Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Four Academies Are Working Together

By Robin Batterham

Australia’s four learned academies are integrating their expertise in science, technology, social science and humanities to form a better evidence base for advice to government.

The appointment of Professor Ian Chubb as the government’s Chief Scientist and the associated overhaul of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) have resulted in one of the most interesting – and potentially productive – intersections between science and policy in recent times.

It has resulted in a much more coordinated linkage between the four learned academies based on a recognition that many of the key issues facing the country depend for policy development on the skills and experience of scientists, applied scientists, social scientists and humanists.

It recognises that no one group has all the answers, and takes the bold step of encouraging integration of thinking and energy among them to support development of a better Australia for all Australians. One of the nation’s most exciting challenges has been the result.

This has been enabled by the developments associated with the announcement in June of an Australian Research Council grant of $10 million to the Australian Council of Learned Academies (ACOLA), through which the learned academies cooperate. The purpose of the grant was to give the Chief Scientist and PMSEIC a strong evidence base on which to recommend new policies aimed at securing a strong, fair and productive future for Australia.

A major challenge for government is to identify mechanisms that will move Australia to a future that maximises the development and application of resources and capabilities in areas where the country has (or can rapidly develop) competitive advantage, and minimises its effort in areas where other countries do better.

Government has a crucial role in providing for the future by developing policy frameworks that promote creativity, avoid unhelpful constraints, and encourage Australians and their institutions to be bold, innovative and adaptive in preparing for the wide variety of changes in both domestic and global environments that we will face as a nation.

Since the inaugural briefing by the Chief Scientist, things have moved quickly. The Presidents of the four learned academies have established a Program Steering Committee chaired by the incoming President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, Dr Alan Finkel, to guide the program, titled Securing Australia’s Future.

It’s worth emphasising just how important this work is and how valuable it will be to government.

Equally it is a great opportunity to demonstrate to government the combined strength of the learned academies and the substantial public good that can flow from them working more closely.

ACOLA is particularly well-placed to draw on expertise and networks of the learned academy Fellows to consider how these complex and diverse challenges can be addressed, and ensure the nation’s decision-making system is properly informed by the best available research.

The work will be conducted across six projects, each headed by an Expert Working Group. Each will report progressively across the next 3 years, with the first interim report due in November and the last in July 2015.

The projects are extensive and wide-ranging. The six projects are:

1. Australia’s comparative advantage;

2. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics: country comparisons;

3. Asia literacy – language and beyond;

4. The role of science, research and technology in lifting Australian productivity;

5. New technologies and their role in our security, cultural, democratic, social and economic systems; and

6. Engineering energy: unconventional gas production.

Senior and experienced Fellows from each academy will contribute their skills and experience to one of the most important interfaces between the learned academies and the government in many years.

Addressing these topics in a collegial fashion, in close co-operation with industry and key government departments and agencies, will ensure that the best intellectual resources are applied to the many of the most important questions we face as a nation.

We expect this work will support and assist the Chief Scientist to ensure that the government has the best advice on which to build its policies in these areas.

Professor Robin Batterham AO FREng FAA FTSE finishes his term as President of ATSE in December. He is a former Chief Scientist for Australia and was Rio Tinto’s most senior scientist before taking his current appointment as the Kernot Professor of Engineering at the University of Melbourne.