Address to the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science dinner

October 22, 2015

Well, thank you very much, Christopher, and can I say right at the outset, before I embark on the extravagant praise that is due to Ian Chubb, can I second the remarks that Christopher made about his predecessor in the industry and science portfolio, Ian Macfarlane.

Ian has been a remarkable leader in Australian government over many years. He's been a minister for energy, a minister for industry, minister for science and just recently Ian, you showed a judgment about probably the most important choice that people in our line of work have to make. Because we can't do everything ourselves, the most important thing we've got to do is hire, engage good people to do the work for us.

Ian Macfarlane recognising and treasuring the importance of the CSIRO and determined to ensure that it was resilient and creative and dynamic and had the leadership the 21st century demanded, first appointed Larry Marshall as the Chief Executive and then appointed David Thodey as its chairman. Two outstanding Australians who can bring to that great scientific organisation the entrepreneurial and transformational skills that it needs to be even greater in the 21st century. Fantastic judgment, great choices, great leadership. Ian, you have done such great work for Australian science in your time as a Minister. Thank you very much.

Now let me take a moment to acknowledge our Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, whose distinguished term of leadership in the science community ends on 31st of December – five years. Ian, you once said that being the Chief Scientist and being out there talking about science was not a chore but a little tiring for a retired gentleman. Well, if in coming months you do get some rest, which I doubt, having regard to your hyperactive personality, it will be well earned, if improbable. You have been a champion of science and you have done so much to lift the esteem of scientists and science teachers around the country. Even when science has been under attack, you have never flinched and you have always stood up for science and its central importance in Australia, both today and in our future.

I'm told productivity is all the rage and I'm told that last year you delivered 104 speeches, attended 541 meeting – you should be canonised for that – and visited nine countries. You have been a really outstanding advocate and among your achievements are helping set the national science and research priorities, benchmarking Australian science in three major reports and of course delivering advice to the Government through the Science Council – of course we had a meeting just a few hours ago here in Parliament House.

I know that you won't ever truly retire, in fact it's a very bad thing to retire, if I may say so, I'm quite serious. Talking about medical scientists, or medical men and women, two great psychiatrists in this country are Ian Hickie and his wife Liz, I'm sure many of you from the medical world know them well. And Ian Hickie and I have often talked about the problems with young people and depression among young people, often young men, as you know, it's a very big issue that our Government and governments everywhere have sought to address, and Ian said to me once, he said "With older men it's very simple, never retire, keep working". So there it is, don't retire, you will just get sad. So, think of yourself, think of your own health, just keep working, work until you drop, just keep doing it.

Now, the best accolade I can give Ian Chubb is to assure him that we're working to put into effect the very ambitious agenda he set us. We have to be – and we will be – a country that invests in science and puts it right at the centre of our national agenda.

Let me say to you, the alternative is really not an option. If we want to remain, and we do, a high-wage, generous social welfare net, first world economy in a rapidly expanding global economy that has vastly more opportunities than we could ever imagined only a decade or a generation ago, and is more competitive than ever. If we want to seize those opportunities and not be cowed into fearful desperation by the challenges, if we want to take on those opportunities, then we have to be everything that your work as scientists enables us to be – more productive, more innovative, more technologically sophisticated, more imaginative.

We have to be a nation that embraces volatility and is not frightened by it. We have to recognise that the disruption, the pace of which is unprecedented in human history, is an opportunity, not a threat. We have to be courageous, not fearful. We have to recognise the central role of science and the work of scientists and people that follow the scientific method. I was just speaking to Graham Farquhar about uncertainty in science and I know that sometimes people will criticise scientists for saying that something is not certain. Well you know something, nothing is certain except death and taxes. That I can absolutely assure you is certain – you won’t escape either of them.

What we have to do is recognise that we, all of us, whether we are scientists or politicians or whatever, we live in a world of uncertainty where we have to be agile and we have to adopt the scientific method of developing one hypothesis after another, the hypothesis improving as we have more information and more experience, recalibrating it in the light of that and adjusting our policies, our approaches, as we achieve greater information. That is absolutely critical. That's why we should never allow people to say, we as politicians, as governments, if we change a policy, never allow people to say "You've back flipped, you've backtracked". The reality is that we can't guarantee that every policy will work.

