NATIONAL PRESS CLUB Q&A

SUBJECTS: Science in Australia; the Commercialisation of science; Women in STEM; economy post-COVID; Nobel laureates; Research and Development; Life forms; STEM in school; international collaboration of science; COVID in PNG. 

TOM CONNELL: Thank you for the speech, Richard. Clearly, your passionate; your study included science and pure maths, it came through. Starting on the glass half full and the jobs of the future; will Labor be proposing to select industries if you like, we’ve got Silicon Valley and that was this deliberate collaboration, universities, government, get business going- is that the approach that’s needed to kick start Australia in the future jobs area?

MARLES: Yeah, look, it’s a good question, Tom. And I think, I mean there’s lots of ingredients to this, to successfully turn science into jobs, and to get the commercialisation piece right. But I do think that part of that is about understanding and working to our national strengths, so I think we do need to be thinking through what they are, there is a process that we need to undergo. That’s not about picking winners and saying company X is going to do project Y, but it is about understanding; who are we as a country? And what are our national strengths and what are the opportunities that come from that. Now, I don’t have every answer to that right now but there are some obvious candidates for that. We are a country which is world-leading in mining. You know, we are really the best miners in the world. And we’ve kind of exported our mine management expertise to places like Africa. You might rightly say that the operations mining capital of Africa is Perth. But to what extent are we commercialising our mining science? Mining equipment- what are we doing in that space and what are we doing in the space of value adding to the resources that we extract here in Australia. That’s an obvious example. I think agriculture is another. We are amongst the best farmers in the world. What are we doing to commercialise agricultural science? And we do it well in that respect, but do we reach our full potential. You get other areas like medical research, it is an area where we do science really well. The precinct in Parkville around the University of Melbourne, is as good as medical research precinct as anywhere in the world. Now we’ve got CSL and it is doing amazing work, but we are only manufacturing one vaccine in this country, that is our capacity. So, have we commercialised the opportunities that arise from the incredible medical research that we have done in Australia? So, I do think that we need to be thinking about strengths such as those. It is far from an exhaustive list and I do think we need to be playing to those.

CONNELL: So, glass half empty. You mention losing old jobs is inevitable, which jobs?

MARLES: Well, I think it is really important that we- well, I think it’s really poor that we’re focusing on half glass full. It does matter to fight for jobs. And I have gone through this experience representing the electorate that I do, where we have seen the loss of Ford as making cars, where we saw the loss of Point Henry, which was an aluminium smelter for Alcoa. They’re example of jobs that have been lost. You need to fight for them, and we did, and I wish we had hung on to them because particularly in respect of car manufacturing, it really was the most complex manufacturing we were doing in the country at that the time. What’s really important though is that we are focusing on the other side of the equation. I mean, it does need to be about fighting for every job in this country but it also needs to be about preparing our kids and our population to take up the opportunities of the future.

CONNELL: First question from the floor is Julie Hare.

JULIE HARE: Julie Hare from the Australian Financial Review, thank you very much, Mr Marles. We are all too aware of the horrific stories of sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexism coming out of Parliament House. For years governments and science groups have pushed for young women to join the ranks of STEM. This is despite poor graduate outcomes in terms of full-time gainful employment, low salaries, a gaping gender pay gap and often insurmountable difficulties in gaining seniority. Add to that, too many high profile stories of sexism and sexual harassment in labs and other scientific workplaces places. So the question is why would a young woman chose a life as a scientist? Or for that matter as a politician?

