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[The following lecture was delivered by Julie Bishop, Australian federal minister for education, science, and training, on 22 June at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. The seminar was sponsored by the Australian Embassy, the Washington Science Policy Alliance and AAAS.]
Engaging the World Through Science: The View from Down Under
Good morning ladies and gentlemen. I am delighted to be here at the American Association for the Advancement of Science and I would like to thank Dr Leshner and the AAAS for hosting this event.
I am grateful for this opportunity to talk about the Australian Government’s agenda in science and innovation and our engagement with the international science and technology community to meet the economic, social and environmental challenges of the future.
Australian science has a proud track record in the world of scientific discovery. It is often said that Australian science punches above its weight. Despite Australia’s relatively small population, we are a world leader in important areas of science, like medical research. It is part of the Australian nature to ignore that we are small and to be bold and tenacious in pursuit of big goals.
Australia produced nine Nobel laureates in such fields as physics, chemistry and immunology. They include Howard Florey, a joint recipient of the prize in 1945 for his work with penicillin which was to save millions of lives.
In 1996 Australian Scientist Peter Doherty shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his contribution to work on understanding how the immune system functions, specifically how white blood cells target virus infected cells. His research laid the foundation on which our current understanding of immunology is built. Peter Doherty, who spends his time shared between Australia and the U.S., participated in the Australian-American Leadership Dialogue, which I also attended this week.
With our two most recent laureates—Professor Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren—who were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in October 2005, I think it is fair to say that in many respects the standing of Australian science has never been higher.
As you may recall, Marshall and Warren were recognised for showing gastric ulcers are caused by bacteria, not stress, and are treatable with a simple course of antibiotics. They have thus saved thousands of people around the world from unnecessary and often costly and traumatic surgical procedures.
Australian scientist Professor Ian Frazer, recently named Australian of the Year, is renowned for his work establishing a link between the papilloma virus and cervical cancer in women. This has led to the development of the world’s first cancer vaccine, which I note was recently approved for use in the U.S. by the Food and Drugs Administration.
Australia’s capacity to produce scientists of world stature has helped us to earn and maintain a high profile on the world stage.
And of course, this stage is constantly shifting. Globalisation, along with the modern information and communications technologies which are driving it, is radically transforming our societies, economies and political systems. A key characteristic of the current wave of globalisation is the vital importance of knowledge, science and innovation. Countries around the world see science and innovation as crucial in building healthier, socially integrated, and economically and environmentally sustainable societies.
The global pool of countries with strong research capacity is growing. Traditionally strong countries and regions, such as the EU, the UK, the U.S., Canada, France and Germany, continue to make substantial investments in science.
I notice with interest that the proposed American Competitiveness Initiative is looking to science and technology investment to help maintain the U.S. position as a world leader in the global economy.
As part of its Lisbon Strategy, the EU is looking to investment in research to “transform Europe [into] a vibrant knowledge economy, in order to boost economic growth, create more and better jobs and ensure lasting prosperity in Europe”.
Newer players, in particular China and India, are investing heavily in their science and innovation systems. They aim to use brainpower and the commercialisation of bright ideas as a catalyst for their economic development.
Science and research have long been one of the truly international fields of human endeavour and a driving force of globalisation itself. Many of the common features of our historic civilisations owe their origins to cross-fertilisation from scientific, mathematical and technological exchanges.
International collaboration is an essential element of good science, bringing benefits from the convergence of ideas and the meeting of bright minds. It has supported each of our economies to meet our own domestic needs.
But I believe we are now moving into another era in which international collaboration will be even more important. As part of a truly global community we are facing global issues such as climate change; clean efficient energy production; access to water; security; and disease epidemics.
No one country will be able to solve these problems on its own. It is incumbent upon all of us to work together for the common good, particularly where science can provide insights and offer solutions to these challenges.
This is already happening in important areas. International cooperation is allowing countries to track the incidence of avian influenza and minimise the risks of a global epidemic.
Australia is collaborating with its regional partners, including the U.S., to establish a tsunami monitoring and early warning system for the Indian Ocean. This will help to prevent a repeat of the terrible loss of life caused by the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.
The Asia-Pacific Partnership on Clean Development and Climate Change will help to counter global climate change. This partnership, which includes Australia, the U.S., China and India as key players, will develop new energy technologies to provide important reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Like other nations tackling the complex issue of clean energy, Australia is considering what contribution nuclear energy could make towards meeting our future energy needs. There is growing recognition that nuclear energy has several advantages over fossil fuel electricity generation, including significantly lower levels of air pollution and greenhouse emissions.