The most we can guarantee in the real world of rational discourse, as opposed to what passes as political discourse from time to time, the most we can guarantee is that our policies are the best we can put together in light of the information we have at the time. If experience suggests that we should adjust them or change them, we will do so. If they don't work, we'll dump them. If they can be improved, we will improve them. If somebody else has done something that is even better than what we have thought of, then we will, recognising that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery; we will pinch it and use it. We have to be absolutely nimble. Now you have seen the way we have put innovation and science at the centre of our agenda. This is of critical importance, absolutely critical importance, to our success as a nation, to our success in the world.

Now, the Prime Minister's Science Awards have been a feature of the Australian scientific community since 2000. In that time, the recipients of the award have come from all around the world. At least six were borne outside of Australia. Others like Sam Berkovic were raised by Jewish immigrants who survived Nazi death camps and fled Europe after the Second Wold War. It's a reminder that in fostering an environment for innovation and science, we have to build an ecosystem from the bottom up.

At the top are the great institutions like our universities and the CSIRO, which has had far too much lavish praise today, Larry Marshall – we will have to think of something to pull Larry back after all the praise he's had today. The Labor Party asked me about the CSIRO today in the Parliament. I couldn't help myself, Larry, about saying how fantastic the CSIRO is.

But below that, education institutions like schools that inspire the next generations of researchers to become interested in science. Two teachers tonight I spoke to – one primary, one secondary – who have won prizes tonight and will be honoured later, they are really in the frontline. If we are to be a more scientifically literate community, as we must be, if we are to be more aware of the challenges of the world around us and prepared to engage them and investigate them in an honest and rigorous way, then we need great teachers, not just at the universities, not just for doctoral students, but in primary schools and secondary schools.

Good teachers change lives. The charisma, the passion of a good teacher, and I suspect most of us here in this room have had their lives changed by a great teacher. I certainly have. Those great teachers change people's lives and in doing so they can change the destiny of a nation. They are at the very fulcrum of destiny, changing lives at their most impressionable, at the time when you can ensure that somebody's real potential can be maximised. So the teachers, at every level, at the universities to be sure, but at the primary schools and secondary schools, they are shaping Australia in the 21st century and they deserve our support and they deserve the prizes and the recognition they are being given tonight.

Now my former partner in establishing OzEmail, which some of the older ones may still have an OzEmail internet account, they have become collector’s items. But my former colleague, great technologist who began as a medical student and dropped out – there’s quite a few people who have done that and gone on to greatness. But my former partner Sean Howard said that in this age, many years ago, well over 20 years ago, when the frontier of knowledge is advancing at the greatest rate ever in our history, we are not lacking in technological tools, what we often lack is technological imagination.

That is a fundamental point when it comes to some of the limitations of government. We play a critical role in ensuring we get the basic settings right. From investments in education, research and infrastructure, to our own use of technology and Christopher mentioned the digital transformation office that we've established to take the Government's use of technology into the 21st century or as somebody said to me, it would be good to get it into the late 20th century would be a start. But we are doing well and making good process, I can assure you.

We play a very important part in supporting the entire innovation system. But we can't simply flick a switch to turn on an innovation nation. We have to fund, target programs with a clear policy rationale. If a program like the R&D tax incentive is successful, it should continue to be funded but we always have to test that it is meeting its objective. You could say that we've always got to be operating in Beta. We have to be agile and we have to be honest about that. We have got to recognise that in a highly disrupted, highly volatile environment, agility means you keep your eye on the goal, if you are in business it's the customer, if you are in politics, it's the policy objective and then you have to adjust your course, much like a sailor adjusts his or her course in a sailing race and knows what point to reach but is constantly trimming the sails and adjusting the rudder to meet that.

There is a dreadful tendency in politics to confuse the means with the end. We've got to be very adaptable and very flexible about the means we use but, of course, focus on that end which is, as I said right at the outset, ensuring that we remain and become even more so a high wage, generous social welfare net, first world economy. That is the critical goal. We do that by ensuring that we are more technologically sophisticated, more innovative, more creative and so forth. Everything we do has to be focused on that.

There's a tendency in Canberra, perhaps in the pages of financial newspapers, to talk about economic reform and economic reform is important but the real objective is jobs, the real objective is growth, the real objective is ensuring that the Australians have the ability to realise all of their dreams more than ever, that they have greater opportunities, that their intellect, their imagination can be better exploited and displayed and deployed all around the world and we do that by ensuring that we are agile. And you are a critical part of it.

So, I want to say congratulations to all of you, it is a great honour for me, not just to be Prime Minister, but to be your Prime Minister, to be the Prime Minister that says that science is right at the centre and the heart of our national agenda and not just that, it is at the very heart and the centre of our future.

Thank you very much.

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