It is a delight for me to be here as the Minister responsible for science and someone who believes very strongly in science. In fact I use science every day, not just to get from A to B and all the other things that people do, but I use science and fact based arguments in my political debate, because in the end, that’s the part where you’re going to win the debate, by staying with the science and the facts.
It’s a great inspiration for me to be amongst the science community who are extraordinarily intelligent and dedicated men and women who make an enormous and unsung contribution to Australia. Part of my challenge as the Minister responsible for Science is to ensure that the science fraternity not only get their due desserts in terms of recognition, but also to help people understand the importance of science in their day-to-day lives.
I have said to the science community, you need to be more vocal in in a world, and particularly in a political world, where people are clamouring to have their perspective and point of view put in front of the population, usually through the media, science needs to step up to that challenge. If you don’t tell people how good you are, then who will? So science is incredibly important in Australia, we are a country with a huge record in terms of great scientists and I’m sure that’s not going to change.
I’ve been shown through the labs here and seen some of the great work that is being done. I’ve also seen the robot and the work being done here in the area of tackling eye disease is absolutely critical. It’s an interesting discussion that goes on between my wife and I, she is the artistic one in our relationship, and sight and vision and colour are very important to her, whereas I’m the practical ex-farmer, once short term engineering student, and for me, hearing and feeling is far more important, and we’re seeing some incredible work done in both of those areas.
With respect to the cochlear implant in terms of hearing, I am fortunate that in my cohort, which is ex-farmers aged 60 or almost, I’ve got the only decent hearing of all my group, because they weren’t fortunate enough to have a scientist as a mother who insisted that before I went near anything that made loud noises – in those days they weren’t iPods or rock concerts, they were tractors and guns – that I put in a set of earmuffs. So we are now seeing a cohort coming through in Australia that does have some significant hearing problems.
As I said earlier, science is central to industry policy and to have science as part of the Industry portfolio opens up enormous opportunity, not just for science, but in fact for industry. The commercialisation of good ideas and getting the economic outcomes that grow the opportunity for science to then be reinvested in by the companies that are able to commercialise those ideas means that we can then do more science.
There will always be a place for government to fund science, there will always be a place for blue sky research, but in Australia we must focus on taking industry from dependence to global excellence. In doing that, we need to make sure that science is able to play that key role. We need to drive the collaboration that currently Australia does so poorly between its small to medium enterprises (SMEs) and the science fraternity. As the Government, we will be doing more to facilitate that in the coming weeks.
I know some people have said ‘well what’s been going on in the industry and science space in the last twelve months?’ Well I won’t bore you with the mess that we’ve found but I will give you some enthusiasm by saying, as an old farmer, I like to prepare the seed bed well before I plant. Or if you’re building a house that you want to last, you have to make sure it has strong foundations first.
So that’s what’s been happening over the last twelve months and over the next few weeks, we’ll roll out a policy related to the National Industry Investment and Competitiveness Agenda which puts science right where it should be, right at the centre of industry policy. I’m certainly looking forward to that.
The exchange of skills and ideas and the opportunities that this will bring for businesses in Australia will be of critical importance. We’ve also announced a $484 million Entrepreneurs’ Infrastructure Programme which again will help facilitate that. We want to see the opportunities of combining SMEs with science, exploited to the mutual benefit of both parties.
There are some great examples of collaboration in the biotech area with many Melbourne based biotech companies such as Seagull Technologies and PolyActiva and those companies have developed innovations like a needle-free system to deliver drugs along with unique drug-polymers.
There is of course, enormous potential in adult stem cell research and I remember being the Industry Minister last time when we had the debate over stem cells and particularly the use of embryonic stem cells and I remember my adviser coming in and saying to me, ‘Ian you’re the Minister who has got to argue this from a scientific perspective’ and I said a) ‘well that’s actually the Science Minister’s job’. The only problem was the Science Minister was a Junior Minister, which often happens in that portfolio, and b) he didn’t support stem cell research. So we took on the issue and the rest is history, so they say, but it has led us to a place now where adult stem cells are now taking a pre-eminent position in terms of that research.
Everyone knows how good we are in this area of biomedicine and the clinical trials that we undertake in Australia. We do in fact punch above our weight, or above what would be the expectation of a country our size. We’ve seen excellence in a whole range of areas and spin offs that have led to some great companies. The most important thing we need to do is to keep translating that research into modern technology.
Collaboration between research and industry is essential and advanced manufacturing is a great opportunity for Australia. You can join together parts of our natural advantage, so our natural advantage in pharmaceuticals, in biotech, in medical devices, with in advanced manufacturing and there’s plenty of advanced manufacturing in that robot out the back, which we should be able to build here in Australia.
The advantage of having machines like that is of course that you free up the great minds from the repetitive work that inevitably comes from being involved in this sort of research. Around seven people will now be able to focus their minds on the research and development that they are so renowned in, rather than filling pipettes and dishes.
So it is that sort of automation and robotisation, to create a new word (to laughter) that will give us that next spurt in terms of a competitive edge. So to conclude, I take this opportunity to launch the Centre for Eye Research Australia’s Automated Stem Cell Facility and I wish you all, all the best for the future.