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Read all the latest news from Brendan O'Connor MP


November 26, 2019

Good evening everyone. I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land upon which we meet, and pay my respects to elders past, present and emerging and I acknowledge and pay my respects to any First Nations people with us tonight.
I am here on behalf of Anthony Albanese, who sends his apologies for not being able to be here tonight. He is a proud supporter of the work of Science and Technology Australia (STA) particularly in promoting women scientists and women and girls in STEM, which I’ll say more about in a moment.
May I first, however congratulate Dr Jeremy Brownlie on taking on the role as President of Science and Technology Australia (STA) as of yesterday. You have big shoes to fill.
I would also like to commend the work of the person who was wearing those shoes, outgoing President Professor Emma Johnston, who has been a remarkable advocate for science during her tenure. 

I’d like to congratulate Professor Johnston on her recent election as a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering and I note that there were 12 women elected this year which is the highest cohort of women elected since the organisation started 40 years ago.

So we have come a long way in 40 years but we still have a long way to go, and the work that STA has done in addressing the gender imbalance in science is starting to make a difference. 

The fact that only 17 per cent of the Australian STEM workforce are women demonstrates the importance of the work undertaken by STA and the ongoing work required.

To Emma and Kylie Walker who is leaving STA as CEO at the end of the year, I wish you both the best and thank you for the great work you have done, particularly your focus on improved equity and diversity in the STEM sector.

One of the great initiatives established by STA in 2017 is the Superstars of STEM. This program continues to go from strength to strength by providing training, development and mentoring women, employed in a variety of roles in science, to become Superstars to inspire other young girls and women to study and stay in STEM.

This program, as well as others such as STEM Women are doing the heavy lifting in closing the gender divide in STEM. It’s magnificent to see and I really do commend all involved with these programs.

When I was growing up, most kids dreamed of being an astronaut, now they dream of being a YouTube star.

Fortunately for us we have this group of highly accomplished women travelling the country and inspiring young people, particularly girls to pursue a career in unlocking the mysteries of science rather than unboxing a mystery box from Ebay.

The notion of Science meets Parliament has always appealed to me, a meeting between the best and brightest minds this nation has to offer and those that think they have the best and brightest minds. I will leave it to you to work out which is which.
This event provides an invaluable opportunity for you, representing Australia’s scientific community, to enlighten us as policy makers about the vital role science plays in an advanced nation such as ours.
It provides an opportunity to remind us what science has contributed not only to our nation, but to the world.
And it provides the opportunity to remind the decision makers that some of the most important scientific discoveries have happened by accident and may never have happened had we not valued science for science’s sake or discovery science.
If Dr John O’Sullivan and his team hadn’t turned their minds to looking for exploding mini black holes in the mid-90s we may have never had WiFi.
In discussions I have had over the past few months with many of you who are here tonight it has become clear that there is a trend of backing winners and that science that can be commercialised is prioritised over curiosity driven research. 
To me, science is at the heart of the future of our country.
As Shadow Minister for a variety of portfolios including Employment, Industry, Small Business and Science, science is the fulcrum that brings it all together.
Science provides employment opportunities, opportunities for industry to grow and expand and businesses to innovate, develop, and for a prosperous future.
Science integrates skills, knowledge, people, enterprise and progress.
It is more important than ever that governments not only invest in science, but advocate for it.
And frankly, there are some concerning trends and figures facing the Australian economy and the science community that cannot be ignored.

  • There is an overall downward trend in Research & Development in this country.


  • Australia’s total Gross Domestic spending on R&D is currently ranked 21st within the OECD and while the global trend is for national business expenditure on R&D to grow, Australia’s has actually fallen. 


  • Australia’s investment levels are below countries such as South Korea, Israel, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Singapore. They shouldn’t be. Unless we commit to public investment and ensure favourable conditions for business investment, we will fall further behind comparable countries and the consequences will be dire.


  • We need to turn the tide of declining school results in science and maths.


  • Many scientists relate to the issues of insecure work and casualisation, with many research-only academics either on limited term contracts or in casual positions. 

While the increase in insecure work and our worsening results in STEM subjects desperately needs attention, it is our declining spend in R&D as a percentage of GDP, coupled with the current decline in productivity growth that is a great concern to Federal Labor. 
Working to increase investment, both public and private in R&D is an economic necessity.
Federal Labor has always valued science. We understand that there is more to science than the big ticket items such as the black box flight recorder, the bionic ear or polymer bank notes.
It is about the food we eat, the water we drink, how we engage, how we travel, the environment in which we live, the medicines we take when we are sick, our national security and prosperity, and the jobs of the future. 
It is government’s role to remove barriers to allow science, research and discovery to flourish, it is not its role to erect them.
This is why we believe that scientists do their best work in the lab, not in an office writing grant applications, which we’ve been told only have a 7 per cent chance of being approved. Compare this with a funding approval rate of between 25-30 per cent in other developed nations and you can see the problem that has emerged.
We are already losing a lot of our scientific community owing to limited opportunities and an increasingly difficult funding application process that leads to job insecurity. When these scientists and researchers are offered postings overseas you can hardly blame them for taking them up.
At a recent meeting I held with my colleague, Clare O’Neil, some of our most eminent scientists told us about the increasing number of skilled up researchers either leaving the country to pursue other opportunities or leaving the sector completely and retraining as real estate agents amongst other things due to the uncertainty about ongoing funding and career paths.
We can’t afford to lose more talented Australians.
In order to remain a world leading knowledge economy we must ensure that we have a steady pipeline of well trained, skilled up researchers that will deliver prosperity and growth for all Australians.
Federal Labor cares about science. We had the first Minister for Science, Jack Holloway in 1931 and we have had one ever since.
And while Labor is still regrouping from an election loss and our policies are all under review, our commitment to science and technology is clear with Anthony Albanese already recommitting to our previous policy of establishing a national centre of AI excellence to prepare for the way robotics and artificial intelligence will impact upon our economy.
This is essential if we want Australia to be an AI enabled economy rather than being dependent on other countries’ AI capabilities.
As Chief Scientist, Dr Alan Finkel said recently at an artificial intelligence summit, one of the very rare human capabilities that is still beyond the reach of AI, as far as we know, is speech writing. 
And the fact that speech writing is still a human skill is important because as Dr Finkel said, “It is our thoughts, our unique human ability to meditate on the known and unknown, that will be critical as we delve into the challenge of ensuring that our zeal for innovation never betrays our values.”
So, thank you very much for listening to me tonight. It is an honour to speak at an event that is so critical to our country’s prosperous future.
In conclusion, I’d like to say that it is absolutely in the national interest to support science, discovery, research and knowledge.
I contend that if you speak to Australians, they will tell you they care about scientists.
They will tell you they trust scientists, despite the rising tide of anti-intellectualism around the world.
It is this tide of anti-intellectualism that leads to thought bubbles such as the “Independent Science Quality Assurance Agency” recently proposed by a Government MP. An agency proposed by some in this place that becomes a bureaucratic tool to be used when the science doesn’t fit the political agenda of Government.
Labor believes that while science isn’t always perfect, it is the best knowledge we have that can only be improved when scientists can operate in an environment where they identify and correct errors without fear of these corrections being used to score a political point.
And you can be sure that Labor too will always believe in the integrity and value of the work that you do.
Thanks very much.