Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

To be an Effective Chief Scientific Advisor You've Got to be Lucky: Robert May

By Alex Reisner

Despite the hype about Prof Ian Chubb's appointment last year, the Chief Scientist doesn't have the influence afforded to his UK counterpart.

Just on 11 months ago (May 5, 2011) Professor Robert May (Lord May of Oxford, OM, AC, FRS, FAA, former Chief Scientific Advisor to Her Majesty's Government, former President of the Royal Society ) addressed the annual dinner of the Australian Academy of Science. And it was three weeks before that the then Minister for Industry, Innovation, Science and Technology, Senator Kim Carr, announced that the just retired vice-chancellor of the Australian National University, Professor Ian Chubb, would take over the Chief Scientist's role for the Australian Government. In announcing the appointment Senator Carr was fulsome in his praise: "We ask for the skills to negotiate the wilds of Canberra and the corridors of academia and the boardrooms of the corporate world. This is no small task (but) the government has found those characteristics united in Professor Ian Chubb."

Turning back to Professor May he told the Australian Academy Fellows:

The only advice I have about having more influence with government is: "You have to be lucky". The things that have happened in Britain are by and large good, not necessarily a reflection on the skills of The Royal Society or others [which] have been just good luck. In the general election of 1993 one of the Labour Party manifestos – which had been influenced by a very interesting eminence grise in the Party, Jeremy Bray – was to create an Office of Science and Technology and to bring in the sort-of casual Chief Scientist ad hoc one or two days a week - the sort of thing that we've had here in Australia - but to make it a Permanent Secretary – one of the Sir Humphreys – and create a formal Office of Science and Technology and give it a decent staff. He lost the election but William Waldegrave of the Conservative Party, a Treasury Secretary, convinced [Prime Minister] John Major that the manifesto of the Labour Party ought to be implemented.

That is the origin of how I came first to be Chief Scientist [full-time] and I've had two successors. As a Permanent Secretary one meets with all the other senior civil servants on Wednesday mornings. One has direct access to the Prime Minister. Until recently, by some anomaly, the Budget Sub-Committee of Cabinet met with each of the Secretaries of State to discuss their budget and the Chief Scientist to discuss the overall research funding, not just the Research Councils but research everywhere.

So where does Australia's Chief Scientist sit in the hierarchy of the Federal Government?

Senator Carr: "[T]he Chief Scientist reports directly to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research but he operates on a whole of government basis. Consistent with this arrangement, the Office of the Chief Scientist will be located within the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research."

He certainly does not command a position comparable to that of a Permanent Secretary – one of the Sir Humphreys – and create a formal Office of Science and Technology and give it a decent staff... As a Permanent Secretary one meets with all the other senior civil servants on Wednesday mornings. One has direct access to the Prime Minister.

After what appeared to be a slow start, Professor Chubb set about commissioning three reports on the teaching of science in Australia:

• The Status and Quality of Year 11 and 12 Science in Australian Schools - Australian Academy of Science
• STEM and non-STEM First Year Students - Universities Australia
• Unhealthy Science?: University Natural and Physical Sciences 2002 to 2009/10 - Ian R Dobson

From which he developed his report delivered to the Prime Minister just over a fortnight ago as to the state of STEM education in Australia. Professor Chubb is expected to publish the final report about the health of science in Australia in the first half of this year. What will eventuate remains to be seen.

On January 20, 2012 the Prime Minister's press office released a statement announcing "reforms to Australia’s peak science advisory body [PMSEIC] to make it more relevant and responsive to the immediate challenges and opportunities facing the nation". PMSEIC which since its inception was expected to meet twice annually hadn't met since February 4, 2011. The revitalised council was promised to meet regularly three times a year. In short PMSEIC has not met in 14 months, and so far no date or agenda for the revitalised PMSEIC has been made public.

Professor Chubb has been active in spuiking STEM and STEM education, but he has been addressing the converted. Since the beginning of January this year he has spoken at the:

• Launch of the Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute Summer School,
• National Youth Science Forum,
• "Neuroscience Down Under" forum at the Australian Embassy in Washington D.C.,
• Australian Mathematical Sciences Institute National Forum
• Australian Science Communication Conference,
• as well as giving the 2nd Annual Inspiring Australia address.

And last week he spoke at NICTA’s Big Picture Seminar in which he concluded: "Just to keep pace, that is to achieve the same proportion of STEM graduates in our workforce as the US, we need an additional 135,000 graduates over that decade and that represents a 66 per cent increase at a time when the numbers of students (or the proportion of students) taking the necessary subjects in school is still slowly falling – and the place of science in our world is clearly not well understood." But to suggest that the message is getting out to Australia's parliamentarians let alone the Australian public would be denying reality.

Professor Chubb has joined the ranks of those who plead that qualified and inspiring teaching at all levels is essential. Last month President Obama's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released its report: Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. And in Science's editorial of March 30, 2012 James Gates, Toll Physics Professor and director of the Center for String & Particle Theory at the University of Maryland, College Park, MD and Chad Mirkin, Rathmann Professor of Chemistry and director of the International Institute for Nanotechnology at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL note that the report "recommends that the federal government catalyze widespread adoption of empirically validated teaching practices, including active learning approaches using case studies, problem-based learning, peer instruction, and computer simulations. Classroom approaches that engage students actively increase retention of information, build critical thinking skills, induce more positive attitudes toward STEM disciplines, and strengthen retention of students in STEM majors".

Those recommendations are equally valid in Australia but there is little evidence of interest by the Labor government, the Liberal-National opposition, or the Greens. There is yet to be any tangible demonstration that Professor Chubb in replacing Penny Sackett as chief scientist has improved the prospects of STEM and STEM education.

Click here to view the February 7, 2012 Webcast in which the PCAST report is fully discussed. It is chaired by Carl Wieman, recipient of the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics for the production, with Eric Cornell, of the first true Bose–Einstein condensate. He currently serves as Chair of the Board on Science Education of the National Academy of Sciences.