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What Would Pockers Think?

By Simon Grose

Abolishing the Science portfolio would not have pleased Dr Peter Pockley, but all is not lost.

If Tony Abbott had a nightmare after he announced his Ministry, it may have featured a lanky stooping ghost keening and wailing in a deep sonorous voice about the new PM’s failure to appoint a Science Minister.

Dr Peter Pockley, the pioneer of Australian science journalism who passed away in August, would have defied the non-existence of the afterworld to clamber back and vent horror and dismay at the PM’s appalling mistake.

For Pockers, recognition of “science” by governments was a prime measure of their chronically dubious credibility. He was the first to start counting the use of “science” and “research” in Budget speeches – or lamenting their absence. Much to his regret and disgust, the latter was more common.

He would have been even more incensed and appalled if he had lived to hear that a dedicated Science Ministry had been abolished. Hell, its existence should not have been questioned. The obvious reform was to make it a stand-alone portfolio and install it in Cabinet with status equal to Treasury. If he had also heard that Small Business had gained a Cabinet slot in the new outfit, he would have gone “apockerplectic”.

Some changes he might have welcomed. Like the return to the Education portfolio of responsibility for university research policy and funding, international education and research engagement, and the Australian Research Council. Under the previous Coalition Government it had been there in the Department of Education, Science and Technology, but in the Labor years it was moved to the Innovation/Industry portfolio. Pockers would have approved the implied shift of emphasis from applied to basic research under Abbott.

He may also have approved of the retro lexicon – using single basic words like “education” and “industry” to name portfolios. Compare this with the final stage of the Gillard/Rudd regime, which left a “Department of Industry, Innovation, Climate Change, Science, Research and Tertiary Education”. DIICCSRTE was known as “dick insert” in bureaucratic circles, but at least “science” was in the title.

Functionally, nothing has changed. There is no stand-alone Science portfolio, and several portfolios that fund and administer things scientific – Industry, Education, Environment, Health, Agriculture, Defence, Communications – are represented in Cabinet.

No Science Minister has ever had responsibility for all research and innovation functions of the federal government, and it will ever be thus. Coordination of those functions must occur at a lower level, which is what Chief Scientist Ian Chubb is trying to do by creating the Australian Research Committee to bring together senior officers of all departments: the CEOs of the ARC, NHMRC and CSIRO, the Chief Defence Scientist, the chair of Innovation Australia Board, and a representative from Universities Australia.

A scientist coordinating science policy – Peter would have approved.

Onya Pockers! Rest in peace.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (