Senate speech, CSIRO

Responses to Senate Resolutions



Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Senator KIM CARR (Victoria) (18:38): I seek leave to take note of the document from Mr Macfarlane in regard to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation.

Leave granted.

Senator KIM CARR: I move:

That the Senate take note of the document.

This is not the first time that the minister responsible for science—I cannot claim he is minister for science because this government does not have a minister for science—but this not the first time that Mr Macfarlane has demonstrated a very shaky grasp of science issues that are dealt with by the Department of Industry. In a letter to the President of the Senate, the minister says the government recognises the importance of science and research and he writes that, "This is why I will be allocating $5.8 billion to science and research across the forward estimates", including the proposition he puts to us of $3 billion for the CSIRO.

These figures are misleading and deceptive because they do not acknowledge that the government has cut some $2 billion from innovation programs. If you look at what is happening across the university science and research programs, a further $7 billion has been cut. For instance, the government is seeking to withdraw some $620 million from the research and development budgets. But what the minister has made even worse, though, is his assertion that this new investment of some "$65.7 million for CSIRO to operate and maintain the research vessel Investigator" for 180 days a year.

The truth of the matter is that in this particular area, this is actually a diminishing allocation. This allocation will not fully allow the RV Investigator to do the work that it was designed and equipped to do. This is wasting a precious asset and in doing so has become a symbol of the government's lack of regard for the CSIRO and for Australian scientists in general. The reality is that this is a government that has cut $111.4 million from CSIRO's funding. The minister chooses not to acknowledge this cut in his letter to this chamber. But of course, the budget papers do not lie about these questions and make it very clear. They are available to anyone; we are able to read those papers.

The consequence of that cut will see CSIRO having to shed a further 500 jobs. That will be almost 1,000 jobs that CSIRO has lost since this government came to office. These cuts are hardly the actions of the government that recognises, to quote the minister:

 …the importance of scientific research…  

Research is not one of those optional activities that we can embark upon in a modern society, in an advanced industrial economy. If we do not invest in our intellectual capital or expand our knowledge base, we are not investing in our own future. That is why the story around the RV Investigator is so important. This vessel is a crucial piece of the research infrastructure in this country, which has as an enormous maritime responsibility. I want to indicate to the Senate that I am particularly proud of the fact that the Labor government, in which I had the privilege to serve, found the money, made the commitment and got this vessel built. This is despite the procrastination of years under the Howard government with that rust bucket known as the RV Southern Surveyor.

It is an extraordinary change in attitude that occurred under the Labor government in terms of the provision of this vessel. Why was it necessary? Australia has the third-largest ocean territory in the world, with unique biodiversity and extraordinarily valuable resources. But the fact is that only 12 per cent of this area has actually been mapped. So there is so much more work that has to be done by our marine scientists to investigate our own ocean territory. That is why, in office, we were able to secure the funding of $120 million from the Education Investment Fund to build the RV Investigator. She was not just a replacement for the ageing RV Southern Surveyor; she was able to provide accommodation for more researchers and allow voyages of longer duration. In fact, it almost doubled the number of scientists and the amount of time that could be invested in those longer voyages.

CSIRO advised me at the estimates hearing last year that it would cost $26 million a year to operate the RV Investigator at full capacity; that is, to keep between 15 and 40 researchers at sea for a total of 300 days per year in an operation that potentially extends our research capacity from the Antarctic to the tropics. But in this budget, the government has only allocated $17.4 million for the first year, $18.1 million in the second year and $20.6 million in the year thereafter. The minister's letter misleads this chamber when it refers to funding of $65 million to operate and maintain the RV Investigator. This is a three-year figure, which he does not acknowledge, and it is 80 per cent of the necessary funding, the funding required. The reduction in the allocation for the Investigator is a serious blow to the world-class research scientists and the world-class research facilities at the CSIRO's marine and national facility in Hobart.

This is a blow to the postgraduate students who need to spend time at sea to complete their projects and who need to be able to graduate. It is a blow to the next generation of researchers. It is an incredibly false economy from this government, which seems either not to understand—or, worse still, not to care—that investment in research is actually an investment in the future of this nation.

The future of science under this government is in flux. This is a government that has no science minister, no long-term strategic plan, and no commitment to building the science and research capacity that we need. That is reflected in the fact that the government has cut so much money from the science, research and higher education budgets.

The most shameful example of this is the lack of vision the government is demonstrating by its wilful and vengeful downgrading of CSIRO, which is a great institution. Throughout the country it has been seen as a source of great national pride. CSIRO is one of the top scientific research institutions—ranked in the top 1 per cent of the world—in 14 of the 22 fields measured by the international citation index. It holds the rights to more than 4,000 patents and designs; it has spun off more than 150 companies; it works with the top scientists from 80 countries across the world.

CSIRO is a hugely important asset for this country. That is why when we were in office we invested a record $3 billion over four years to keep it thriving. We boosted total innovation, science and research funding to $9.6 billion a year. In this budget—in this one year alone; 2014-15—on the Abbott government's watch, the figure has now been reduced to $9.2 billion. In one year, $400 million ripped out of the budget allocations for science, innovation and research.

We put science at the heart of the national agenda, giving our best and brightest the kit that they need to excel. The Abbott government has trashed that agenda. They went to the election with no plan for science and they have booted science out of the cabinet door for the first time in this country since the 1930s. Now we have an embarrassed industry minister, reduced to fudging his figures when he writes to the Senate. It is truly an appalling situation for this country.

Debate adjourned.;fileType=application%2Fpdf

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