Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Engineer in Charge

By Simon Grose

Redefining pepper and implanting STEM cells are on the agenda of the new Parliamentary Secretary for Industry and Science.

Thirty years ago, as a mechanical engineer beginning her career in a power station in Gladstone, Karen Andrews had no inkling that the lack of a commercial pepper industry in Australia would be an issue for her. But with country-of-origin food labelling now one of her portfolio responsibilities, it means a swag of locally made processed food cannot be properly labelled “100% Australian”.

With a maximum 18 months until the next election, she expects it will take that long to implement a labelling system. Her portfolio minister, fellow Queenslander Ian Macfarlane, and ministers Barnaby Joyce (Agriculture) Andrew Robb (Trade), Bruce Billson (Small Business) and Fiona Nash (Health) also have seats at the food labelling table.

“It’s going to be a very difficult issue for us to resolve, not the least with our trade obligations and whether what we might be requiring importers to do might be a restriction of trade,” she told Australasian Science.

Food labelling is the most politically challenging of the grab-bag of responsibilities Macfarlane has delegated to her since she was appointed 2 days before Christmas – the SKA Telescope, the Anti-Dumping Commission, IP Australia, Questacon, the Institute of Marine Science, the National Measurement Institute, the Australia–India Strategic Research Fund and the Australia China Science and Research Fund, building codes policy, and implementing the government’s response to the Chief Scientist’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) report.

The last item on that list is the one she is most energised about. Her own interest in maths and science in her Townsville schooldays was endogenous – not stoked by parents or a teacher. When she matriculated, boys with her qualifications were advised to go into engineering while she was advised to become a maths teacher. She checked out engineering and she decided that was for her.

How to stir the same interest in the school students of today? Get ‘em young. She believes that STEM cells have to be planted in Years 5–8 when children are getting a grip on who they are and have expanding interests. It’s also a period when parents are most engaged. Andrews says she wants parents to show the same interest in their children’s STEM achievements as they commonly do in sport or art.

Becoming a Parliamentary Secretary less than 5 years after becoming an MP is a worthy achievement that many of her colleagues would envy. Based on her first speech to the Parliament in October 2010, she will bring a deliberate approach to her task: “As an engineer, I understand… the importance of meeting realistic timelines… the need to maintain a sound theoretical approach… and enable the introduction of new technology and to balance the issues of costs, benefits, safety and quality”.

Pepper, prepare to be ground down to fit the label.

Simon Grose is Editor of Canberra IQ (canberraiq.com.au)