MARLES: You know, sadly, really sadly, that is a very good question. And, until we have a meaningful answer to it, what underlies that question represents a real indictment on our society- as a whole, but also, specifically on the world of politics, which you have referred to. But you’re right,  there is work that needs to be done, serious work, in terms of changing the workplace culture of science. It’s not unique to us and that’s not said as an excuse but really there are examples around the world where other countries have moved to change culture and do it really successfully and we need to learn everything we can. There is a kind of a fundamental truth here, that if, you know, if the starting proposition is that science is only for men, there’s a deep unfairness in that, but we are only getting the benefit of half our human potential- and we will lose. Nothing is surer than that if that is how things prevail, we will lose. I’m a devotee of a podcast called Short Wave which is produced by NPR, which is co-hosted by a couple of women in science in the US, and they talk a lot about this subject there. You know, I think there are specifics in relation to science about the structure of employment, the structure of how research plays out, which needs to be thought through in terms of enabling women to pursue a career in science. But science also forms part of a broader societal problem in our country, which is the relationship- the gender relationships that we see in our society. And actually I think the conversation that, if we call it that, what we are witnessing in the last month is- well certainly in my lifetime is the most significant, the most needed reassessment of gender relations within our society. And, you know, I hope that that leads somewhere. That leads somewhere in politics and that it leads somewhere in science.

HARE: Thank you.

CONNELL: Sarah Ison.

SARAH ISON: Sarah Ison from The West Australian. You obviously spoke about two great projects there, one of them is in WA. You’re saying the SKA needs to be talked about more and so on. Will you be going to WA, being part of that? Trying to really get that on the map in the Parliamentary dialogue- and will you be going more than once? And regarding getting people who are studying STEM to go more into science, a lot of people in WA who study STEM often look to the resources sector, are you saying they should be looking elsewhere and away from that?

MARLES: Yeah, good question. To do the second first. No, they should definitely look at the resource sector. And part of that is because it’s a high-tech industry, and one of the things that I think is often a misconception about the resource sector is that people talk it down as being, it’s simply extracting something out of the ground and flogging it off- that so belittles what actually is going on here. When you look at how we go about mining in Australia, it’s the most high-tech mining in the world but it’s one of the most high-tech endeavours that we do in this country. It’s actually an excellent place for people who are interested in STEM to look at, in terms of a potential future career. Yeah, I’m really keen to get to Murchison, really keen. I’ve been on Tripadvisor and looked at the accommodation that’s available in Murchison – not flash I’ve got to say, but we’re going anyway. And, so it’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive, I’m looking at Madeleine who says she is going to accompany me. I don’t want to absolutely commit to this because in a COVID world things change, but COVID-permitting, the plan is to get there in April. We’ve got the wheels in motion- I’d like to go back there frequently. And really part of it is, you know, we need to celebrate big science. When we look at the period in time where the proportion of kids who in Year 10 were making the choice to pursue science, that was at its highest in about 1982. That is the year I was in Year 10 and decided to pursue science and make that fundamental to my academic journey. And when I think about what inspired me, I don’t, you know, remember the moon landings, but Apollo loomed large as I was growing up. I mean, this was the single most extraordinary achievement of humanity. How couldn’t you be inspired, when you were looking at what was happening there? And it wasn’t something you found on the back of academic journals; it was on the front page of newspapers. The moon landing was the most-watched event in history. This was popular. Like, big science was celebrated, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what came from that is, you know, in the graph the biggest bubble of people then deciding to pursue science. To what extent are we doing that now? I mean, the SKA is astounding. Like, it is a genuinely astounding project. It is the biggest IT project in history, it’s one of the very biggest science endeavours that has ever occurred. It’s happening here, no one knows about it. And you guys have to write about it. This is on us, right. It’s on us to discuss it, but you guys have to write about it. I really don’t get why it’s not on the front page of your newspapers every couple of weeks. But, no one knows and it’s interesting, it’s inspiring, what it’s going to do is incredible. There is – there’s a kind of a current affairs about it. There’s a new story constantly. You, need to write about it. It’s part of what we need to do to change our trajectory.

ISON: Thank you.

CONNELL: Certainly, sound keen to go, hopefully they keep the borders down for you. Greg Brown, the next question.

