Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Chief Questions for Science Advice

By Robin Batterham

It’s time to review how government receives its scientific advice following the resignation of Chief Scientist Penny Sackett.

Governments must look to the wealth of scientific and technological skills available to them to help develop evidence-based policies on important economic and social objectives. These include population strategy, food production, low-carbon energy supplies, water management and national productivity – as well as the implications for risk management and remediation around national emergencies, which often flow from extreme climate events.

The resignation in February of Prof Penny Sackett, the Chief Scientist for Australia, had one upside – it brought into strong national focus the role and function of science and technology in formulating national policy. It also provides an opportunity to review the role of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC).To varying degrees, PMSEIC has epitomised a model that can bring together world-class experts and departmental and ministerial policy-makers on matters of real concern to the government and the people of Australia. Whether PMSEIC and the role of the Chief Scientist continue in the present form – or the opportunity is taken to improve the model – the fundamental point is that all Australians benefit from a functional body that links un­biased, apolitical experts into the powerhouse of policy development.

The US and UK models are worth inspection. The UK model is notable for the fact that the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) has a responsibility across all portfolios, so that government policy and initiatives of any kind are subject to scrutiny from Britain’s “chief scientist” – an important key in a national risk management process that should ensure that the best science and technology is on tap when dealing with national disasters.

That said, the UK system is not perfect. A recent report by the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee was critical of the UK government’s preparedness for dealing with emergencies, saying it is simply not good enough that scientific advice is often only sought after events have struck.

The Committee said that scientific evidence should inform all stages of risk assessment, and recommended that the National Risk Assessment should not be signed off until the GCSA is satisfied that all risks requiring scientific input and judgements have been properly considered. The Committee also repeated calls for the Government Office for Science to be located within the Cabinet Office to reflect its cross-departmental remit and help improve policy processes.

Although this report targeted the role of science and technology advice in risk assessment of emergencies – something that will surely take a higher profile in this country after the Queensland and Victorian floods – it points to a growing concern in the British Parliament about the role of the scientific community in policy development.

Whether or not the current Chief Scientist/PMSEIC model is changed or not, the serious debates we need to have on population, food, energy, water, and natural disasters must be over-arched by an even more important keynote debate about the fundamental key to our future economic well-being.

We need to have the “Great Debate” on productivity. Our choices in life – aged care, education, sporting and leisure options, standards of living, whether we can afford air-conditioning in hot weather etc. – all depend on how our productivity compares with our trading partners.

If the mineral boom lasts forever, who cares what our productivity is? But it won’t – that is the lesson of history.

So when we fall back on our own resources, Australia’s 20-year track record of negligible improvement in productivity is not a good starting point. The Australian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering (ATSE) and the other learned academies want an enlivened debate on the future of Australia – covering all the key issues – and better connection between independent and expert opinion and government.

Professor Robin Batterham is President of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering (ATSE) and a former Chief Scientist.