Earlier this month, the Australian Prime Minister announced a review of uranium mining, processing and nuclear energy in Australia. The review will contribute to wide ranging debate on Australia’s future energy needs and will be conducted by a taskforce that includes eminent Australian nuclear scientists.
The taskforce will consider the economic, environmental, health and security implications of nuclear energy. The Prime Minister has also asked taskforce to consider mining of Australia’s substantial uranium resource, which account for 40% of the known low-cost, recoverable reserves. The taskforce will provide its report to the Australian Government by the end of this year.
Of course, international cooperation does not extend only to addressing major global challenges such as climate change. Scientific advances are increasingly being driven through adopting large multi-disciplinary teams and utilising incredibly sophisticated and highly costly infrastructure. For these “big science” issues, international collaboration will be essential.
In some areas of science, new research infrastructure is now so complex and expensive it can only be contemplated at the intergovernmental level.
Australia is a key player in international efforts towards establishing the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio telescope. This facility represents the future of world radio astronomy and is expected to be completed in around 2020.
When completed, the SKA will map the sky with a degree of sensitivity and speed of around 100 times faster than is currently possible. This facility has the capacity to transform our knowledge of the overall structure of the universe.
Australian astronomers have bid for the SKA to be sited in Australia because we believe we are in a position to make a unique contribution to the success of this project. Australia has world-leading astronomers, provides a view of the Southern Hemisphere and can offer radio quiet zones that will be essential to SKA’s effective operation.
Because of Australia’s positioning remote from the traditional centres of world influence, and our small population by world standards, we have long recognised the need to collaborate to achieve global results.
In relation to international collaboration, I was pleased to learn this morning that the one million dollar Shaw Laureate Prize in Astronomy for 2006 has been jointly awarded to an Australian astronomer and two U.S. astronomers. They are Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, USA; Professor Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, USA; and Professor Brian Schmidt of the Mount Stromlo Observatory of the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, for discovering that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating, implying in the simplest interpretation that the energy density of space is non-vanishing even in the absence of any matter and radiation.
The Australian Government has over the years provided significant funding to support international science and research collaboration. Much of this funding is not targeted to specific countries but supports excellence in science, wherever in the world this may occur.
It will probably come as no great surprise that, given the quality and scale of American science, collaborations with the U.S. attract the greatest share of this funding.
I believe this type of support must continue, and scientific excellence must continue to be the essential criterion for support. But I also believe that the time has come to go beyond our traditional arrangements and that we should look at establishing dedicated research funds with key bilateral partners.
We have recently taken significant steps in this regard. This year, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of the Australia-India Strategic Research Fund, providing $20million over 5 years for collaboration between Australian and Indian scientists.
We have also quadrupled the funding provided to the Australia-China Special Fund, which is a long-standing fund supporting collaboration with China in priority areas such as mining and energy, agriculture, the environment, advanced materials, biotechnology and ICT.
These initiatives recognise the incredible potential of these nations and their strategic importance to our own future.
I am strongly of the view that there are similar opportunities in other countries, including the U.S., that are not being fully realised. There are areas in which we can collaborate more, and more strategically. I will therefore be instigating a process to look at Australia’s existing and emerging strengths, with the aim of identifying opportunities to build strategic partnerships with countries which have complementary research strengths and are willing to make a commitment to joint research with Australia.
I am determined that Australia remains an important participant in the global S&T community.
For this to happen, we must continue to invest in our own science and innovation systems, so that they remain responsive, robust and of a high quality.
Investment in public sector research is crucial for positioning Australia, or any country, to succeed in the global knowledge economy.
As well as making investments that increase the stock of knowledge that innovation draws on, it is vital that we maintain a pool of qualified science and technology personnel with the skills and abilities to underpin innovation and technology uptake at the enterprise level.
This fits well with my wider responsibility for education and training. The foundations of a strong science and innovation base lie in our education system.
We need to engage young people into science early. We need to encourage and maintain the high-quality of science and maths teaching in schools to meet the challenges of tomorrow. One of the most important connections to be made is that between teacher and student. A great science teacher can make an indelible impact. As passionate ambassadors for their vocation, they can be truly inspiring, having the power to awaken students’ appreciation of, and fascination with, the world of science.
There is one international event that demonstrates this on a world scale. Over the coming months the best science and mathematics students from more than 80 countries will be competing in the International Science and Mathematics Olympiads. These young people will experience first-hand the truly global nature of science.
I had the pleasure to meet and farewell the 23 young Australians who will be competing in the 2006 International Olympiads in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics and informatics. They were extraordinarily talented. In preparing for their Olympiad event, they completed the equivalent of a first year university course in less than three weeks! The 6 students from James Ruse Agricultural High School who were selected on these teams made it very clear to me, the impact that their teachers have had in their pursuit of studies in science. These teachers are ones that we want teaching our young people, our future scientists and leaders.
