confidence is one of the premier research universities in the world, not merely in Australia. We see at Monash University some world-class facilities that have been built in recent years, some of them with the assistance of the Victorian state Labor government, notably the synchrotron facility but also the more recently constructed electron microscope. The electron microscope at Monash is one of only three in the world, the other two being located in Cambridge in the United Kingdom and Berkeley in California. It enables study of the atomic structure of materials. There are researchers in every field who are queueing up to use the $35 million electron microscope which has recently been constructed at Monash University.

I do not have time in any sense to list all of the research activities that are taking place at Monash University. I mention, for example, the stem cell research that is being conducted at Monash or the recent program and facility that has been established for the study and production of monoclonal antibodies and a whole range of other research, particularly in the medical area, all of which is likely to be assisted by this Future Fellowships program, as indeed will be research that is being conducted at world-class facilities across our country.

This bill is part of the Rudd Labor government’s education revolution. There are many other aspects to the education revolution, ranging from early childhood education programs to schools, to vocational education and training and this type of funding at the higher end of the research sector. One part of that is the investment of $11 billion in the Education Investment Fund, which is intended to provide a long-term source of funding to renew the capital of our higher education system, both university and vocational education and training systems. We will not be able to have $11 billion in the Education Investment Fund if the present opposition continues, as the Deputy Prime Minister described it yesterday in the House, its smash and grab raid on the surplus. The very newly elected Leader of the Opposition almost in his first press conference announced that the budget surplus which is needed to fund the Education Investment Fund is not going to be safe. He gave a long list of matters that apparently the opposition are going to use the surplus for. We want to invest in education. This bill is an investment in education, and I commend the bill to the chamber.