It’s an honour to be here this evening as Australia hosts this esteemed gathering of Nobel laureates.

I was thinking surely someone here must be able to give me the collective noun for such a gathering of intellect, wisdom, original-thinking, perseverance, energy and commitment to innovation.

All of the qualities that enable humanity to move forward.

I’d like to acknowledge the Nobel laureates with us this evening for their incredible contributions across so many disciplines.

And special acknowledgement to our four Australian laureates.

Elizabeth Blackburn, Barry Marshall and Peter Doherty, who were all recognised for the contribution to physiology or medicine.

And our most recent laureate, Brian Schmidt, who was honoured in physics.

I also recognise Rolf Zinkernagel who we regard as an honorary Australian.

He completed his PhD at the Australian National University.

He has been awarded Australia’s highest civilian honour, the Companion of the Order of Australia for his work with Peter Doherty.

Backing our strengths

As a relatively new government we have adopted as a strong priority, a commitment to backing our strengths.

That is, those things we do well as anybody, but better than most.

To a room full of Nobel laureates this would seem highly logical – of all people you have developed and applied the great talents you have been blessed with to a most extraordinary level.

Most people who make a fair fist of life invariably made the most of their particular talents.

The same is true of successful businesses, and successful organisations.  First and foremost they back those things they are good at, the things that give them an edge.

But as someone who has been in and around politics for thirty-five years – at times contributing in various parts of the world – I have so often found that governments have a great tendency to be distracted and consumed by a country’s weaknesses because of what is known as the power of the “squeaky wheel”, in combination with the always looming fate of an election.

It takes political courage, and policy planning, and strategy, and some luck for a government to stay a particular course which is built around the four or five things as a country you are really good at.

But in the end good public policy is good politics.

In Australia, our five key strengths revolve around resources and energy, agriculture and agribusiness, international education, tourism and hospitality and finally, but as importantly, the contribution of medical research, science more broadly and innovation.

These are things in which we excel, together with all the professional services, high end manufacturing, the logistics and other disciplines that cluster around these five strengths, and contribute to delivering the related goods and services.

And so, Australia is a world-class innovation destination. 

This is built on solid foundations of modern infrastructure, strong levels of investment, generous research and development incentives and strong intellectual property protection.

Australia’s gross research and development expenditure rose by 10.4% per annum in the first 12 years of this century to reach $31 billion, twice the OECD average of 4.9% annual growth.

And Australia is home to some of the best universities and research institutes in the world, being globally recognised for their expertise in areas such as engineering and technology, life sciences and the natural sciences.

We rank fourth only behind the US, UK and Germany for the number of universities in the Times top 400, from a population of 23 million people.

And our national scientific research organisation, the CSIRO, ranks in the top one per cent of the world’s scientific institutions.

We are serious about science, and serious about research.

Medical research

In this regard, medical research is one of Australia’s truly great strengths.

Eight of Australia’s 15 Nobel winners come from physiology and medicine.

Back in 1945, Howard Florey was honoured for his ground breaking work in the making of penicillin. 

And in 1960, Macfarlane Burnet was recognised for his work on acquired immune tolerance and clonal selection.

Three of the four Australian laureates here with us this evening have carried on that fine tradition.

Australia has also fostered environments where science can thrive.

  • In the 1940’s, in my home town of Melbourne, the beneficial effects of lithium as a treatment for bipolar disorder were first identified
  • The colony stimulating factors that are so important to treating cancer patients were first grown in a collaboration between Walter and Eliza Hall institute and the University of Melbourne in the 1960s
  • In the 1990s, Ian Frazer and his team in Brisbane created the life-saving Gardasil vaccine against cervical cancer
  • Cochlear implants, cardiac pacemakers, and humidicribs – medical technology we take for granted today – were all developed with significant contributions from Australian science.

Our biotech industry is thriving alongside our world renowned medical research institutes.  Before standing for Parliament, I had the privilege of serving on the board of the Garvan Institute of Medical Research in Sydney.

I never cease to be amazed at their work with the human genome, and the speed at which they are applying their great science to practical solutions in so many areas from immuno deficiency disorders, to cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and much more.

Without the benefits of modern medicine I would not be standing here this evening.  Five years ago, after 40 years of personal denial and cover-up because of the stigma attached, I finally confronted a depressive condition.  With the help of medication I have never looked back.

Medical Future Fund

Because medical research is such a great strength, the Australian Government recently announced the creation of a new $20 billion medical research sovereign wealth fund.

From next year, the net earnings from the fund will serve as a permanent revenue stream for funding medical research.

In a decade, we expect the fund to be distributing around a billion dollars a year to Australian medical research, in perpetuity.

That’s roughly double the Government’s current funding.

This fund will match the size of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the United States and the UK’s Wellcome Trust, and it will provide more opportunities for early and mid-career scientists to remain committed to a research career.

To this end we also want Australian researchers to be spending more time on the work they’re passionate about;  and less time applying for funding.

That’s something we are striving to improve, and the advocacy of Brian Schmidt on this matter has strongly influenced the Government.

Tropical medicine expertise

Finally, I would like to mention one other important advantage Australia enjoys.

We are one of just four developed economies, together with Singapore, Hong Kong and Taiwan, in the tropical zone.

Around the globe the zone is home to 40 per cent of the world’s population, expected to rise to 55 per cent by 2030.

Australian universities like James Cook, in our tropical north, are at the forefront of tropical medical research.

The work they’re doing, the Australian Institute of Tropical Health and Medicine in collaboration with other medical research precincts in Australia and the region, has the capacity to greatly improve and extend the quality of people’s lives not only in Australia’s near neighbourhood of the Asia-Pacific, but further afield in Africa and Latin America.

Thank you for the opportunity to provide a brief sketch of the significance Australia attaches to research and development.

As a country we are enormously proud of our Nobel laureates, and their contribution to mankind.  May I take the opportunity to congratulate, and thank, all Nobel laureates gathered here tonight for the sheer excellence of your work, and the remarkable global significance of your individual efforts.

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