The Olympiad journey will take our students to Argentina, Korea, Slovenia, Singapore or Mexico during July and August. The friendships the students will make with their international competitors are important and lasting. The International Science and Mathematics Olympiads should be commended for creating an international network of bright, young minds.
The Australian Government is funding science and innovation at record levels. We have committed close to $A6.0 billion in public funding science an innovation in 2006-07. On a per capita GDP basis this compares favourably with other developed countries.
Our commitment to science and innovation is currently receiving a significant funding and reform boost through a 10-year A$8.3 billion initiative called Backing Australia’s Ability. That initiative commenced in 2001 and runs through to 2010-11.
Backing Australia’s Ability is a strategic policy initiative focussed on ensuring that the Australian science and innovation system has the foundations to meet future demands. In particular, it will help provide the skills necessary to allow Australia to participate in world-leading science and technology development and contribute to economic prosperity through the commercial application of ideas.
In the recently announced budget for 2006-7, the Australian Government announced half a billion (Australian) dollars of additional funding for medical research. This funding will help ensure that Australia maintains its position as one of the world-leaders in this important field of research.
The Australian Government has identified National Research Priorities that provide a vision for how Australian science and innovation will contribute to our future social and economic prosperity.
These national priorities focus on maintaining public health; environmental sustainability; transforming Australian industry; and safeguarding our nation. The priorities guide and underpin the Australian Government’s investment in research.
With respect to research, one of the major policy initiatives I am progressing is the development of a Research Quality Framework which will enable us to measure the quality and impact of research.
The framework will focus on the inherent academic excellence of research and evaluation of impact will take into account the economic, social, cultural and environmental usefulness of the research.
Research areas of the highest quality and the greatest impact will be rewarded through the Research Quality Framework providing the basis for the distribution of a proportion of Australian Government research funding.
The Research Quality Framework is being developed in line with international trends in research assessment. It will also help business and industry to identify Australia’s areas of research excellence.
The Australian Government is committed to ensuring that our scientists have the right research infrastructure to meet the challenges of the future.
I note that other countries are also concerned that they are making the right decisions about major infrastructure. The European Union and countries such as the United Kingdom have processes for informing strategic decisions that are very similar to our own.
Without access to modern equipment and facilities, researchers are likely to lack the leading edge analytical and computational capabilities that most ground-breaking research now requires.
As I have said, the cost and complexity of research equipment and facilities are escalating as many areas of science move into “big science”. In Australia, as in other countries, this places a strain on science and innovation budgets and funding mechanisms.
These drivers have led Australia towards a more strategic and collaborative approach to providing the underpinning infrastructure for research and innovation. Although Australia has had centralised funding sources for research infrastructure before, viewing a program as a strategic planning exercise is new.
To this end, in the 2004-5 science and innovation budget, the Australian Government made a major commitment to developing our research infrastructure with a A$542 million ($US402 million) programme known as the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy—or NCRIS.
In extensive consultation with the Australian research community, my department has developed a Strategic Roadmap, which identifies the 16 capabilities required to underpin the Australian research system.
We have now moved to the implementation stage, involving the development of investment plans for the first 10 capabilities. These are being prepared in consultation with stakeholders—the research communities, state governments and industry—in order to achieve agreed, coordinated proposals.
The investment plans will help the Australian Government’s meet its objective of strategic investment in priority areas of research infrastructure.
An interesting example of a proposal under consideration is the Atlas of Living Australia, which aims to link Australia’s major biodiversity databases. The potential pay-off is immense, especially given the fact that our unique biodiversity is one of Australia’s greatest national resources.
Another proposal under development is for a nationally networked approach to provide Australia with an advanced microscopy and microanalysis capability. This would have wide application and support important emerging areas of research such as nanotechnology.
Finally, I am pleased to make special mention of the Science and Technology Agreement recently signed by the Governments of Australia and the U.S.
This agreement is an important milestone. It provides a framework for establishing productive science and technology relationships and will further reinforce the strong links that already exists between our two countries.
This and our other collaborations are seen by the Australian Government as being vital to our capacity to contribute, to make a difference.
In summary, I am committed to ensuring that Australian science will play an important role in helping the global community meet the challenges of the future.
The Australian Government is taking steps, both domestically and internationally, to ensure the quality of our research. Australia may seem a long way away, but the view from down under is attuned to international developments.
Australians want to engage the world, we want to make a difference, and we are making it happen.
Thank you for your time.