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Senator Kim Carr,Shadow Minister for Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Industry, gave a speech to the Innovative Research Universities (IRU) senior staff forum on Wednesday, 22 July 2015 .

In his address Senator Carr highlights the importance of fundamental research and reminds us:

Universities, by definition, are dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge. They exist to discover what is not known as well as to pass on to new generations what is already known.

A research policy that neglects basic research will also fail to achieve its objectives with regard to applied research. You will all know instances of discoveries arising from pure research that not only expanded technological possibilities but transformed our daily lives. […] Without research into black holes, we wouldn’t have WiFi.

Read the senator’s speech here, or on his website.

The Government’s Agenda

Today I propose to talk about the Abbott Government’s research agenda and Labor’s approach.

You will not be surprised to hear that I believe that the Government’s agenda is fundamentally flawed.

It is not only a matter of the substantial cuts the Government has made, and intends to make, to the funding of universities, to publicly funded research agencies, and to programs promoting industry-research collaboration.

Those cuts are bad enough. Over the course of two Budgets, the Government has sought to drain more than $3 billion from the system.

What’s arguably worse, however, is the incoherent, indeed chaotic, nature of this so-called agenda.

Earlier this month, the Government announced yet another review of research policy – the sixth in less than two years.

The Minister for Education, Christopher Pyne, said that the Government would undertake a review of university research funding and policy as part of its Boosting the Commercial Returns from Research strategy.

I am not going to argue that the current block grant funding system is perfect – and I know the IRU is of the view that it could be improved.

But the context and nature of this review give me no confidence that it will lead to positive change.

Christopher Pyne’s announcement did not mention adequacy of funding, or how this review would interact with the work of the other studies.

There was no discernible requirement for input from industry, and no apparent direction to take account of broader science and innovation policy.

The importance of basic research

Worst of all was the fact that neither in the terms of reference nor in the Minister’s statement was there any mention of the importance of basic research and the generation of new knowledge.

That is the deepest problem I have with the Abbott Government’s research policy: I fear that the balance between pure and applied research has been lost.

My issue here, as I trust you understand, is with the Government.

I am aware that some of you are personally involved in the work of the new review.

I have no doubt that the review will do everything the Minister has asked of it.

The problem lies in what he has failed to ask.

A research policy that neglects basic research will also fail to achieve its objectives with regard to applied research.

You will all know instances of discoveries arising from pure research that not only expanded technological possibilities but transformed our daily lives.

The usual example cited by proud Australians is WiFi, which was made possible by technology CSIRO scientists developed for deep-space radio astronomy.

Without research into black holes, we wouldn’t have WiFi.

This isn’t a matter of one accidental spin-off. It is how human knowledge has always progressed.

To ignore or downgrade basic research is to curtail our chances of doing applied research really well.

Yet the Abbott Government’s much-touted commercialisation agenda fails to recognise this.

It may be, of course, that those conducting the review will advise the Government that neglecting basic research will undermine its commercial goals.

But I am not confident that ministers would understand their point.

The role of IRU

Universities, by definition, are dedicated to the disinterested pursuit of knowledge.

They exist to discover what is not known as well as to pass on to new generations what is already known.

That brings me to another question you have asked me to discuss: the role of your own network.

The six universities in the IRU have this in common: that they are chiefly located in regional cities or in outer suburbs of our larger cities.

You will know from the stance I have taken during the debate over the Government’s plans to deregulate fees that I attach a particular importance to suburban and regional universities, and the people they serve.

Your universities are sources of social mobility and inclusiveness – they provide educational opportunities to many Australians who might not otherwise have access to higher education.

What is more, they conduct research that is often very closely connected to the concerns of local communities.

I have in mind projects like:

  • Charles Darwin University’s research into the eradication of ear disease among indigenous Australians.
  • Flinders University’s research into eliminating the difference in outcomes for regional heart attack patients;
  • James Cook University’s development of anti-inflammatory treatments for hookworm;
  • Murdoch University’s study of innovations in crop rotation, saving $250,000 per farm per year;
  • Griffith University’s study of biogas and biochar, integrating both carbon-negative energy production and carbon sequestration within one agricultural project;

and La Trobe University’s collaboration with the Victorian Government in the use of DNA analysis to improve breeding outcomes in farming.

This research record is proof, to those who might demand it, that suburban and regional universities punch above their weight.

The ERA debate

In the sector, talk of research records often leads to discussion of the Excellence in Research for Australia framework of quality assessment, which Labor introduced.

I remain convinced that its citation-based approach is the fairest and most effective means of assessing research excellence in an international context.

And I am sure that the projects I have just mentioned would measure up well under the ERA framework.

I also know that university engagement with industry and the broader community has an impact well beyond citation, and that this is more difficult to quantify.

The challenge is to find a way of supplementing ERA, so that we also acknowledge and reward engagement.

But nothing will be gained by tearing down one measure to create the other.

Labor’s record

To hear Christopher Pyne and Ian Macfarlane talk, you would think that they invented the concept of research engagement with industry.

Yet when they try to explain what they have in mind, they all too often let business and industry off the hook, apparently expecting that universities and research agencies will do the heavy lifting.