GREG BROWN: Greg Brown from The Australian. You talk about the need for a new economy post-COVID- a reimagination of the economy. And you know, Labor did have plans for a different society ahead of the last election and that was paid for by increased revenue measures, broadening of the tax base, in some instances higher taxes. How do you envision that Labor is going to be able to create this new economy you’re talking about? Will there need to be an increase in revenue measures? Or will you be able to do this with a tax intake that is roughly similar to the Coalition’s?

MARLES: I think, again start at the end, the answer is yes. And, you know, there’s a couple of things implied in the question. So, we are not going to go the next election with the breadth of propositions that we went to the last. We’ve made that really clear. And the sort of things that we had on the table are all under review and we have made clear our position in respect of that, and you know, it is for us the great learning that came out of our review of the last election. You know that. You’ve all heard it a lot before. That’s our position. I think when we’re talking about what I’ve been describing in my speech today, I come back to that idea, I actually think at its heart, it is a cultural question. We need to change the cultural relationship to science. That’s not a function of government revenue. That’s a function of how we place science in our societal view. Like, do we reckon it’s important? Like, you know I am a massive sports fan, but do we know who our Nobel laureates are? Are we having science fares at schools? Are we actually getting people excited about it? I think it actually starts there. And the commercialisation of science, which is kind of the hardest stat that we really need to shift, and through that shift the stat in relation to the complexity index, is really a function of the private sector economy. Yes, it starts with public sector research and, yeah, there is a fundamental kind of dollars component to that. You’re not going to have a science agenda if your starting point is to cut hundreds of scientists from the CSIRO which is what the Liberals have done. So, I’m not saying it’s got nothing to do with a public endeavour, it obviously does. But the critical thing, the critical thing, is the commercialisation piece, and that is not a function of government revenue.

BROWN: So, the issue is where government energy will be directed. Labor- a Labor Government can pursue its goals in line with its values without increasing taxes or increasing spending?

MARLES: Correct.

BROWN: And that is what will happen ahead of the next election?

MARLES: Correct.

BROWN: Thank you.

CONNELL:  So, what about your knowledge of Nobel laureates versus say Geelong Brownlow Medal winners?

MARLES: I mean, I assume we all know in this room, that there is one living in Canberra and who was here this time last week listening to Dr Cathy Foley. He didn’t win his Nobel laureate as an Australian, he won it as an Alaskan, but he’s the Vice-Chancellor of ANU. I mean, there is something- Elizabeth Blackburn, who is our most recent Nobel laureate, who did work on telomerase- it’s a fantastic achievement. She’s from Tasmania. It was done on the west coast of North America, that’s where it was done. Why isn’t Elizabeth Blackburn doing her science in Australia? That’s not a criticism of Elizabeth Blackburn, she’s gone where she’s gone but her story in a sense, says what’s great about us; what’s our potential, what we’re capable of, but it also says kind of what we’re not doing right. Now, I don’t want to – it’s not talking it all down. There are – I mentioned the medical research in Parkville. Quantum computing that we’re doing at UNSW. And indeed Cathy Foley was talking about that last week. World leaders, we’re world leaders. When we do science, we do it really, really well. But it is so important that we are valuing it and placing it front and centre, and seeing it as important as Geelong’s Brownlow Medal winners.

CONNELL: Next question, David Crowe.

DAVID CROWE: Thank you TomThanks Mr Marles, David Crowe from The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald. And Tom, I warn you I’ve got a second question I’m going to tack onto the end here. But I used to write about technology and business, and for all the time that I wrote about it research and development investment was too low, by global standards. It’s never changed in the decades that I’ve written about it. What’s required to change that? I mean, it would have to be a huge policy, surely to lift that percentage up to the levels that we see in other developed economies. And if I can just throw in the second question now while I’m here; I’m intrigued by your passion for the discovery of life forms around the universe. What are your thoughts on what kind of life forms they might be? But first things first.

