Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

No, Prime Minister

By Simon Grose

Almost three decades of high-level engagement between the government and the research sector has reached a dead end.

The Prime Minister’s Science Council was initiated in the 1980s by Bob Hawke and his Science Minister, Barry Jones, to bring together the top levels of the government and the research sector. It included Ministers with a research component in their portfolios while the research sector was represented by the heads of institutions and funding bodies (e.g. CSIRO, NHMRC, ARC, ANSTO) plus the presidents of the Academies.

It would meet around three times a year in the Cabinet Room and Hawke was pretty good at attending. Paul Keating was less interested as PM but the body was kept alive.

Under John Howard it grew to eventually become the Prime Minister’s Science Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC). Insiders now look back on that period as a high point. “PMSEIC worked fine under Howard, he never missed a meeting so Ministers all came,” one recalls. “Rudd never came so it fell in a hole.”

Prime Minister Julia Gillard was more likely to appear for a short while and then slip away to deal with whatever turmoil was brewing on the day.

Under Tony Abbott the concept has died. He never convened a meeting of PMSEIC and in October he and Minister Ian Macfarlane, who has responsibility for science, announced that it would be replaced by the Commonwealth Science Council. It would meet twice a year with the PM chairing one of those meetings.

The Ministers for Industry, Education and Health are members, along with the Chief Scientist, but the heads of research institutions and academies are no longer at the table. Five scientists with no business track record and five business people with a science background make up the numbers.

“We put together what we believe is the best mix of brains between the science fraternity and the business fraternity,” Macfarlane told the National Press Club.

The five professors are Queensland University’s Ian Frazer (immunology), the Australian National University’s Brian Schmidt (astrophysics), the University of WA’s Timothy Davis (diabetes), Sydney University’s Nalina Joshi (mathematics) and Adelaide University’s Tanya Monro (photonics).

The five business people are Ken Boal (Cisco), Michael Chaney (Woodside, NAB), Jackie Fairley (Starpharma), David Knox (Santos) and Catherine Livingstone (Telstra, Business Council, and formerly CSIRO).

What are they expected to do? The PM and Macfarlane had one sentence on that: “The Science Council will advise the Government on areas of national strength, current and future capability and on ways to improve connections between Government, research organisations, universities and business.”

Yawn. This is no bright, focused task force with an ambitious agenda, it’s a gap filler. Meetings will start at 10 am and after a polite lunch they will all head off to pick up other threads in their busy lives.

The most significant effort the government has made so far – the Budget – was conspicuous for its lack of creativity and political dexterity. The Commonwealth Science Council is just as dumb.

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