Australian Research Council Amendment Bill 2011


Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (13:32): It is indeed a pleasure to follow such an uplifting, thoughtful and inspirational speech by my colleague Senator Mason on the Australian Research Council Amendment Bill. I can but agree with him on the great work that Australia's scientists do. Most of them do struggle from hand to mouth at times, but thanks to the research grants programs of successive governments we are able to contribute in some way to some of the fabulous things Australia's scientists have done.

I add a more sober note perhaps to the debate. That concerns one element of research and research grants that I am concerned about. Unlike my colleague who has just spoken, I am not greatly imbued with knowledge about university life and how universities actually work, but I have always understood them to be places of open research and open understanding where ideas and the contest of ideas are encouraged. However, I have to say with some regret that it has been reported to me that there is not quite openness and fairness in the devolution of all research grants. Before I go into this, I make the point that I am not naming names, I am not mentioning particular universities, and it is sad that in Australia this should be the case.

I am told by some people in universities and some scientists that, if they do not have an approach to a particular area of science that is approved by the current government, there is absolutely no chance they will get a grant for their research work. I have been told of instances around Australia where learned professors and lecturers have said to their students, 'This is as I understand the thing, this is what I want to teach you, but if you are going to become a scientist please do not adopt this line because you will never get research funding, and without research funding you will not be able to approach your chosen field of science in a particular area.'

I make no aspersions against the individuals who currently constitute the Australian Research Council. But I point out that, back on 12 May 2009, I sought on notice from the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research details over the previous five years of what Australian Research Council grants had gone to scientists and researchers associated with work related to climate change. I asked for details of the grants, the recipients, what amount was involved and short titles of the research. I got very many pages back in answer to my inquiry. Someone on my staff added up that over $200 million in research funds went to people researching climate change. It is said to me by people within the research, scientific and university areas that none of those grants have gone to anyone who had a view contrary to that of the current government. The people who have told me that are people who I believe, and they are, to me, very highly qualified, highly learned, highly experienced, very intelligent people in the science and industry area. They are the sorts of scientists that Senator Wong, as climate change minister and now as representing the climate change minister since she was sacked from that job, dismisses in comments like, 'Oh, they're flat-earthers.' The people she refers to as flat-earthers are qualified, world-recognised scientists in their own field but, unless they agree with Senator Wong's or Professor Flannery's view on life, then these peoplequalified though they are, and recognised right around the worldare simply dismissed as not being good scientists.

They cannot get their work peer reviewed. When you ask why that is, Senator Wong says, 'They can't get it peer reviewed because they're no good at all; they're not real scientists.' Well, I am sorrythese are scientists who are very well qualified and learned but who have a different view from Senator Wong and the Gillard governmentwell, that is, they have a different view now. You will remember just before the last election of course that Ms Gillard promised that there would be no carbon tax under a government she led, therefore accepting that it was not the greatest moral challenge of our time that her predecessor, Mr Rudd, had said climate change was.

But I divert from the point I am making, and that is that, to be good science and good research, funding must go to all those who want to conduct research into a particular phase of learning, and if those people happen to have a different view from those who, at the current time, have the ear of the government, that should not mean they do not get research funding. It should not mean that research funding only goes to those who share the same view as the government. I think Senator Mason referred to scientists in days gone by who, when they were developing their theories, were shunned as being just not with it, not on the same page; their theories were said to be ridiculous or to be contrary to the rules as they were known then.

As I always say in relation to climate change, I do not know whether man is causing climate change. I always acknowledge that the climate is changingit has been for millions of years. I continue to mention that once upon a time this planet was under ice; it is no longer under ice. Once upon a time there were rainforests in the centre of Australia and dinosaurs roamed throughout there, but the climate changed over millions of years and we do not have rainforests in the centre of Australian now. We do have islands where once there were none and we have no islands where there were islands once upon a time. So of course the climate is changing. Everybody knows that. But is it man's emissions that are causing the climate to change

There have been so many outrageous allegations about this. You will remember we were being told a few years ago that the south of the continent was getting drier and drier, and yet here we are sitting in Canberra this week with the most unseasonal wet weather, the most rain, that I think this city has seen for a long time; it is akin to the sort of monsoonal rain we get up in North Queensland, where I come from, at this time of year. But a few years ago Senator Wong and her cohorts were telling us that the south of the continent was getting drier and drier. Well, tell that to the people who were flooded in Victoria last year. Tell it to the people in Cooma and Goulburn today who are, I understand, being sandbagged because of unseasonal floodwaters. So who knows But we were being told these things. We were being told by Professor Flannery, you might recall, that the tides were increasing and that people ought to be careful where they built their houses. It did not stop Professor Flannery, of course, from buying a property on the banks of the Hawkesbury River, building his house there and then having fights with his neighbours over allegations of talk on the Ray Hadley radio showbut I will not go through that; we canvassed that a little at the estimates hearings just gone.