MARLES: So, we go to that question, and you have, you know, you prep for an event like this and your media advisors say, “Please, just don’t talk about the aliens. Please don’t do it.” And I always talk about the aliens. But it’s, well, let me answer the question; the earth seen externally is unique in terms of, you know, heavenly bodies around us by virtue of the complexity of our atmosphere and it makes it really clear that there is life. The biomarkers in the atmosphere, it’s a function of the complexity of the chemistry in the atmosphere. The SKA, and the next generation of high-powered optical telescopes which will principally be based in Chile but through the Giant Magellan Telescope, Australia is a 10 per cent shareholder in one of them, will also have the capacity to see planets with this granular detail. They talk about- and you’ve probably heard this- planets being in the Goldilocks Zone, exactly the right space between a sun of an appropriate size. So, astronomers know where to look. It’s a question of having equipment powerful enough that you look with the precision that you can identify and I guess analyse the composition of the atmosphere. That’s what they predict with a high degree of confidence they will do this decade. Now, what you’ll be looking at is light that is millions of years old- so you’re actually not looking at the present, you’re looking at the past. And we won’t know whether that’s intelligent life or a whole lot of critters or single-cell, you know, creatures. But we’ll know it’s life. That’s what we’ll know. That is actually a remarkable moment in the human experience. We’re not going to be talking to it, they’re not going to come and visit, it’s not going to be Independence Day, the movie, but we’ll know. And we won’t know in theory, we’ll know it’s right there, with precision. And we’ll know by virtue of work that’s being done in Murchison. So why aren’t you writing about that?

CROWE: Okay, I’ll rethink my afternoon. Can I also get your thoughts on the-

MARLES: R&D.

CROWE: Research, especially the research and development tax concession, you know which, does it need to be scrapped? Do we need a completely different approach?

MARLES: Look, good question. And I don’t have all the answers is the honest answer to your question. And I think, you know, what can be said is that we’ve got to have a good look at it. You’ll find people around who will give you the full critique on the R&D tax credit to go off and scrap it would be actually getting rid of the one thing in our policy framework right now which does seek to encourage R&D within our companies. And it kind of goes to Greg’s question, you know, it’s actually about stimulating this activity within the private sector economy, which is what we need to be doing. But, whatever it is, what was implied – what was stated in your question is a hundred per cent right; it’s got to be a massive shift. It can’t be that this is a question which is too hard and that we kind of look at it and think, ‘God, we’ve been struggling with this forever, let’s do something else.’ Cause this is what it’s about. It’s in this question that we have the answer to whether or not our grandkids, people we know and love, will enjoy the prosperity that we have right now. Like, it’s this question and that’s what public policy needs to be focusing on. And if there’s anything that comes out of the speech that I’m giving today, it’s that’s where we’re focusing when we think about what reconstruction means coming out of COVID.

CONNELL: The most obvious case for government intervention is around the vaccine. So we can make AstraZeneca, we can’t make MRNA vaccines in Australia. To reconfigure a vaccine for a new strain takes six weeks for MRNA, six months for AstraZeneca.

MARLES: Correct.

CONNELL:  Would Labor pledge to have that MRNA capability?

MARLES: Again, so the significance of that question is obviously right now. And the significance of that question is about, you know, the last eight years. We’re not- we don’t get a chance of influencing this probably until May of next year and this is on us right now. That capacity that you’ve just described exists in India, not here. So, I guess the one point I’d make is that we have, you know, one of the world leading medical research sectors, areas in the world and it’s not that there’s no commercialisation, because CSL is the biggest company in Australia today- and indeed a great example of kind of best practice that we need to replicate. But it’s not enough. One company is not enough. And it’s not everyday practice. And that’s what we’ve got to start doing.

CONNELL: Misha Schubert.

