Joint opening statement by universities Australia, science & technology Australia and Australian Academy of science

Joint opening statement by Universities Australia, Science & Technology Australia and the Australian Academy of Science to the Senate Standing Committee on Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Inquiry into identification of leading practices in ensuring evidence-based regulation of farm practices that impact water quality outcomes in the Great Barrier Reef.

aerial picture of the great barrier reef

I would like to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we meet today, in our respective locations, and pay my respects to their Elders past and present. I extend that respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples attending today.

We open by acknowledging the submissions made by many canegrowers, graziers and other landholders in northern Queensland. These submissions speak of long days of hard physical work, dedication to the land, and great pride in being – in some cases – fourth-generation farmers. They talk of a deep sense of responsibility to maintain and improve their landholdings, and the evolution of agricultural practices over many decades. Some reference their careful work to implement Best Practice Management programs, including work with researchers from universities and public research bodies.

We respect the concerns they raise about the viability of their properties, for the future of food production in Australia, and as agricultural professionals. We offer that respect again today.

Respect is important. It is also crucial that we show respect for research, respect for science and how universities can bring their expertise to help find a respectful way forward in this debate.

We are here today to talk about why we can, and do, have confidence in research – whether that research concerns the Reef, or COVID, or other topics. We cannot address the specifics of the science concerning the Reef.

Research and expertise make our lives better every day.  GPS and satellite technology is revolutionising agricultural practices as well as communication and travel.  Machinery, including the cars we drive, are becoming safer than ever before because of research into materials, into human behaviour, into computer-aided systems and road design and construction.  During this dreadful coronavirus outbreak, we are listening to the scientists about how to respond, and relying on researchers to learn about the virus, how to slow its spread and possible treatments and vaccines.  University researchers are at the forefront of managing the response to the covid crisis across all fields of research. Initiatives include vaccine development; developing new ways to test for the virus; understanding panic buying; and determining the impact on electricity demand, supply and prices in the energy market.

Research leads to practical tools for farmers and industry.  By its nature, it is rigorous. Reading and critiquing the work of other researchers meticulously is a task that researchers take seriously. Indeed, their peers are often their most ardent critics. Sometimes researchers disagree, but over time a consensus builds because research is tested and retested, building confidence and decreasing uncertainty.

This peer-review process is a global endeavour. Australian researchers are members of extensive international networks that are crucial to advancing knowledge and applying that knowledge for practical benefits for local communities.

Researchers are not separate from their communities and our economy. They are part of our communities.

Cadence Economics tell us that collaborations between business and universities generate $10.6 billion a year to industry. Every dollar invested by business a little less than $5 on average.

The benefits to our national economy are even more significant, contributing $19.4 billion a year to Australia’s bottom line. And this collaborative activity has created an estimated extra 30,000 full-time jobs across the country, in addition to the 120,000 jobs directly supported by universities.

Australian research also directly aids Australian farmers in dealing with a wide variety of challenges. Most recently we have seen the formation of the ARC centre for excellence in Plant Success in Nature and Agriculture and a large investment in industry-research collaborations with the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia.

These investments are not abstract activities – they result in real benefits to Australian farmers in all aspects of farming from pest control through the use of silica against cane grubs to converting sugarcane vegetable matter into new bioplastics. Collaborations between science and farmers helps protect our crops and develop new industries for farmers to profit from.

We would be deeply concerned by any concerted effort to discredit or cast doubt on research methods, and any bid to undermine rigorously peer-reviewed research findings.

We have noted the calls for an expert body to review the science on the Great Barrier Reef.  That already happens. It happens through peer review. And specifically, it is precisely the process that leads to the Scientific Consensus Statements.  It is legitimate to debate policy design and implementation arising from science. It is not legitimate to denigrate the robust and international research methodology that underpins research.

There are established and robust methods in the research system now to ensure the robustness of research, just as there are established opportunities for robust debate about policy decisions.

Science offers solutions – as it has done over the centuries.  We need to ensure the tone of the debate does not derail the very important partnerships that exist, and should exist, between farming families, the agricultural industry, governments and researchers, to tackle the big issues of our time.

Anna-Maria Arabia, Chief Executive, Australian Academy of Science

Jeremy Brownlie, President, Science & Technology Australia

Misha Schubert, Chief Executive, Science & Technology Australia

Catriona Jackson, Chief Executive, Universities Australia

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