Sabra Lane: The Federal Government’s releasing the details of its research infrastructure investment plan today. The headline figure is an additional $1.9 billion over 12 years to fund programs like new supercomputers, research into cancer, boosting farm crop yields and better management of the Great Barrier Reef.
Simon Birmingham the Education Minister is one of those ministers with oversight of this policy and he joins us now. Minister, good morning and welcome to the program.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning, Sabra. Great to be with you.
Sabra Lane: Before we talk research, the NAPLAN tests are happening today as we’ve just heard. Some parents are withdrawing their children from it because they’ve lost faith in the tests. If that idea gains momentum, does it undermine the test results?
Simon Birmingham: Well Sabra, I would strongly urge the parents and schools to continue to support in a sensible way participation in NAPLAN. NAPLAN is just one assessment that occurs at four different times during a child’s education experience, but it does hone in on the basics of literacy and numeracy. It is valued by many, many parents - indeed the Australian Parents Council, the Council of State School Organisations and others - all quite recently reaffirmed their support for NAPLAN because they like the sense that they get a check at the different junctures in the child’s education experience that affirms whether they are learning the basics of reading, writing, literacy, numeracy skills and whether they are meeting the minimum standards compared to other students around Australia.
Sabra Lane: To the point of the question: if parents with kids withdraw their children from these tests in large numbers, will that undermine results?
Simon Birmingham: Well, the number of withdraws we see is miniscule compared with the level of participations, Sabra. We’re now, of course, statistically, if you saw a massive withdrawal rate, yes, but my opinion is that parents - and it’s been affirmed by the different parent council bodies - do value this type of consistent national check as to whether children are learning to read, write, develop literacy and numeracy skills and that’s exactly what NAPLAN seeks to check. It is by no means the only tool for assessment used in schools, nor should it be, nor should it be over-hyped as some who wish to rail against it seem to do. What we should do is just allow it to be another day at school, another assessment check that happens during the course of child’s life, but one that does give nationally useful data that is available to compare against averages, as to whether children are meeting their benchmark for performance and that is a useful research tool for researchers, policy makers as well as for parents.
Sabra Lane: Okay, onto the research infrastructure plan. It’s a response to report by the chief scientist two years ago. Why has it taken the Government so long to respond?
Simon Birmingham: Well Sabra, the Government carefully considered the research road map that was developed by Dr Alan Finkel and we are responding now with $1.9 billion of further support for research infrastructure. Some of that funding is flowing this financial year but we are acting quickly in terms of the implementation, and just today Michaelia Cash and I will be at the Centre for Plant Genomics outlining the details of the Government’s response. That’s a great incentive to give an example of where investment in agriculture has helped to develop more drought resistant crops, healthier food options, all of which underpins export markets for our agricultural sectors. And you know what that delivers? It continues to deliver jobs and a strong economy, and this is…
Sabra Lane: Alright.
Simon Birmingham: … a core part of the Government’s economic plan to keep supporting existing jobs and develop new jobs into the future.
Sabra Lane: That additional 1.9 is over 12 years, but in the next four years as you point out, the Government’s only allocated $194 million, why is so little funding being spent in the next four years?
Simon Birmingham: Well actually Sabra, many millions of dollars are being spent this financial year as well to kickstart a number of the [indistinct]...
Sabra Lane: But that’s right, the additional funds it’s only 194 million.
Simon Birmingham: No, there’s a similar amount indeed being invested in the current financial year, Sabra, and that is new funding that we’ve allocated during the course of this year to support investment in these researching infrastructure facilities. It comes on top of $520 million that we’d already allocated for the Australian Synchrotron and $294 million for the Square Kilometre Array, investments we made in MYEFO at the end of last year for additional supercomputing facilities. Now some of these projects of course take a long time to deliver and to implement. So that’s why investing in a long-term plan, as Alan Finkel, the Chief Scientist, had recommended, and all of that is about ensuring - whether it’s in agriculture, whether it’s in areas in terms of new technology breakthroughs - all of those things are underpinning further job creation around Australia to build on what is already a record level of job creation by the Turnbull Government.
Sabra Lane: The Government’s also tightening the rules around research and development meaning a net gain to the Budget of $2.4 billion over the next four years. Were companies gouging taxpayers with dubious R&D claims?
Simon Birmingham: The Turnbull Government is careful about every dollar that is allocated through the Budget, whether it is in terms of tax incentives or investment by the taxpayer. That’s why you’ve seen that last year we took the decision to apply the major banks levy and recognising that there were risk factors there to be managed. This year we’ve developed these reforms in relation to R&D tax incentives to make sure that tax incentives are required where they work, where they inspire further investment in research and development, not just as giveaways. But of course, we’ve then redirected some of those savings into this investment and research infrastructure which also comes on top of growth in other research activities. In my portfolio alone, our investment in research grows from $2.8 billion last year to $3.1 billion over the forward estimates and that’s before you consider this additional $1.9 billion of investment in new research infrastructure.
Sabra Lane: Simon Birmingham, thanks for joining AM this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thank you, Sabra.