Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

A Pioneer of Science Journalism

Peter Pockley

Peter Pockley (pointing upwards) during preparations at CSIRO's Parkes radio­telescope for the “Our World” global telecast in 1967 – the first global television broadcast. Source: CSIRO

By Guy Nolch

Guy Nolch pays tribute to long-time columnist Peter Pockley, who was Australia's longest-serving science journalist.

I was merely a trainee editor with the predecessor of Australasian Science, the ANZAAS journal Search, when I first encountered Dr Peter Pockley. It was the early 1990s and he was trying to file his story from Sydney using new and revolutionary technology: the modem.

Email wasn’t available to the public back then, and he’d previously faxed his copy for the receptionist to type. The fabulous modem would save this duplication of keystrokes as the deadline approached.

But our modems were talking different languages. They wouldn’t connect, and I had a frustrated Peter fretting over the cost of the STD calls he was making while we tried to solve the technical problem. His voice was deep and authoritative, and by comparison I felt like I was back at school fronting the headmaster. I was intimidated!

Little did I realise that I’d just found a mentor who would guide me over the next two decades.

I can understand why some who crossed swords with Peter have described him as “prickly”, but when I first met him at an ANZAAS Congress I found him genuinely warm and encouraging.

Much of the demeanour that others may have bristled at stemmed from the type of science writing Peter had come to specialise in, and the gravitas in his voice.

For while Peter was a pioneer of science journalism in Australia, being the first scientist to work full-time as a science reporter and producer here, he was not specialising in the science stories that strike the audience with awe and wonder. He was not destined to be a David Attenborough, Brian Cox or Karl Kruzselnicki.

Peter may have made his name broadcasting the Apollo missions for the ABC, but it would be the cut and thrust of politics, and the support (or otherwise) for science in Parliament, where Peter made his mark.

Peter wrote mostly about science policy in the two decades we worked together. He was tough, uncompromising, tenacious and thorough, with his weakness being to try to cram in so many facts, quotes, explainers and asides that a strong edit was needed to ensure that his reporting and insightful analysis of events didn’t get lost in a thicket of details.

This relentless pursuit of the complete story led to some very late nights. Each deadline usually meant that his story or column would be filed a minute before midnight – and often later. Hence his column, Pockley’s Razor, was always the last squeezed into each issue, and I’d be finishing up at 2 am. Yet we never missed a deadline.

Peter was passionate about science, its communication, and its standing in Australia. He covered governments from both sides of politics, but unfortunately we saw support for science by each government decline from lip service to not even that.

No longer did the Prime Minister attend the PM’s Science and Engineering Council. Eventually PMSEC stopped meeting altogether.

No longer was science mentioned in the Budget speech each year, and even the Science and Technology Budget Statement disappeared so that science’s funding allocations became buried haphazardly among various other Budget papers. No longer was it worth Peter sitting through the day-long Budget lock-up to try to tease out the S&T figures.

None of this was sexy science, but someone had to sink their teeth into it and howl into the wind in the hope that the public would hear and demand action.

Probably the biggest noise Peter made was in holding CSIRO’s management to account last decade. A new broom was sweeping through the organisation, turning its priorities to contract research as the government of the day put the squeeze on CSIRO funding and required it to increase its revenue from the private sector. Pockley rallied against the organisational restructure that saw lab coats replaced by suits as senior scientists were squeezed out in favour of business managers.

One “suit” in particular seized Peter’s attention: the appointment of tobacco lobbyist Donna Staunton as CSIRO’s Director of Communications. Here was someone who had denied that nicotine was addictive launching CSIRO’s Preventative Health Flagship! Here was someone in charge of CSIRO’s public communication placing gags on its scientists – and eventually blackballing Australasian Science because Peter was “asking too many questions”!

Staunton’s appointment was like a red rag to a bull, and Peter’s commitment to the story persisted long after Staunton and those who appointed her had departed CSIRO.

In fact, his final published work was a three-part online blog for Australasian Science in May 2013 with journalist Stewart Fist using Freedom of Information requests to document the events leading to Staunton’s appointment. The blogs had been inspired by a “warts-and-all” account by CSIRO’s former Deputy Chief, Dr Ron Sandland, and are available at australasianscience.com.au.

Peter maintained that Sandland’s book had overlooked several significant managerial warts. He was keen to correct the record, and did it with customary gusto. It was a spectacular encore from a performer who had never officially left the stage.

While Peter was always up for the good fight, it’s important to remember that he had the best interests of science at heart. And while he was prepared to roll up his sleeves and take on those in positions of power, he was equally happy to mentor the next generation of science writers and broadcasters.

Giving a eulogy at Peter’s funeral, ABC broadcaster Robyn Williams fittingly concluded: “He turned out to be a magnificent mentor, offering the most thoroughgoing training any budding broadcaster could wish for... I’ll always treasure Peter’s steadfastness, his loyalty, his unswerving love of family and friends, his talent and pioneering spirit. It was a brave and significant life.”

Guy Nolch is Editor of Australasian Science. reminiScience was a column based on interviews recorded by Peter Pockley for the National Library of Australia.

An obituary outlining Peter Pockley’s achievements can be found at http://www.australasianscience.com.au/category/magazine-issue/july-and-a...