Chapter 2 - Education, Science and Training portfolio
This chapter summarises areas of interest and concern raised during the
committee's consideration of the Additional Budget Estimates of the Education,
Science and Training portfolio for the 2006-2007 financial year. This section
of the report follows the order of proceedings and is an indicative, but not
exhaustive, list of issues that received consideration during the estimates’
The committee heard evidence from Senator the Hon. George Brandis, as
the Minister representing the Minister for Education, Science and Training, and
from officers of the department, together with Questacon and related agencies,
- Australian Research Council (ARC);
- Australian Nuclear Science and Training Organisation (ANSTO);
- Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS); and
- Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation
Senators present at the hearing were Senator Troeth (Chairman), Senator
Marshall (Deputy Chair) and Senators Allison, Barnett, Carr, Crossin, Fifield,
Lightfoot, Milne, Nettle, Patterson, Siewert and Stephens.
Australian Research Council
The ARC was questioned on matters relating to the Discovery Grants
program, the Linkage International Awards program and the Research Quality
Framework (RQF) panel structure. The committee was assured, in response to
other questions, that there had been no ministerial rejections of grant
applications except on advice from the ARC.
The ARC advised that they would have to take the RQF questions on notice
as their CEO was absent from the hearing due to unforseen circumstances.
Science and Technology Organisation
The committee followed a line of questioning on the transition between
the decommissioning of the HIFAR reactor and the commissioning of the new OPAL
reactor at Lucas Heights. ANSTO officers informed the committee that no reactor
is currently operating in this transition period. Related to this was
questioning about a gas explosion at Lucas Heights and the issue of importing
essential medical isotopes which would otherwise have been produced at Lucas
and Industrial Research Organisation
The committee noted the unavoidable absence of the CEO, Dr Geoff Garrett
who was abroad on government business. Senator Carr pointed out that three out
of the four agency CEOs were unable to attend the hearing and indicated his
expectation that at the budget estimates all CEOs would be present.
Committee members questioned the Chief Financial Officer about the
CSIRO's 2005-06 budget, external earnings and the flagship program shortfalls.
Questions were taken on notice by the CSIRO for updated information from the
2005-2006 annual report and individual flagship budgets.
Senator Milne followed with questions on the Cooperative Research Centre
(CRC) for Coal in Sustainable Development and its work on geosequestration and
solar technology. Questions focussed on what work had been undertaken, the
publication of research and the outcomes of the projects.
Of particular interest was the admission by Dr David Brockway, Chief of
Energy Technology, that a report on carbon dioxide capture from coal-fired
power plants, co-authored by CSIRO engineers through the CRC for Coal in
Sustainable Development, may not be released. The committee was informed that
private industry partners in the CRC may have the ability to suppress the
report to protect their commercial interests. Dr Brockway also pointed out that
it was not necessarily unusual for a report such as this to be withheld. Senator
Milne followed up later in the day with questions for the department on the
CRC arrangements. Both the CSIRO and the department took questions on notice
regarding the status of the report and arrangements governing the release of
publications from CRCs. Dr Brockway's comments to the committee received
prominent press coverage.
Questioning continued with Senator Carr, who used various letters and
emails from former CSIRO staff as well as newspaper articles to raise concerns
about staff morale, payments and other human resource issues across various
sections of the agency. Officers took on notice the request to provide a table
outlining the number of scientists in one division who had left since 1987.
Other issues raised by the committee included:
- Consolidation of CSIRO sites
- Research support services review
- CSIRO contract with Fujitsu Australia
- Government water initiative announcement
- CRCs and the Australian Centre for Weed Research
Australian Institute of Marine Science (AIMS)
AIMS was questioned briefly on its $5 million increase in baseline
funding and staff redundancies.
Department of Education, Science and Training
This was Questacon's first appearance since the Additional Budget Estimates
in February 2005. The committee sought confirmation of Questacon's budget
allocation and whether base funding had grown over the past three years. As at
previous hearings, questions were asked about private revenue raising and
sponsorship arrangements. There were also questions regarding the longest
running outreach program, The Science Circus.
Professor Graham Durrant, the Questacon director, also offered to give
the committee a detailed written answer in order to better explain the
additional measures that government could take to assist Questacon secure
additional funds to expand programs.
Senator Milne began with questions on the matter of Cooperative Research
Centres (CRCs) which had earlier been the focus of extensive questioning with
the CSIRO. Senator Milne was particularly interested in the arrangements
governing the release of publications from CRCs and was searching for a
specific report scheduled for release last year. Senators Milne, Crossin and Carr
also inquired into the altering of the selection criteria for funding CRCs, and
questioned the department on why the Weeds, Reef, Dairy and Tropical Savannah
CRCs now did not qualify for funding under the new guidelines.
Senator Crossin then asked questions on the development of the Commonwealth
Radioactive Waste Management Facility in the Northern Territory. Questions
focussed on the content of discussions between the department and the Northern
Land Council, and Senator Crossin was again reminded of the Northern Land
Council's request to keep these matters confidential. Discussions followed on
the timeline for construction of the facility, transport infrastructure
requirements, job creation, the inventory and costs of the waste facility.
Senator Carr questioned the department as to the status of answers
outstanding to questions taken on notice and expressed concern regarding the
general late submission of answers.
Senator Carr noted that although all answers had been received by the morning
of the hearing, this did not allow sufficient time to study the answers.
The committee acknowledges that the department has made an improvement on
previous efforts and also accepts that the Christmas holiday period had
contributed to the slower than usual response time. The committee expects the
improvement to continue with answers from this round answered on or near time.
Other cross portfolio matters raised were in regard to consultancies, an
increase in expenditure on staffing and advertising costs.
and Research System Group
Senator Carr directed questions to the department regarding Research
Quality Frameworks (RQFs) as well as issues raised previously during the
questioning of the Australian Research Council.
Questions followed regarding the additional appropriation of $1 million
to the Museum of Economic Botany for proposed refurbishment, and the process
for which these additional funds had been allocated.
Higher Education Group
Senator Carr began by questioning the department about the annual grant
and forward estimates for the Carrick Institute. The committee was interested
in the work of this body at Macquarie University.
Officers were then asked a series of questions on the university funding
arrangements for 2007 and the continuing review of funding clusters.
Questioning then turned to the compliance by universities with the higher
education workplace relations provisions, and was followed with questions on
the workplace productivity program. Officers took on notice a series of
questions about cost breakdowns, productivity gains and the tabling of reports.
Other expenditure matters dealt with by the committee included:
- Voluntary Student Union transitional funding
- Collaboration and Structural Reform Fund
- Larry Knight Scholarship in Tasmania.
Training and Education Groups
Following on from previous estimates hearings, Senator Carr asked
questions on the Industry Skills Councils contracts and the evaluation report.
Senator Carr then asked the department about Australian Apprenticeship
centres, specifically concentrating on the closure of a centre in Hobart and
investigations into meat industry centres in Victoria. This discussion was
followed with questions on the Skills for the Future work skills vouchers.
Senator Nettle asked a series of questions regarding national school
standards and accountability in non-government schools as well as national
testing exemptions given by the Minister. This was in particular a reference to
schools conducted by the Exclusive Brethren. Senator Nettle continued with
questions on the progress of the National School Chaplaincy Program, following
on from the previous supplementary estimates round.
Senator Carr finished with questions on the Investing in Our Schools
Program grant applications and the compliance auditing of schools.
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