But this is why I say I do not know. I personally do not know. I am not a scientist. I am not very clever. And I do not know whether emissions are causing climate change. What I do know is that there are a number of scientists who say that it is. That is their view and they will give you their papers; they give them to me, though they do not mean much to me. But I do know that there are also a number of other, equally reputable and learned scientists who have a different view.

I only need to pause briefly to mention that, according to Senator Wong and others, including Professor Flannery, our coral reefs in Australia were doomed because the water was getting warmer and the Great Barrier Reef would be killed because of climate change. Well, we had some very good research from the Australian Institute of Marine Science on coral reefs in Western Australia. I did try to read it through and, as I understood it, it said that they had actually worked out that the warmer waters were increasing calcification which, when I looked it up in the dictionary to find out what it meant, actually meant that the coral was expanding. I see Senator di Natale shaking his head. I understand he has some scientific background; perhaps he can correct me. But the paper is there and it quite clearly shows that, in those southern coral reefs of Western Australia, warming waters actually extended the coralmade it better; made it increase. That paper has recently come out. It is there for everyone to see. I raised that at estimates as well. So I cannot say for sure, but what I am saying is that, just because some scientists have a different view from what is claimed to be the view of the majority of other scientists in that field, that does not mean that those scientists should not be given research funds and supported to pursue their theories. I mentioned that some scientists could not get some of their papers peer reviewed. Again, I am not an insider in how the research area works, but one would think that the scientific journals would publish these papers and allow other people to read the work of what I believe to be quite distinguished scientists and then form a view. But a lot of the scientific magazines will not even publish their work. If it is bad as Senator Wong and others would tell us, why wouldn't they publish the work and those scientists can open themselves up to criticism from the rest of the scientific world But they cannot even get them published.

I do not have the names in front of me now, but on two occasions at estimatesit is all on the recordI have given lists of names to Senator Wong of distinguished scientists who have a different view and Senator Wong has dismissed those very learned and eminent scientists with the comment, 'We don't deal with flat-earthers.' This is a politician accusing some of the world's leading scientific brains of being flat-earthers. That shows the sort of respect the Gillard government has for anyone who happens to disagree with its view on life. I think this is appalling.

I indicate to Senator Conroy that, when the bill is read a second time and the Senate has the option to go into the committee stage, I am going to ask for this chamber to go into committee because I want to ask Senator Conroy a couple of questions about research grants.

Senator Conroy: I've been personally doing themyou're right.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I beg your pardon

Senator Conroy: I've been personally deciding them. You're right; you've got me.

Senator IAN MACDONALD: I am giving you some warning, Senator Conroy. You have advisers who might be able to help you. You do not know much about the NBN, but you are in charge of that, so I assume you have some advisers that might assist you there and that you have advisers on this bill that might be able to assist you. I just want to ask a couple of questionsI will not keep the Senate longabout research grants. The figures that I have are for the five years ending 2009 and I would be interested in what they have been since that time. I would also be interested in knowing how much research money has gone to scientists who have a different view on the cause of the changing climate of the world.

So, not wanting to keep the chamber too long with this contribution, I again endorse my colleagues' words about how uplifting and how great our Australian scientists are and how Australia, to use the vernacular, punches well above its weight when it comes to scientific research and the things that clever Australiansclever ushave invented, contributed to and helped with over many years. I will not individualise the fields of work that our scientists have contributed to because it is too wide, but we have been very good and the research grants program is essential so they can be provided those funds. So we support this amendment bill. But I do mention again, in relation to grants for climate change research, that they should be evenly spread for those who make applicationnot even evenly spread, but there should be some money for those who have a different view and want to research it. The only way, as any scientist will know, that you can really research things is with a bit of financial support to help with your research and with your living expenses while you are doing that research.

I am sure a lot of this $200 million odd that has gone to scientists who share the government's view on climate change and the causes thereof has been very good research. I am sure it has. But I would like someone to go through and identify in the information I have and the information I will be seeking just how many of those grants have gone to people who do not believe that human emissions are the cause of the changing climate that we are all experiencing in this world. It was scientists who told us it was going to get drier in the south. Some people were talking about one-metre increases in the sea level in the foreseeable future and there were outrageous claims promoted by Senator Brown in the Greens political party.

Science and research needs to be given without fear or favour. People need to be encouraged to challenge existing contemporary views that are held by a lot of people. The only way we improve in this worldthe only way we improve in our lives and the things we can dois by challenging existing theories, proposals and presentations and to encourage argument to understand just what happens. By denying some scientists support to do that, I do not think we do ourselves a favour and we certainly do not do our learning and research areas any favours.

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