SCHUBERT: Misha Schubert, here today as Vice President of the National Press Club but declaring also that in my other life I’m CEO of Science and Technology Australia. Thanks for your speech today and for the passion that infuses your conversations about science. I wanted to return to the part of your speech where you talked about STEM education in schools and floated the idea that maybe we need to rethink as a country, mandating subject choice into the senior years of secondary level in STEM. Also interested in your views, particularly around the teaching workforce is sufficient to bring that enthusiasm. Often when you talk to brilliant scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians around the country and say, ‘what was it that set you on the path into STEM?’ an inspiring teacher is often part of the ingredient mix there. So, what are your thoughts on how potentially the country needs to grapple with part of the puzzle?

MARLES: So we need to celebrate science teachers and there’s some work that we as a society do in relation to that, but we’ve got to do better. You know, I’m the proud uncle of a niece who in Year 11 made the Australian Physics Olympic team, which was an incredible achievement. Came to Parliament House, had the photo and everything. She went on to become a science teacher and I couldn’t be prouder of that. Like, that is a choice that we really need to see as valid as any choice in terms of pursuing scientific- a scientific career, so I think that’s really important. I think in terms of- I’d like to start the conversation about how we see science in schools. And I don’t intend to try and conclude the conversation here. But is it okay if we’ve got kids who are struggling with science and maths that we say, “No worries, you can do other things.”  Or maybe there is a point at which we need to say, “well, we’ll get you up to speed.” Because we do that in relation to English, as we should of course. We do that it in relation to literacy. Numeracy is just as important. And again, I think it forms part of this broader question. I think we don’t value science enough in our society, I really deeply think that. And we need to change our cultural relationship to science and this is a critical part of it. Thanks, Misha.

SCHUBERT: Thanks.

CONNELL: Next question from Nic Stewart.

NIC STEWART: I’m one of those journalists who’s really going to disappoint you because I’m not going to write about the search for extra-terrestrial life. What I’m more interested in is; what the, I think, the most Australians are more interested in, which is the ability to get, say, a car industry moving in Australia. Now, you were quite good at highlighting all the problems. What I found almost as difficult as the search for extra-terrestrial life was actual initiatives that you’re definitely going to take to boost science in Australia. Will you, for example, give a commitment to free science degrees? Because that seems to be one easy way of sending a financial signal that will push people towards doing science. That will actually encourage them rather than mandating that they need to do one thing or another. Brian Schmidt you referred to, we’re now at a stage where the ANU is considering abandoning neuroscience in- as a subject. I mean, isn’t that terrible? And what would you do to recreate this as a real scientific hub?

MARLES: Yeah, and the answer to that last question is it is terrible. Look, in a sense you charge me with not having all the answer to the questions today, and I’m guilty as charged. And there is a lot of work that we need to do, and we will go to the election with a much more comprehensive statement- as I said in the speech, which details the solutions. I think, what I really seeking to do right now is to highlight the biggest picture that we really need to change our appreciation of science but that there are two fundamental stats that we need to turn around. One is the declining rate of kids pursuing science and the second is the commercialisation of science. And you know, you put forward one solution in respect of the question of getting more people to pursue science- I think we need to look at all of these things. It’s obviously complex. There’s a lot of work that needs to go on. We will come up with answers. But there is a fundamental starting point here, and that is to have a complete shift in the way in which we view this and to have a very different conversation and that’s what I hope to lead.

CONNELL: Next question comes from Steve Lewis.

STEVE LEWIS: Steve Lewis, Director of the National Press Club. Surprised you didn’t mention Professor Bob Dylan when you were asked that tricky question from Tom Connell about great Nobel laureates but I know that was an oversight. I don’t wish to be accused of being sinocentric, but I wish to follow-up a question I asked the Chief Scientist, Dr Foley a week or so ago, about our collaboration with China. Can Australia- can we sustain very close scientific relationships and collaboration with China at a time when we are strategically, quite deliberately, moving away from China, the recent announcement on the Quad. You as a former Shadow Defence Minister knows that our defence industry is moving ever closer with America, away from China. So, if Labor wins the next election- and I note that Sportsbet has shortened the odds on a Prime Minister Albanese winning the next election- how will you, as Minister, frame that Australia-China scientific relationship? Would you ban the Thousand Talents Program? Would you put bans on that collaboration? Or is it a free for all and you’d allow Australian scientists, Chinese scientists to collaborate on everything.

