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Speech on the dire state of public research funding in Australia

On Tuesday 6 February 2024, I made a speech in Federal Parliament about underfunding of public research in Australia, and the consequences of that decision over decades of government neglect. You can watch the full speech here or read the transcript below.


This bill does not address the urgent issue of chronic underfunding of our research professionals and institutions. We're talking about the crucial investment that Australia urgently needs to make in this space to ensure a good future and keep our economy competitive. We cannot afford to fall behind the rest of the world. Last year, the Labor government actually cut spending on research and development to the lowest level in three decades. They actually admitted it. Sadly, for many of us, that doesn't come as a shock. In my own electorate of Ryan, home of the University of Queensland, the hardworking people in higher education have been worn down and undermined for years by ever-reducing funding for important research, research for the betterment of Australia.

It's an ongoing tragedy that what used to be a field of imagination, of creativity, of discovery has become a cruel and competitive race for funding, causing demoralisation, burnout and, let's face it, brain drain. How is this good for the future of Australia?

I have a little local boast here: Laureate Professor Peter Doherty, the recipient of the Nobel Prize for medicine, was a student at Indooroopilly State High School in Ryan, and a teacher and researcher at UQ. That important work that Professor Doherty did is currently translating into new cancer treatments. Where is the support for future Peter Dohertys now? Come on, Australia. Come on, Labor. The rest of the world is moving forward, and we are being left behind here. The status quo is just not going to cut it as we face the exquisite compounding challenges of our time. It's time for common sense to prevail. We need fresh technology, new developments and innovative ideas to meet these challenges. If we don't support and fund essential research and innovation, we're going to be floundering in the dark ages while the rest of the world moves on and, frankly, steals our best minds.

A recent review of the ARC funding revealed that many projects were turned down as 'poor value for money'. Just over 400 grants were approved in 2023. What a convenient excuse—'poor value for money'. Applications fell by 25 per cent this year because researchers know that it's just not worth their time. I'll tell you what's a truly bad deal: a whopping $11.1 billion in offsets for fossil fuel companies. And what have we gained for this colossal investment of Australian taxpayer dollars? Record floods, extreme heatwaves, devastating bushfires. We're paying a pretty hefty price for climate crises, and we're just pouring fuel on the fire. We need to focus our investment in the right place.

This government is sacrificing our kids' futures to instead invest in and prioritise the interests of those puppeteers of our government—the Woodsides, the Santoses, the Chevrons. We all saw that recent data. These corporations are bankrolling the major parties to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars, and they in return are benefiting in the billions. To add insult to injury, these are companies that have to be bailed out by the government, with our money, to stay competitive. That's shameful, and I believe it's economically irrational.

I think our struggling communities have had enough. What about using our hard-earned dollars to invest in a healthy future, rather than killing it? They want to talk about value for money, but let me ask this: is it a good deal when students are shelling out more than ever to attend university? Over 50 per cent of people in their 40s are grappling with enormous HECS debts still, in their 40s. Labor want Australia to remain totally controlled by these big multinational mining corporations. That's the message they send when they hand over $11.1 billion in fossil fuel subsidies each year but peanuts—less than a billion—to publicly funded research.

Hear me out. The only way for Australia to create new industries, to bring manufacturing back onshore and to break the stranglehold that mining corporations have on our economy is to massively increase our investment in research. Compared to other developed economies, Australia spends an absolutely tiny amount on research, and we've ended up with a distorted economy, dangerously reliant on the resources sector. These big mining corporations rip our resources out of the ground, send them overseas—they send the wealth overseas as well, to overseas shareholders—and they hardly employ anyone. But our economy and our political class are desperately reliant upon them.

There is a way out of this, and it is to actually fund research and development publicly at a mass scale, build a high-tech manufacturing base and new jobs in emerging industries. Instead, Australia has been going backwards under both Labor and the LNP. Why would they change that status quo, when the two parties are happy to keep taking millions from their donors in the resources sector and happy to keep opening new coal and gas mines that make the climate crisis worse?

But government isn't just holding back researchers; it's dragging the whole country backwards. Australia needs to support high-quality research that isn't directed by the agendas of massive, and often destructive, for-profit corporations. We shouldn't have to outsource innovation to private companies who sell our own breakthroughs back to us for an astronomical price, the same ones who overwork and underpay the brilliant minds behind these discoveries.

Just take a look at Norway as a case in point. They've actually got it figured out. They make big fossil fuel companies pay their fair share, and education is free, from primary school to university. Australia used to have something like that—free university education. I wouldn't be surprised if half the people in the chamber got their degrees for free. I certainly did, and I'm forever grateful and want that for every Australian.

An honourable member: I haven't got a degree. I left school at 14!

Ms WATSON-BROWN: That's fine—a degree in life! Year after year the government chips away at research funding and jacks up university costs. The government effectively tells students—the very ones trying to learn, improve and contribute to Australia—that they don't matter.

Not a single city in Australia is affordable for someone on youth allowance. They're saddled with tens of thousands of dollars of student debt. Even those lucky enough to get full-time work and start paying off their student debt see their balances barely move due to indexation, and when students graduate from degrees in science and research fields, what opportunities are there for them in their field?

Why would any intelligent person pursue a career in research when these roles are now notoriously insecure and underpaid? Why would anyone want their livelihood to be subject to the whims of the ARC, with their tiny budget? Why would anyone want to take the begging bowl and spend hundreds of hours on endless grant applications that have only a very small chance of success? This is not the approach to encourage innovation and a sophisticated economy.

Ultimately, this is what keeps Australia reliant on the resources industry. The major parties and their donors are, of course, happy to keep it that way. That status quo suits them and they see no reason for drastic change. It's time, however, to prioritise our future and the future of our children and grandchildren, invest in education and make Australia a place where everyone can thrive, not just the privileged few. It's time to invest in research that serves the public interest, not the pockets of profit driven giants.

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