Parliament Updates

Zali Steggall speaks on the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023

6 February 2024 


I rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023. I will be supporting this bill. It enacts the recommendations made by the review of the Australian Research Council, the report of which was handed to the government last year. The review is arguably one of the most critical analyses of the ARC since it was first established in 2001 and recommends some fundamental changes.

First of all—for everybody—what does the ARC itself do? The Australian Research Council is a statutory Commonwealth agency under the ARC Act. Its fundamental purpose since it was established has been to grow knowledge and innovation in the national interest and for the Australian community. This kind of innovation aims to underpin positive environmental, social and economic outcomes, exactly what is needed as we face the climate crisis and transition to a net zero economy. The ARC does this by advising the government on research matters as well as administering the national competitive grants program and the Excellence in Research for Australia and Engagement and Impact Assessment frameworks. The ARC runs various funding schemes, under the banner of linkage programs, which encourage research collaborations between researchers and a range of different styles of organisations, including private enterprise, community organisations and other research agencies.

The ARC also supports industrial transformation research hubs. These engage researchers to investigate new technologies and economic, commercial and social transformations. The ARC brokers crucial partnerships between government, business and academia, international institutions and community organisations, with over 9,000 domestic and international partnerships over the last two decades. An economic impact study commissioned by Universities Australia found that, for every dollar spent on university research and development over the past three decades, Australia's GDP grew by around $5 in present value terms. Put simply, the ARC plays a key role in Australia's research and innovation success, helping achieve greater national benefit for Australia. However, it is right that we take stock of the ARC and ensure that it is well positioned to further advance research in the years and decades ahead, hence the review commissioned by the government.

I know that the government agreed to all of the review's recommendations in principle. Some of these recommendations require legislative amendments, and they are addressed in this bill to amend the ARC Act. At the core of these recommendations is the most important aspect of the reform this bill does. It removes the minister as decision-maker for who and what will be funded. Essentially, it removes political interference.

This bill also establishes an ARC board. This was recommended by the review as a key way to strengthen the independence, governance and integrity of the ARC. Under the proposed legislation, the board will be appointed by the minister. There are criteria to ensure that those appointed to the board are suitably qualified and have the appropriate background for such an appointment, and at least one member must be a First Nations person. The board will appoint the ARC's chief executive officer and approve the appointment of members to board committees, including the College of Experts. The board will approve research grants under the National Competitive Grants Program, and this is at the crux of the change in this bill—currently these decisions are made by the minister. So it's incredibly important that we take away political interference, but we must be mindful that this board be fit for purpose with the appropriate skills as well as that it has good diversity, gender equity and First Nations representation. 

This bill is important because the political interference that has dogged ARC grants funding in the past needs to end. We saw it under the previous coalition government, where time and again ministers would veto applications in relation to certain research projects based on their own views and preferences. This isn't how you unleash innovation. This isn't how scientific discoveries are made, so I welcome the change and commend the government for its commitment to implementing the review changes in full.

As I noted previously while speaking on the ARC, we're quite lucky to have various innovation and research hubs in Warringah that support this vision of a new economy, from the Lakeba Future Hub to SEVENmile Venture Lab. They're incubating the next iteration of products, services and businesses, and Warringah's workforce is supporting the new innovative economy. In fact, 23.9 per cent of people in my electorate are engaged in professional, scientific and technical services. They are in fact the leading employer in the electorate. 

So, noting the importance of what the ARC helps deliver in innovation, I also take the opportunity to call for greater investment in Australia's research and innovation. Australia is falling further and further behind the rest of the world when it comes to innovation. We were once ranked 17th in the world, according to the Global Innovation Index. In 2023, we ranked 24th. The spend from the Australian government has consistently declined relative to the economy for more than a decade, dropping from the OECD average of 2.24 per cent of GDP in 2008 to now sit at 1.68 per cent of GDP. It is too low. We simply will not be part of the technologies and the innovation of the future unless we make sure we are investing into R&D and innovation. 

A key driver in this drop in focus on innovation is the drop of government spending when it comes to R&D, which slumped to its lowest-ever share of GDP at 0.49 per cent in 2022-23. So whilst I welcome this bill, it's clear we need to take political interference out of allocation of research and grants. We need to make sure that these projects get up because they are scientific, because they bring something new. They cannot just be pandering to the political ideology of those that are in power at the time. We have to have an open mind to these problems of the future. We also need to focus on innovation and R&D, so I call on the government: we must lift that percentage of spending in relation to the GDP. If not, we will continue to fall further and further behind other OECD countries. I know that this is important for so many people in Warringah, because many of them work in this sector.

I support this bill and the changes it makes to the ARC structure. It will help set up the ARC for future success and, therefore, Australia's success in scientific research, discovery and innovation. We have a long history, we have amazing technologies that have come out of Australia—the cochlear ear implant, solar panels—but we lost them, so we have to do better when it comes to research, innovation and then transitioning those ideas and those discoveries to being able to actually stay in Australia and benefit Australia. So I commend the government, but I urge them to do more.