Speech

27 May 2009
Speech at the Official Opening of the John Curtin School of Medical Research - Australian National University

It’s great to be back home here at the ANU – the place that, after I arrived as a student in 1976, in many ways helped shape my future, as it has done for generations of students since. 

The ANU gave the opportunity of a world class tertiary degree to this country boy from Queensland.

The ANU equipped me with the skills to speak Mandarin and begin thinking about Australia’s future place in the 21st century, the Asia-Pacific century.

And somewhat more importantly, the ANU gave me Therese – whom I met over a bowl of cornflakes at Burgmann College in Orientation Week.

The ANU has been doing great things for generations of students from throughout Australia and from overseas, for sixty years.

When you walk around looking at the 200-odd buildings on the campus, you notice that the ANU doesn’t have a lot of sandstone.

There’s not a whole lot of ivy crawling up the outside walls.

But in just sixty years the ANU has created its own history.

Its researchers have made discoveries of international significance.

Its scholarship is world-class.

And in the Asia-Pacific century that lies ahead of us, the ANU is well positioned to make a very important contribution to the Australian nation and to our region.

Because the ANU holds a special place as a strategic endowment for our nation.

The Government’s vision for the ANU is to build on this great national endowment.

That was Ben Chifley’s vision, and it is mine.
It’s striking today to read again the parliamentary debates of the 1940s over the establishment of the ANU, as the ANU Reporter recently noted.

The ANU attracted far from universal support.

Some conservatives said that we shouldn’t bother with the ANU, since Australia could never build an institution to match the splendour of the greatest British institutions.

Many looked across the meadows from Parliament House towards the ANU with scepticism.

Even Sir Robert Menzies, though a supporter of the Bill that established the university, scoffed at the pretension of calling the modest collection of buildings here a “National University”.

Some of the attacks sound remarkably familiar to us today.

The irascible Archie Cameron, the MP for Barker who had once led the Country Party but had since defected to the Liberals, complained in the Parliament that:

“I do not believe that the Federal Capital warrants a university of any kind. It is high time that this Parliament began to show some considerations for the downtrodden taxpayer, and realised that expenditure of millions of pounds on all kinds of projects that the Government is undertaking must cease.”

The Victorian Liberal Senator John Leckie fulminated in the Senate:

“What will be the purpose of this synthetic, provincial university?”

And the Independent MP for the Northern Territory, Adair Blain, was particularly disturbed by the fact that one of the research schools would be for social sciences:

“No doubt, provision of such a school has been inserted in the Bill as a result of the influence exerted on the Government by the ‘rat-bags’ who attend the meeting of the Summer School of Political Science.
In 1937 I attended the sessions of that school in Albert Hall, Canberra and was amazed at the ‘rat-bag’ theories advanced by some of the speakers. Yet some of them are now senior officers of the Commonwealth Public Service.”

I suspect that final observation is something that Opposition Senators might wish to revisit in Senate Estimates today.

Despite all the criticisms, there were also many strong advocates for the ANU.

One of the keenest voices was that of the young Member for Fremantle, who three decades later would serve as the Education Minister who opened up a university education to the kids of the working class.

Today, his son is the Chancellor of the Australian National University.

Six decades after its establishment, the Australian National University is fulfilling the dreams of the great visionaries of the 1940s such as John Dedman, the Minister for Post-war Reconstruction; Sir Mark Oliphant; Sir Howard Florey; Sir Keith Hancock and ‘Nugget’ Coombs.

Dedman’s vision was that a great national capital needed a great national university – one that could bring credit to Australia, advance the cause of research and learning, and take its rightful place amongst the great universities of the world.

Today, we can proudly say that the vision they held for the ANU – against the cynics and naysayers of the day – has been realised.

The ANU is regularly ranked as Australia’s leading university by global university ranking systems, including the Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the annual Times Higher Education Supplement rankings.

And the John Curtin School of Medical Research is a sparkling jewel in the ANU crown.

So it is terrific to see the university community coming together for today’s opening of the School’s new facilities.

As the world tracks the spread of the H1N1 flu strain, we’re all reminded just how important is the work of medical research at schools like this one.

Yours is the work of saving lives – restoring, curing and protecting the young; the old; rich and poor alike – through world-changing discoveries and breakthroughs.

And the John Curtin School’s track record in medical research is truly exceptional.

Over the past 60 years, scientists working here have made major discoveries and contributions to world health – including winning two Nobel Prizes.

Sir John Eccles won the Nobel Prize in 1963 for his remarkable and outstanding work on the neurosciences – and its impact is still being felt today in brain research.

Peter Doherty became a household name for his discovery of how the body's immune cells protect against viruses, winning, along with Rolf Zinkernagel the 1996 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.

Many other international awards have been won by scientists from the School, notably among them Professor Frank Fenner.

More recently, immunology pioneer Professor Chris Goodnow has been elected as a Fellow of the prestigious UK and Commonwealth academy of science, The Royal Society.

And Dr Carola de Vinuesa - this year has won the Gottschalk Medal for research in the medical sciences by an early-career researcher – after also being award the Life Scientist of the Year at last year’s Prime Minister's Prizes for Science.