And they misrepresent the record of Labor’s most recent time in office with breath-taking chutzpah.

So let me set the record straight here on the comparative performance of the two governments.

The Abbott Government has been in office for almost two years and recently delivered its second Budget.

In Labor’s first 18 months, we conducted comprehensive reviews of the innovation and higher education systems, and responded to these in our second Budget.

That Budget delivered a 10-year innovation strategy that included $3.1 billion in new investment in public and private sector R&D.

It introduced Sustainable Research Excellence, recognising the need to properly fund the indirect costs of research.

It established the Joint Research Engagement program, to foster and reward university research collaboration with industry and other end-users.

I think we would all agree that this measure has not been as effective at driving behaviour as we might have hoped – but it was a step in the right direction.

We took that step because I have always understood and advocated the need for universities and industry to work together better.

That’s why, in addition to our university commitments, we established, among other measures:

  • Commercialisation Australia – to help bring the fruits of Australian research to market;
  • Enterprise Connect – one objective of which was to improve businesses’ access to new technologies and the latest research; and
  • Researchers in Business – to build a human connection, promoting understanding by researchers of how their work could be applied, and in business of the value of highly developed research skills in driving innovation.

What has been destroyed

All of these programs have been abolished: the government has systematically dismantled the suite of innovation measures that had gained real traction in industry and the research sector and were achieving real results.

The same government is abandoning NICTA and its 300 PhD students who work directly with industry.

In two budgets, Labor created a framework for fostering research-industry collaboration. And in two budgets, the Abbott Government has done its best to destroy it.

So when I look at this record, and then I hear about yet another review into how to boost the commercial returns from research, I cannot help but be sceptical.

STEM and the future

The recently announced HILDA survey – which I am sure you have heard about – has not been in the news only because it ruffled feathers among the Go8.

HILDA also reported a drift away from science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) disciplines among young Australians.

In the last year of the survey, 2012, only 22 per cent of men with post-school education aged 25-34 held engineering and related qualifications, compared with 31 per cent of 45-54 year old males.

There was an increase in the number of women studying engineering, but from a very low base.

HILDA echoes findings by the Business Council of Australia and the Australian Industry Group, which have also reported skills shortages and called for a focus on improving STEM literacy across the workforce.

In September last year the Chief Scientist issued a major report on STEM, in which he called on policymakers to secure training in STEM skills across the education system and the economy.

More recently his office released a summary of a Deloitte Access Economics survey of employers, which found that almost half of those surveyed expected their need for STEM graduates and tradespeople to increase during the next decade.

If these multiple warnings worry Christopher Pyne and Ian Macfarlane, they have given no indication of it.

Perhaps they have been listening only to those who argue that there is already an oversupply of STEM graduates.

Such arguments typically try to predict the job market of coming decades by looking at the employment histories of recent graduates.

But conditions in the present post-boom market don’t change the fact that the jobs of the future are going to require STEM skills.

Three out of every four of the fastest-growing occupations in our economy will require STEM literacy.

That includes occupations that traditionally attract humanities and social science graduates.

And, although Australia’s Government is content to blithely ignore the decline in some STEM enrolments, governments in other countries with which we like to compare ourselves are investing in STEM education.

Labor’s agenda

A Labor government would not allow Australia to slip behind the rest of the world in this way.

That is why Bill Shorten announced in his Budget Reply speech that Labor will:

  • Set an ambition for the nation to invest 3 per cent of our GDP in Research and Development by the end of the decade;
  • Foster the essential literacy of the 21st century – the digital language of coding – across the school curriculum;
  • Boost the skills of 25,000 existing teachers and train 25,000 new teachers in STEM skills.

Provide an incentive for more talented students to study STEM disciplines at university, via HECS-free degree scholarships.

I want to emphasise the ambition here – 3 per cent of GDP being spent on R&D by 2030.

As Bill said, this will require universities, industry, the people and the Parliament to work together and each to pull their weight.

Labor’s plan for the future of the education system and for the jobs of the future is real and it is clear.

After almost two years, what’s also clear is the Liberals’ complete lack of a plan.

A time of opportunity


Let me close by saying this is potentially a time of great opportunity for universities.

Since Mr Pyne’s plan for deregulating fees and cutting the funding of Commonwealth Supported Places by 20 per cent was announced in the 2014 Budget, the higher education debate in this country has been characterised by uncertainty and anxiety.

I believe that the time for anxiety is over, even if Mr Pyne tries for a third time to get a deregulation bill through the Parliament.

I do not think he can expect any greater success in getting a deregulation bill through the Senate than he had the previous two times.

And if the Government wants to fight an election on its plan to price many young Australians out of higher education, Labor is fully prepared for the fight.

The evidence has long been in: Australians do not want $100,000 degrees and soaring HECS debts.

What they do want is what your universities do well: opening up opportunities for those who otherwise might not have had them.

That is why I say now is a time of great opportunity for universities.

Universities have always had the central role in generating new knowledge.

That role puts them in pole position to help shape the knowledge economy of the 21st Century.