Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

What Science Chiefly Needs

By Simon Says

Australia’s new Chief Scientist could be as good as the first.

As Ian Chubb settles into his new job as Australia’s Chief Scientist he could set his goals high by harking back to the beginning.

The first Chief Scientist was Ralph Slatyer, who was chosen in 1982 by Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to head a new “government think tank on science and technology” that would become the Australian Science, Technology and Engineering Council (ASTEC).

Two years after he completed a 5-year term, during which Fraser lost his job to Bob Hawke, Slatyer took a call from the head of the Prime Minister’s Department, Mike Codd, asking him to accept a new role as Chief Scientist.

“I hesitated, saying that I had already been the chairman of ASTEC and I thought the new chairman ought to continue working the way I had,” he said in a 1993 interview for the Academy of Science. He quoted Codd’s reply: “This is going to be quite different. ASTEC is outside the bureaucracy; this is inside. The person in this job will have access to all the Cabinet papers and will be expected to be across all of them.”

That promise was not necessarily fully honoured, but it arose from a high-level recognition of the relevance of scientific knowledge across many policy sectors, and a genuine desire for a coordinated source of scientific advice to the PM and Cabinet.

Slatyer was Chief Scientist from 1989–92. The access he had to Hawke and then Paul Keating “meant again that one was able to influence a very broad agenda… the relationships with both prime ministers have been good. They have both been very interested in science and very conscious of the importance of technological innovation in Australian industry sectors. I don’t think one could have wanted better support at that level.”

Penny Sackett, eat your heart out. Chubb’s predecessor resigned early this year before her time was due, frustrated by never meeting one-to-one with either of the Labor Prime Ministers she served.

She was perhaps too demure a priestess of science to elbow her way around the power corridors and charm the media in the banal theatre of federal politics. But she left the office in high public stead and with a secretariat of 13 staff, a good tower for Chubb to play from.

More urbane gorilla than demure priest, his skills in reconciling scientific integrity and political neutrality will enable him to project his role more assertively than his predecessors. After his 5-year term he is likely to leave it as a more influential position than he found it.

He could even start getting his hands on Cabinet documents and setting agendas with the PM, just like Slatyer did.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (sciencemedia.com.au).