Dr Vinuesa’s research reflects the important role of medical research in another important priority for Australia – our contribution to global efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals and make extreme global poverty history.

As a young Spanish volunteer medic working in Africa and India, Carola saw first-hand the impact of infectious diseases that still kill millions of people – and her research on immune systems offers hope for millions of people threatened by infectious diseases in some of the world’s poorest nations.

Australia needs schools such as the John Curtin School to achieve the breakthroughs in medical science that prevent disease, cure illnesses and deliver a better quality of life.

This is why the Australian Government has provided a significant contribution towards the building of the new John Curtin School of Medical Research over and above our ongoing funding for the ANU.

In this month’s Federal Budget, an additional $60 million from the Health and Hospitals Fund package was approved for construction of the Eccles Institute to house all neuroscience research activities at the School.

The ANU has also been allocated $90 million in the second round of the Education Investment Fund for Stage 2 of the ANU Science Transformation, the chemical sciences hub.

This will help develop education and research facilities which will form an internationally significant concentration of science talent and excellence and strengthen the ANU’s reputation as a world class teaching, learning, research and research training university.

These initiatives will also generate local jobs during the construction phases, as well as permanently creating 15 additional high-tech positions, including several apprenticeships, and another 30 permanent academic and professional positions.

The Australian Government believes that innovation and research are crucial to Australia’s long-term prosperity and building a 21st century economy that is not held hostage to the ups and downs of global commodity markets.

Universities and the research and innovation systems provide the intellectual fuel that drives our national innovation system, ultimately making us more productive, more competitive and better able to address the challenges of the 21st century.

The 2009 Budget has delivered significant long-term investments in higher education and national innovation.

As part of this package, the Australian Government is providing additional university funding of $2.2 billion over the next four years.

This funding makes possible, among other things, the important reform of shifting to a university funding system that is based on student demand.

We have committed $490 million to introduce demand-driven funding arrangements. This will help us to acheive the Government’s target by 2025, of having 40 per cent of Australians aged 25-34 with at least a Bachelor level qualification.

We are introducing more generous indexation arrangements - $577 million will be provided over four years to increase indexation of Commonwealth grants for teaching and research.

We are addressing the relatively low participation in higher education of students from low socio-economic backgrounds.

$436 million will be allocated to support increased participation of low socio-economic students, including enabling universities to run outreach programs, and rewarding universities on a per student basis for enrolling students from low socio-economic status backgrounds.

We’re also investing in a new era of research and innovation, to support and reward Australian research groups performing at world-class levels.

The Government has committed $512 million over four years to correct the entrenched problem of cross-subsidisation of the indirect costs of research.

A further $36 million has been committed to assist implementation of the Excellence in Research Australia measure.

And $51 million has been provided to increase the support available to Australian Postgraduate Award recipients.

Each of these initiatives will have an impact here on the ground at the ANU.

Further, as part of the Government’s Nation Building Package announced in December 2008, the ANU will be allocated over $18 million from the Teaching and Learning Capital Fund.

This includes a special payment of $10 million recognising the ANU’s unique mix of teaching and research.

These measures are all additional to the $24 million that the ANU received in 2008 under the Better Universities Renewal Fund.

These are all important measures that address the long-term neglect of tertiary education in Australia for more than a decade.

Looking ahead, the Government intends to develop compacts with each of our nation’s universities as part of our long-term commitment to the education revolution.

Compacts will play a key role in implementing our reforms and ensuring results from increased Commonwealth investment.

Among other things, these compacts will set out the arrangements for distributing performance-based funding for teaching and research activity.

The Compact that we sign with the ANU will reflect the status of the ANU as a university of national significance.

I welcome Vice-Chancellor Ian Chubb’s recent comments that this is the compacts approach “with teeth”.

Professor Chubb has long argued that Australia needs compacts that will hold universities to hard decisions.

Compacts that do not simply endorse what universities say about themselves, but chart a course for specialisation, diversity and excellence.

As the Government refreshes Australia’s national commitment to the ANU, we intend to recognise its unique place in the national educational firmament.

That process will also provide the opportunity to address the funding anomalies which arose in part from the ANU’s principled stand against the industrial relations policies of the last Government.

And the Compact will ensure that ANU can continue to play the leading role in advanced research that has taken it in just over 60 years to be among the top 50 universities in the world.

I believe that men like Dedman, Florey, Oliphant and Curtin and Chif himself would be immensely proud to see what the ANU has become.

But let’s not get too comfortable with what’s in the past.

Let’s look to the future.

In the intensely competitive and globalised world of tertiary institutions, the ANU will need to fight hard to hold its place and advance its reputation in the decades ahead.

But as it does that, it will have the support of the national Government.

Because the work of this university produces great benefits to our nation – economic, social, educational and health benefits.

And the new John Curtin School of Medical Research will be a flagship for the ANU, as it continues to generate the research and breakthroughs that in past decades have brought such prestige and acclaim.

It therefore gives me great pleasure to declare the new John Curtin School of Medical Research building open.