Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Healthy, But Needs Leadership

By Simon Grose

The Chief Scientist has established a role at the centre of science policy formulation, and flagged his intentions.

Exactly a year after he began work as Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb has issued Health of Australian Science, a 200-page overview of his bailiwick (see also Lowe Tech, p.47).

Its broad assessment – “Australian science is generally in good health” – was the happy theme picked up in media reports but closer reading reveals signals from Chubb about his agenda for the remaining 2 years of his appointment.

A recurring theme is the tension between the funding and practice of education and research. It points out that in 2008–09 the Commonwealth – including the higher education sector – supported 75% of the nation’s basic and strategic research, but applied research has gained an increasing proportion of Commonwealth science funding since 1990 and “there is no apparent rationale for this trend”.

It also says that the setting of National Research Priorities “provides a sensible base for broadly guiding the research effort… yet some science disciplines are declining in spite of this”.

It seems the problem is school-leavers and undergraduates and their ideas about what is cool: “Universities are funded according to where the students enrol and what they do. This basically logical approach might well put some important disciplines at risk because they happen to lack popularity at a particular time”.

The report canvasses the notion that “the Commonwealth ought to have a role in identifying where the system is unacceptably weak… and in influencing the system accordingly,” but “so much of the Australian science profile is at present determined by what students want to study and what researchers want to investigate that it would be difficult to exercise such a strategic role within current policy arrangements”.

Bottom-up bad, top-down good? That’s the upshot. It sets the scene for loosening the linkages between education and research and giving the national government a stronger role in compensating for perceived market failure.

The vehicle to shape and promulgate this shift was quietly established early this year. Chaired by Chubb, the Australian Research Committee has been charged with developing a national research investment plan for 2013–14 to 2015–16, to be presented to the government in September.

By establishing this group Chubb has strengthened the role of the Chief Scientist in science policy and created a body that has the potential to provide a degree of high-level coordination of Commonwealth science funding and policy. Its members are the deputy secretaries of 20 departments, including Prime Minister & Cabinet and Treasury. They will be advised by an expert committee and a committee representing the major public research agencies.

It’s a big tent but they are all inside it, and Chubb told the National Press Club in May that he expects them to be busy: “I don’t expect this to make no change. I am not an incrementalist by nature.”

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