Faculties managed by ANSTO are important research assets for our nation

Read full speech below. 

Ms BUTLER (Griffith) (16:52): This is a very important debate because the facilities that are managed by ANSTO are massively important research assets for our nation. It is hard to overstate the significance of these particular facilities. At the Sydney campus, there's the Lucas Heights nuclear reactor, and, at the Melbourne campus in Clayton, the Australian Synchrotron, which are, as I said, vitally important research facilities.

I'm very pleased that I was able to visit the Synchrotron, at Clayton, in recent months to see some of the work that is being done there. Not everyone knows what a synchrotron is, of course. It's a massive facility, about the size of a football field—a great, big, round facility. What it does is speed up electrons so they're going almost at the speed of light and then it deflects them through magnetic fields, creating superbright light. Shooting off from the big, round Synchrotron are things called beamlines, which are big pipes, and that light travels down these big pipes.

'What on earth could that be useful for?' you might ask yourself if you're not a nuclear technology and nuclear science buff. Happily, for all of us, including me, the ANSTO website has a bit of information about the applications of the Synchrotron, and I was able to see some of them in person when I visited. Some of those applications are to biosciences, including macromolecular/protein crystallography and cell biology. When you can see through incredibly strong microscopes the work that's being done, the science that's being done, at this facility, it's quite incredible. Of course, medical research is a major use of the Synchrotron, in microbiology, disease mechanisms, high-resolution imaging and cancer radiation therapy. It has applications to the environmental sciences; agriculture; minerals exploration; advanced materials, like nanostructured materials; engineering, such as imaging of industrial processes in real time; and forensics, such as the identification of suspects from extremely small and dilute samples.

You can tell from what I've said that there's an incredibly diverse and varied group of applications for the Australian Synchrotron, so it was particularly delightful to be able to get the opportunity to meet with ANSTO and have a look at the facilities. These are facilities that a range of Australian universities seek to use for their own research work. I think ANSTO is a national treasure, and that is why I was so keen to speak in relation to this motion today. On the other campus, the Sydney campus, ANSTO has been expanding its activities, including a nuclear medicine plant, and this has tripled the production of molybdenum-99, of which there is a worldwide shortage. It is wonderful to see the nuclear medicine work that ANSTO is doing.

The aim of this bill is really to develop the Sydney campus into a major national innovation precinct. I was pleased to be able to attend an event here at the parliament that ANSTO conducted a little while ago to talk about their vision for this becoming a major national innovation precinct. It's important not just to think about the benefits that we get from the research that would be done by ANSTO but also to think about the benefits that would be obtained through collaboration at an innovation precinct. If you've been to Silicon Valley, for example, you would have seen that a lot of the work that gets done and the achievements that are made are because people who have the creativity and the right skills are in the same place at the same time. Collaboration does matter, and it's more likely to occur when you bring people together in a precinct. It is also important to remember the broader economic benefits of having good, world-class research facilities, not just because of the ability to commercialise the research that gets done in relation to these facilities but also because it provides opportunities for the local community to have flow-on or second-order benefits from the existence of a research facility or in this case an innovation precinct. It's part of the economic revitalisation of the area in which this innovation precinct is being proposed. When you look at experience in cities around the world, you see that where there's a university, a big research facility or an innovation precinct they stimulate other activities as well. People get excited and it really helps to bring the area to life. So it's a very exciting proposal for ANSTO but, more importantly, it's a very exciting proposal for the part of Australia in which the innovation precinct is intended to be built, down in Sydney.

So I support the proposal to develop the campus into a major national innovation precinct. Unfortunately, at the moment, as it stands the legislation governing ANSTO unduly restricts the scope and potential of that precinct. This bill would overcome this by allowing ANSTO to share its knowledge, expertise, facilities and property with other entities. These entities would not need to have a direct involvement in nuclear science or technology. That's an important point, because one of the benefits of innovation precincts is that they bring together so many different disciplines, skills and businesses that might not have anything to do with each other, but the communication and camaraderie that develops provides a spark of innovation. Who knows which ideas might come? Who knows which ideas might be developed? You could have an anthropologist working with a nuclear scientist, and the different perspectives they bring to each other can spark new and creative ideas. That's a very important thing.

This bill broadens the definitions of scientific research, innovation and training in the ANSTO Act so they are not restricted in that way to nuclear science and technology. The precinct will include a graduate institute providing research training for up to 400 postgraduate students and postdoctoral fellows at the Sydney and Melbourne campuses. Again, very importantly, there are direct opportunities for research for postgraduate studies and postdoctoral research. It's very important that we broaden the opportunities that people can have from using ANSTO's facilities and assets. These facilities can make such a massive contribution to research in Australia.

Together, all of these changes in this bill will make it easier for ANSTO to cooperate with industry, as well as universities and other publicly funded agencies. That collaboration with industry is very important. We do need closer connections between industry and research in Australia. It's something that a lot of universities and other institutions have a strong history of doing. This isn't a comment intended to suggest in any way that only commercialised research or industry-connected research is valuable—I certainly don't suggest that for one minute. Most people in this place would have the view that blue-sky research—research that may not have any immediate foreseeable commercial application or industrial application—is still very important, because blue-sky research can lead to all sorts of world-changing ideas and studies. The recognition of the importance of blue-sky research does not, in my view, undermine the practical work that needs to be done in relation to building connections with industry. From my experience of talking to people working in science and in research, I think it is also quite satisfying to have connections with industry. One of the frustrations that can arise in purely academic work is that you see what needs to be done, but you're not necessarily translating it into getting it done; whereas when you do have industry connections there is a strong imperative for translational work to be done. That, I suspect, is quite satisfying for people—to see ideas and research in real-life application and making a difference to people's lives.

I'm quite excited about this bill. It's great to see the work that's being done to promote the links with industry and to promote the collaboration between research institutions and between Australian universities. As I said, visiting the Synchrotron was really an opportunity to see how different universities were using a piece of plant, or a facility—a very big and technologically advanced facility, but a piece of plant nonetheless—to come up with new applications to solve old problems and to look at things in different ways using incredibly bright light. I think this idea of inviting even more people in to collaborate more, to get more engaged and to work together is a very solid and sound one, and one that deserves support from across this parliament. I should say that this is the kind of exchange between sectors that Labor promoted in government, and we support this bill for those reasons. In fact, we also took to the last federal election a range of innovation policies in which we acknowledged and recognised the importance of bringing people together. I think that that remains such an important focus for innovation and research policy in this nation.

I am pleased to be able to support the bill and am very grateful for the opportunity to have spoken in support of it. I do wish the people at ANSTO well in actually executing the work to be done under this bill in creating an innovation precinct. They can rest assured they've got a good supporter in me—I've got my little ANSTO badge on for them! I do think it is important to promote the work that is done in the nuclear sciences, including nuclear medicine but not limited to nuclear medicine, here in Australia. We do have a lot to be proud of. We're a smart nation. We're a nation that can look forward to good, strong, quality research.

This has been a week of argument about our university system, and I don't necessarily want to repeat some of the concerns that I have about the impact of public funding cuts to universities and what that might do to overall university quality. You will have read the matters in the paper recently about possibilities for other cuts in the event the government's preferred package doesn't go ahead and some of the suggestions that were made there. I hope this is an opportunity for us to say, 'Actually, what we want to see is world-class research in Australia,' because we do have an advantage in it. We do have high quality, we do have the smarts, we do have great facilities, and we do have a tradition of supporting research and innovation here in this country. If we work together, we can see facilities like the wonderful ones that ANSTO has continue to become even greater assets to the Australian community.

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