MARLES: It’s a really good question, Steve and it’s one that we- it’s really important we don’t have a fundamentalist answer to, is perhaps where I’d start. And I thought actually Cathy Foley gave a really good answer to this question last week about the level at which collaboration occurs but also the, you know, fundamental importance for, I think, she gave a stat that we represent 2 per cent of global research.

LEWIS: That’s right.

MARLES: If we’re not collaborating internationally, we’re not in the business of science- and China is a huge part of the international landscape. So, I guess the starting point I’d say is to come to this with a kind of fundamentalist position which says we should decouple in terms of our scientific collaboration with China, is insane. That makes no sense. It is really important, that we manage- or that we continue to have scientific collaboration in a whole lot of areas with scientists in China, and by the way that collaboration is happening between scientists in the United States and scientists in China. It’s how the global scientific community operates, and it is really important people understand it and it’s really important we don’t end up in a kind of populist, fundamentalist space in relation to that. It’s not without its complexity. I mean, you raise that particular program, you raised defence industry. You know, defence industry and defence technology and defence science is not something we can collaborate with China on; that’s clear as well. And, it’s not beyond our wit to walk this line, to know what are areas which are possible to work on and what are areas which are not. And indeed our kind of system as it were, does walk that line right now. But I think, you know, there are going to be really sensitive areas which need to have classification around them, which cannot lend themselves to collaboration with any country, and with China; okay, we put a fence around them. But then there’s a whole other broad area of scientific collaboration which must continue because if it doesn’t, we are literally given the size of the country that we are; cutting our nose off to spite our face.

CONNELL: Michael Keating.

MICHAEL KEATING: Michael Keating, from Keating Media. What do you think of the government’s response to the COVID crisis in Papua New Guinea? Does that present a clear and present danger to Australia?

MARLES: Yeah, good question. It’s a really good question. I mean, the truth is- I know lots of people in PNG, as people would be aware and I’ve had communication with them in the last little while. And, you know, my heart breaks, really, for what is happening up there. And I think there is a human tragedy of proportions that we don’t understand here, which is unfolding on our border. So before we talk about it being a danger for us, you know, what is happening to PNG right now, you know, must form part of our focus as their neighbour, as their friend, as the country with the relationship that we would seek to have with PNG- not in respect of us but for them. It really matters. And again, something that is very important, that people understand fully. And I get that it became the focus of a day’s news last week and that’s, you know, something unusual in terms of the way in which we have seen reporting on PNG but it’s still there. It didn’t finish when the reporting stopped last week, and I think the situation is getting worse. I think in fairness to the government, I don’t- I’m not across every detail of what they are doing, so I don’t feel I’m in a position to do the critique. But I do know that this is not going to be fixed by sending a couple of things, or a couple of people up there and having, you know, a few thousand vials of vaccine. This is on a completely different plane, a different order of magnitude, and it really matters that there is a response to that. And the final point I’d make- which then does go to us; I think the disease running uncontrolled, in the proximity that we’re talking about to Australia has to be a concern from our national interests point of view as well.

CONNELL: Just finally, drawing on your passion for science; would you commit to the first ever debate with the government at the National Press Club on science-

MARLES: Sure.

CONNELL: Ahead of the election?

MARLES: So, Karen and I worked together as the Co-convenors of the Parliamentary Friends of Science which we’ve done for the last eight years. At that point neither of us in any portfolio sense were connected with science. She is now the Minister for Science, I’m now the Shadow Minister for Science- so we have mainly worked together actually on trying to improve the science literacy of Parliament House. But I am absolutely certain that Karen would relish the opportunity to have a debate here.

CONNELL: There you go. Alright, ladies and gentlemen, let’s conclude on that note. Please thank Richard Marles.

ENDS

Get the latest updates
  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.