Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023

06 February 2024

Ms BYRNES (Cunningham) (17:56): I rise to speak on the Australian Research Council Amendment (Review Response) Bill 2023. This bill was introduced after the completion of a formal review and extensive community consultation. The Australian Research Council had not been reviewed since it was established in 2001. This bill seeks to address the shortcomings which exist within the existing Research Council funding process. The Australian Research Council review's final report was released on 20 April 2023. It has not taken the Albanese Labor government long to act upon its recommendations.

The Australian Research Council provides advice and support to the Australian government on research matters. It is a central pillar in Australia's research landscape. It also builds partnerships between researchers, industry, government, community organisations and the international community. It is important that the Research Council fund projects of merit. This bill was designed to address this issue.

A modernised role for the Research Council is also reflected by changes to the object of the act so that this clearly defines the important role and place the Australian Research Council has in supporting Australia's research community and landscape. By contrast, the current legislation only talks about grants processing. The Albanese government is committed to backing our universities and providing targeted research grants to ensure the continuation of real research as a vital part of our tertiary institutions. I am proud to be part of a government that has made available $895 million in non-medical research grants for 2023-24.

This government is also committed to principles of accountability in public expenditure. It is important to ensure that the best projects receive assistance. One of the principal objectives of this bill is to ensure the integrity of all future grants processes and ensure the public's faith in government funding. To facilitate this, decisions on funding approvals have been devolved from the minister, as is currently the case, to the Australian Research Council board. The Australian Research Council board is to comprise a CEO and up to six other members who will provide a combination of skills, experience and perspective reflecting the areas of Research Council funding. The minister will appoint the Research Council board, who will, in turn, appoint the CEO, consistent with a policy of meritorious appointment for statutory officers.

The next phase is to establish and appoint members to board committees, including the College of Experts. This body has the role of approving funding on research projects and providing advice to government. This should help to ensure that the best projects are funded and bring to an end the days of ministerial intervention in the grants process. While it will still be open for ministers to direct the board to not approve a grant or to terminate funding based on national security concerns, parliament will be notified of such decisions within 15 days of the decision to terminate a grant being made, and there will need to be good reasons for this to have been done. The minister will also report the exercise of the national security powers to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security and offer a private briefing on the reasons. The members of the board will reflect the diversity of the general community and include people of professional credibility and significant standing in one or more fields of research. It is important that we have transparency and that public trust is restored to our research and grants programs. These reforms are part of this vital process. The public needs to be confident that the best projects have been funded and that public moneys have not been wasted.

The recent impact assessment of Australian Research Council funded research has found that every dollar invested in the ARC National Competitive Grants Program generates more than $3 in economic output. Our universities have done great work with Australian Research Council grants. The objective of this bill is to ensure that grant moneys are well spent. Grants provided through the Australian Research Council have been a direct benefit to the electorate of Cunningham.

The University of Wollongong is a fabulous university, and I would like to personally thank the vice-chancellor, Patricia Davidson, for her dynamic leadership of this fine institution. Over the last five years, the University of Wollongong has been awarded more than $71 million through the Australian Research Council. These grants have been used to fund the ARC Training Centre in Energy Technologies for Future Grids, which is looking to address issues currently limiting the growth of renewable energy through innovations that facilitate widespread integration into electricity grids, while maintaining grid stability. It will address the complex and challenging issues currently limiting the growth of renewable energy through innovations that facilitate widespread integrations of the resources into the grid. The ARC Training Centre for Innovative Composites for the Future of Sustainable Mining Equipment is another one that has been funded. It will train industry focused researchers in advanced manufacturing and in how to use new-generation mining equipment and sustainable mining technology. These grants also fund the ARC's Steel Research Hub, which develops new higher-value products and more advanced manufacturing processes to build a stronger and more competitive local industry backed by world-leading research. These grants also fund the ARC Centre of Excellence for Australian Biodiversity and Heritage, which looks to bring First Nations culture to a wider audience.

Of course, Australian Research Council grants are not the only assistance that the Commonwealth provides for universities. I secured investment of $10 million for the Energy Futures Skills Centre, which is a project to train the energy workforce of the future. This will also be located at the University of Wollongong. The University of Wollongong have also received an investment of more than $1 million to study finding ways to keep Australia's grid secure through the renewable energy transformation.

There is also $1.04 million in ARENA grant funding which will support the University of Wollongong's harmonics study to develop a methodology that will help energy grids accommodate various energy outputs, such as wind and solar generation. This is vital work, and it places our University of Wollongong and our TAFE at the forefront of the transition to renewable energy.

The Albanese Labor government has provided funding to grow additional places in STEM courses across universities to help Australia acquire the skilled workforce required to meet the challenges of tomorrow. The University of Wollongong has been allocated an additional 425 places in STEM related courses, designed to attract more students to train in engineering, mathematics, chemistry and physics, which is in addition to our government's funding of an additional 936 university places to train more teachers, nurses and engineers. This is part of an injection of funding of more than $29 million to train Australians under-represented at universities in areas of skills need.

The University of Wollongong was chosen because it has a strong record of working with industry, government, universities and other partners, such as ANSTO, to deliver solutions. Our university has acquired a reputation for excellence in higher education over the 70 years of its existence. The fact that it has received ARC grants and all other grants as part of competitive processes is indicative of the high regard in which our local university is held within the Australian research community. These grants show that its capacity for innovation has not diminished with the passage of time and that it continues to undertake research of great value.

Previously, special appropriation arrangements were made for grants provided through the Australian Research Council. Such vital research undertaken by universities such as ours should not be based on such insecure funding. This bill makes provision for an annual appropriation of funds, which should provide a secure base for the Research Council's work. What is more, this annual appropriation is to be CPI indexed to ensure that the real value of funds provided to the Australian Research Council is retained.