Medical research community pushes back at Government migration crackdown

Medical research community pushes back at Government migration crackdown

21st April, 2017


















DAVID LIPSON, PRESENTER: The Prime Minister played the nationalist card this week in what’s likely to be a defining moment of his leadership.

He’s promising to tighten citizenship procedures and crack down on foreign worker visas, policies likely to see a significant drop in Australia’s migration intake.

MALCOLM TURNBULL, PRIME MINSTER (7.30, 20 Apr.): The vast majority of Australians are pleased to see that we are standing up for Australian values. They know that it’s good. I mean, even Bill Shorten agreed with this.

They know that it’s good for people who are applying to be an Australian citizen to be able to speak and read and write English. They know that’s a good thing.

DAVID LIPSON: The reforms announced this week would require applicants for 457 visas to have two years of work experience in their field.

But top researchers around the country are saying it will rob them of international PhD graduates who are crucial to their work.

Matt Wordsworth with this report.

(Peter Ralph shows Matt Wordsworth around the roof of his university building. Rows of horizontal borosilicate glass tubes filled with algae and water sit within an enclosure)

MATT WORDSWORTH, REPORTER: Professor Peter Ralph is hoping to kick-start an entire industry from his university’s rooftop.

PETER RALPH, PROFESSOR, UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY SYDNEY: So what we’ve got is: we’ve got about 600 litres of algae that’s circulating through these pipes. We’re using sunlight as the energy source and…

MATT WORDSWORTH: So you make algae in here?

PETER RALPH: Yeah. Yeah.

MATT WORDSWORTH: And how many of these are in Australia?

PETER RALPH: This is the first one. So this is a Varicon Phyco-Flow: so it’s the first one in Australia. It’s an industrial-scale photobioreactor.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Typically, algae is grown in open-air ponds. This is a step-change, because it’s cleaner.

PETER RALPH: This would be for an industrial chemical or this could be for a food – feed products or plastics.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So, like, a kilogram of this kind of algal cells: what would that sell for?

PETER RALPH: Dry weight for some of the higher – for the pigments can be up to $5,000, $10,000 a kilogram dry weight. But there’s 600 litres in here. We could harvest the whole 600 litres and we’d get several kilos.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Algae is not just climate-friendly: it’s stunningly versatile. It’s the blue in Smarties, the wrap around your sushi, the Omega 3 oil in your nutraceutical. It’s used in everything from cosmetics to animal feed.

PETER RALPH: It’s growing very rapidly and we are part of it and we want to make sure that industry comes with us on this ride, because the opportunities for industry are massive. This is a way for us to re-energise Australian manufacturing.

MATT WORDSWORTH: In the lab, Peter and his team at UTS also grow a bacteria-free algae that is essential for the pharmaceutical industry.

PETER RALPH: We want to demonstrate to a wide range of industries that, using algal production systems, they can start up a new, sustainable raw material for their industry. So whether or not it’s a food, chemical, pharmaceutical, they can grow their products.

What I hope that they start to do is replace petrochemical products and we can leave petrochemicals in the ground and we can use these new oil sources. And we can use these oils for a whole range of different industrial applications that is sustainable.

MATT WORDSWORTH: So how does the 457 visa figure in all of this? Well, that’s how 40 per cent of the team here are able to work in Australia…

(Footage of Peter Ralph and Milcan Szabo working together)

PETER RALPH: OK. What about over the other side there?

MATT WORDSWORTH: …like Hungarian researcher Dr Milcan Szabo.

MILAN SZABO, DR., UNIVERSITY OF TECHNOLOGY SYDNEY: I arrived in 2011 and I arrived to do my post-doctoral studies in Peter’s group. It was a change and I think the projects and the research was really interesting.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Under the changes announced this week, Dr Szabo would not have been eligible for a 457 because, at the time, he didn’t have two years’ work experience in his field.

PETER RALPH: I’m advertising for positions regularly. And the skill base in Australia is too small to support the positions. I have to look overseas.

TONY CUNNINGHAM, PROFESSOR, WESTMEAD INSTITUTE FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH: Some of those people stay and some of them: we’re very glad that they have stayed because they are people who have invented the papilloma virus vaccine, like Ian Frazer, or spray-on skin like Fiona Wood: Australians of the year. And we certainly wouldn’t want to see this important international commerce that keeps Australian science in its excellent mode.

MATT WORDSWORTH: Professor Tony Cunningham says the Government needs to re-think the visa changes.

TONY CUNNINGHAM: We need some of the occupations that have been excluded from the skills list to be put back.

MATT WORDSWORTH: What occupations are those?

TONY CUNNINGHAM: Well: life scientist, biochemist, microbiologist. Those people: we can’t exclude those people from Australia. We’ll lose skills in those areas.

MATT WORDSWORTH: At the same time these reforms are being introduced, money is pouring into these institutes.

Peter Ralph has just got $1 million from the New South Wales Government. Now he’s worried about finding the right staff.

PETER RALPH: The challenge at the moment is the two years. So we’re going to miss out on the young PhD students. So a young PhD student is flexible, has learnt all these new skills during their PhD.

And I want to grab the young people that have got – they’re prepared to move to the other end of the planet to live in Australia. And I think if we waited two years they’re going to be much more mature. They’re going to be settled in their ways. They’re going to have a comfortable home life. I’m going to struggle to find ones that are prepared to move to Australia.

And we did contact the Department of Immigration and Border Protection for comment. A spokeswoman said the occupations lists will be reviewed regularly to ensure there’s a sharp focus on addressing Australia’s skills needs, while making sure Australians, including graduates, have the first opportunities for Australian jobs.