Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Council’s Renovation Rescue

By Simon Grose

Remodelling the edifice that delivers science advice to the highest level of government seems to be an interactive work in progress.

Last month this column deprecated the advent of the Commonwealth Science Council as a poor replacement for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. That opinion was written after Minister Ian Macfarlane, in response to our question at the National Press Club, said that the new council would have a “second tier” that would have “direct access to the Science Council and also to the Prime Minister”.

Macfarlane couldn’t recall the title of this body on that occasion, so we sought more detail. Five working days later we received information from his office, quoted in full:

“The Government is establishing the Commonwealth Science Council (CSC) as the pre-eminent body for advice on science and technology in Australia.

“In addition, a National Science, Technology and Research Council will be established. The membership and terms of reference of this group will be discussed by the Commonwealth Science Council.

“The role of the National Science, Technology and Research Council will be to support the strategic focus of the Commonwealth Science Council, with a focus on implementation of the priorities that are outlined by the CSC.”

The detail supplied is notable for its rawness – there are no members and no terms of reference for an entity that “will be established”. They didn’t even put NSTRC in brackets! Duh?

Why wasn’t the architecture and engineering of this two-storeyed edifice described in the first instance? Probably because they had only planned a bungalow.

While we are loath to claim a role other than as information-gatherer in the Grub Streets and corridors of the Parliamentary Triangle, it has been suggested to us that our question and the Minister’s response triggered the hurried addition of the framework for a second storey – with walls, windows and interior fittings to be added later.

The implications from the tea leaves of the Minister’s remarks are that this upstairs extension will be peopled by the chief executives of CSIRO, the ARC, NHMRC, ANSTO and similar institutions, the Secretary of the Industry Department (and perhaps of other departments), plus representatives from the usual catchments such as agriculture, biotech, ICT, environment and generic innovation.

How will this two-tier system operate? The inner CSC, where the PM and Minister Macfarlane will occasionally share lamingtons and tea with celebrity scientists (e.g. Brian Schmidt, Ian Frazer) and business supremos (e.g. Catherine Livingstone, Michael Chaney), will hand down broad directional decrees. The outer NSTRC of functional operatives will process these directives to deliver reports, initiatives, proposals and the like.

This could work as well as anything that came before. Getting it to fulfil its potential will be the main game for the next Chief Scientist, who is due to replace Ian Chubb from May next year. Chubb might even be persuaded to stay on a while longer.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (