Bill's Speeches

SCIENCE MEETS PARLIAMENT 2016 GALA DINNER

PARLIAMENT HOUSE, CANBERRA 

TUESDAY, 1 MARCH 2016

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Good evening everyone, welcome to our Parliament.

I’d like to congratulate the remarkable Ian Chubb for the service he gave our nation as Chief Scientist.

Ian, your record of achievement speaks for itself – and so often you stepped forward to speak for science - thank you.

I also want to warmly congratulate Alan Finkel on your appointment, and the start you have made in the role. 

I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, I pay my respects to elders past and present.

40,000 years ago, the campfires of the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people dotted the hills which surround us.

Billions of years before that – so far removed by time and space as to be almost incomprehensible to us – two black holes merged to create a single enormous entity.

In the final fraction of a second of that cataclysmic event, a ripple in the fabric of space time known as a gravitational wave was created.

In September last year, scientists from Caltech and MIT, in observatories in Louisiana and Washington observed these waves for the first time.

Confirming a major strand of Einstein’s theory of relativity – 100 years after he made the prediction.

We can all be proud that researchers and scientists from the ANU, the University of Melbourne, the University of Western Australia, Monash University and Charles Sturt University contributed to this discovery.

And the CSIRO helped design, coat and polish the ultra-high-performance optical mirrors, which contributed to a tenfold increase in the system’s sensitivity.

Now, in a room full of passionate scientists, you can tell that story, without someone asking the question every researcher dreads…

That’s fascinating….very nice…but what does it do?’

I’m sure you’ve all heard that before, in one form or another:

Labor’s Shadow Minister, Kim Carr, is fond of the anecdote where the famous 19th Century experimental scientist and inventor of the electric dynamo, Michael Faraday, showed his invention to Prime Minister Disraeli who said, of course:

“What use is it?”

But Faraday had come prepared:

“As much use as a newborn baby,” he said.

“But one day the baby will grow up, and then, sir, you may tax it!”

Before and after Disraeli, politicians have asked scientists:

What use is it?... What does it do?... How can we turn this into a business? …And when will we be able to tax it?’

Those questions spring from a failure of curiosity.

An absence of the fascination which drives scientific discovery.

Without a sense of wonder, the words ‘science’ and ‘innovation’ are sometimes used interchangeably.

But innovation needs a strong science and research foundation.

The skills, the knowledge and the sense of curiosity and exploration scientists bring to their work.  

It’s true, backing start-ups and innovators and encouraging invention is essential.

But we must also support the fundamental research which underpins the whole innovation system

I recognise that no commercialisation can take place without new knowledge.

And, we can never forget the importance of a sense of wonder to the scientific mission.

LABOR BACKING SCIENCE AND RESEARCH

This is why in my Budget Reply Speech last year, I set a shared national goal for Australia’s future.

Businesses, universities and government working together to boost Australia’s investment in research and development, from 2.1 per cent to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030.

This is ambitious - but we must be ambitious.

We should not lower our sights, or slow our stride, in the science race, the discovery race, the pursuit of the jobs and prosperity of the future. 

Our economic competitors certainly won’t.

Sweden, Korea, Japan, Israel, Denmark and Finland – some of the leading technology nations in the world – already devote more than 3 per cent of GDP to research.

Getting Australia up to this level will require co-operative partnerships between business, industry, universities and research institutes.

And government has a role to play: creating the right conditions for investment, sending the right signals and addressing gaps in the market. 

Supporting innovation through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, which has helped researchers at the University of New South Wales, set world records for solar cell efficiency.

Generating investment through the Clean Energy Finance Corporation – creating jobs in what Al Gore calls the “biggest business opportunity in the history of business” – Renewable Energy.

And there are other times when government must provide a kick-start. 

Which is why Labor will create a $500 million Smart Investment Fund to invest in early stage and high-potential companies, and support better microfinancing for new businesses.

We will help young people with good ideas undertake a Start-Up year at university, collaborating with successful entrepreneurs.

And we will take innovation beyond the capital cities, with Regional Innovation Hubs in country towns around Australia.

SCIENCE AND EDUCATION

But science does not begin and end with return on investment.

Science never ends – answering one question, inevitably raises another.

Science is not just a skill-set, it is a mindset.

A calling, a pursuit, a way of looking at the world.  

Developing and nurturing this depends above all on education.

Australian cannot be an innovation nation, without education.

Without fair, needs-based funding for every school, without support for TAFEs and without accessible, affordable university education.

We need teachers who have the knowledge and confidence and the passion to engage in discussions, to test assumptions to challenge their students to think for themselves.

Because rote-learning the periodic table from an over-worked and under-qualified teacher, doesn’t foster a love of chemistry any more than memorising a soliloquy inspires a love of literature.

This is why a Labor Government will deliver better skills and training for 25,000 current science, technology, engineering and maths teachers – and 25,000 scholarships for future teachers. 

It’s why we are properly funding our universities, and putting downward pressure on fees – because a smart and scientific nation doesn’t price working and middle class families out of higher education.

WOMEN IN SCIENCE

And if Australia is going to be a scientific nation, we cannot exclude half our population.

Today, over half of our PhD graduates and early career researchers are women.

Yet when it comes to senior academics in our universities and research institutes – the ratio of women drops to 17 per cent.

Fewer than one in five.

That disparity, that inequality represents a terrible waste of talent and expertise – and fewer role models for the next generation of women and girls.

If Australia did nothing else but encourage more of our brilliant women scientists to become lecturers and researchers – then we would be a smarter, better more productive and prosperous country.

Equality for women is a productivity plan, it is a growth strategy.

It is how we win the science and research race in this century.

Good programs like ‘Science in Australia Gender Equity’ are doing important work here.

But the history of affirmative action tells us aspiration alone won’t drive the cultural change we need.

We need to think about real, tangible targets – with meaningful consequences if we fail to meet them.

That’s why at least half of the 100,000 debt-free STEM degrees Labor will deliver in government will go to female students.

Friends

Two years ago at this dinner, I asked you to join me in making science a national political issue, an economic priority for Australia.

Because of you, because of your advocacy and energy, there is a greater recognition of science and research in business, in the media, in academia, even in the Parliament.

We have seen a change in the language of late.

And the overdue end of the openly anti-scientific ideology of the recent past is welcome.  

But generous praise is poor compensation for harsh cuts, and an uncertain future.

Grand gestures and glossy advertising campaigns count for little when jobs are being lost and grants are being cancelled.

Without a strong research base, the ‘ideas boom’ will go bust pretty quickly.

As scientists, you know better than anyone that until you can prove a statement with empirical evidence, it remains a hypothesis.

The real tests for when Science Meets Parliament in March 2017 will be if the Australian Government’s commitment to science runs deeper than rhetoric.

If Australian scientists are finally being offered the support, the opportunities, the respect and the reward they deserve.

If we are on the road to 3 per cent of GDP for research.

If we pass those tests, Australia won’t just be an ‘honest trier’ in the race for the jobs of the future. 

We’ll be leading the way, we’ll be driving discovery, we will be bringing our expats home to inspire the next generation.

We will be fulfilling our potential as the great science and research and education nation you know we can be.

This is the smarter, more scientific future Labor believes in.

Let’s deliver it, together.

ENDS


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