Topics: Centres of excellence, Australian Research Council

Simon Birmingham: Thanks so very much Sue for your welcome. It says something about the wonders of this building that those of us who inhabit it can of course happily work through the ringing of the bells and the noise around it, but I do appreciate it’s a little distracting for everybody else. But get used to it today. Sue, in thanking you, can I also welcome you. This is our first event, our first forum where we have shared the stage for this event. It’s wonderful to have you on board as the new CEO of the ARC and I have absolute confidence that you will bring your own style, vision, expertise, flourish to the role and provide high quality leadership in administration, but also in policy and in vision that Australia so needs from the valuable institution that is the Australian Research Council.

I too acknowledge the Ngunnawal people, whose lands upon we meet, and all of Australia’s traditional owners, and recognise that, in a research sense ,we continue to learn so much more of Indigenous culture and knowledge, to learn from that and build upon that as a nation.

I’m going to reference an unusual figure for a Research Council event. It was Donald Rumsfeld who made famous the quote and reference to known knowns and known unknowns, and others, of course, extrapolated that to speak of unknown unknowns. And in a research context, in thought of basic research and applied research and the equal importance in value of those undertakings, is of course through a lens and a premise of sometimes challenging the known knowns, sometimes deliberately seeking to explore and solve and resolve the known unknowns, and indeed sometimes discovering the unknown unknowns.

In all of those different ways, the work of our outstanding researchers helped provide solutions and opportunities – solutions and opportunities to problems we have, we might face, or that we don’t even know exist. Opportunities that sometimes we cannot perceive, to create better lives, better circumstances, a better environment for us and the world around us. And it is incredible that as an advanced successful nation, a leading nation in the global landscape in so many ways, we continue to be a leading nation in our research output.

You will all appreciate how well-regarded Australia is, in different disciplines and generally, for the scale of research that is taken in Australia, the quality of it, and the high ranking in terms of provocations in highly cited research papers that your work manages to achieve and those good qualities. Of course, we as a Government have sought to put additional priorities around translation of that research, through to innovation in different practices on a commercial landscape, but equally important on a landscape where we look to the delivery of different social services, policies, changes to all ways of life.

Research, of course, has that impact across societal and knowledge, environmental, a whole range of different landscapes. And that is particularly evident through the National Competitive Grants Program, and especially the centres of excellence that are funded by the ARC and the Australian Government through that grants program. Centres of excellence are rightly highly coveted in the research sector, highly valued, and stand tall on the landscape of the Australian research sector.

Last year alone, we were very pleased, as part of what is a range of government investment and support that totals some $10 billion for different research undertakings and investments across the country, we supported close to $300 million for nine new ARC centres of excellence over seven years. Those centres, commencing in 2017, were selected from the ARC’s rigorous peer review processes of nearly 100 applications. It shows the scale of interest and ambition across the research landscape that, of course, sees so many applications and challenge the ARC in their processes to ensure that they select the best to go forward.

Centres of excellence are recognised. It underpins much of what we seek to do through the National Innovation and Science Agenda. It’s a credit to those who came before, that centres of excellence, the models upon which they’ve been built, have of course ensured strong levels of partnership, collaboration, that ensure research is well placed through centres of excellence to be successfully translated into solving many problems and creating many opportunities. The collaboration is not just something [indistinct] Australia but I know so many of you do so much to ensure that that is a global undertaking in terms of your work through the centres of excellence.

I had the pleasure of visiting a number and, of course, of seeing some of your research outcomes. At the risk of picking favourites, I’ll cite at least a couple today. Particularly this year, I recall with great fondness in my home city in Adelaide visiting the Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics and having the curious experience of attempting to undertake brain surgery on a tomato. Thankfully, the tomato did seem to live and was edible in the end, but the smart needle – the tiny, tiny fibre optic camera the size of human hair in it – that will transform neurosurgery in terms of the ability of surgeons and to make safer types of practices that they undertake. And it is, of course, the type of breakthrough that changes lives and that transforms medicine and that saves lives, that ultimately saves money, albeit, of course, the initial undertakings come at enormous expense.

As Minister for Education, I started this morning with the board of Goodstart – the nation’s largest early education provider. And in talking with them, much of our conversation centred around the need to continue to expand and development our evidence-based understanding of how it is young children develop cognitive capabilities that they need, the other capabilities they need to be school-ready, to be able to succeed in life, to ensure that our education system from the earliest stages is building the basis for success. The ARC Centre of Excellence for Children and Families over the Life Course is an example of problem solving, of seeking to develop opportunities as well to build the critical evidence base, the new policies to combat deep in the system disadvantage.

Talking to Goodstart about what great success we have as a nation in many ways in early childhood education participation, but the challenges are that those who are sometimes least likely to participate are probably the children in circumstances most likely to need it to benefit from it. And that is an enormous test of the public policy as to how we don’t just expand opportunity, but we make sure that it’s targeted where we can get greatest benefit and value. And the Centre for Excellence for Children and Families, with their work looking at combatting disadvantage, is the type of centre that hopefully will help to develop the policies for the future and target disadvantage in those early years right to the homes of families. Because I know that as Education Minister, the greatest thing we can do to lift attainment in our schools is not about schools or teachers, but is absolutely about families and the home environment. And the better we can find ways to break through to help families to achieve more in the support they provide in the education landscape is going to, of course, potentially make transformational differences again in the lives of people – particularly the lives of children – but overall for our economy.

In the, shall I say, heavier sciences, of course, the Centre for Excellence for Gravitational Wave Discovery has captured the imaginations of many as it seeks to capitalise on those first historic detections of gravitational waves, to understand the extreme physics of back holes and warped time space. It’s that type of thing that inspires those we seek to encourage to think about careers in STEM, to think about maintaining their learning in science. Yes, a centre like that focused on the type of breakthroughs that it can have and knowledge that will be created is so critical, but equally the inspirational effect that those breakthroughs have right across society, but especially the choices that young people make, is again so critical.

Or in the environmental and social sustainability landscape, the Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis I think stands out as one of those areas where you can say all of the ambitions we have for research undertaking come together in terms of economic outcomes for improved crop performance, human outcomes in terms of tackling global hunger and food supply, environmental outcomes in terms of improving the care for our landscape and environment around us. It’s through those types of areas that you can truly ensure the support of Australians [indistinct] for the type of investment that is undertaken and the work that you do.

So today, in opening this discussion, the event here celebrating centres of excellence that will enable you to share some of your breakthroughs with the leaders of our nation and enable them to share and answer some of your questions about the policies and direction of our nation, I want to thank you for the ground-breaking work that you do – ground-breaking work that has a real world impact in Australia and across the world. It does change lives, it does make a difference.

We are committed to continuing to build on the Innovation and Science Agenda, continue to work through the ARC and to invest in centres of excellence, to inspire ongoing collaboration, to help build the public support for the very valuable work you undertake across so many disciplines. And I’m thrilled to declare open, as such, your session today [indistinct] your minister and take the opportunity to occasionally stand on your shoulders and tell the rest of the country about the incredible breakthroughs that you achieve. Thank you very much,