Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Chief Scientist’s Bid to Fill the Void

By Simon Grose

The Chief Scientist could take on greater responsibilities if the government accepts his plan.

It took a while for Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, to get to meet Prime Minister Tony Abbott. After being elected in early September and upsetting scientific circles by not appointing a stand-alone Science Minister, the new PM might have brought forward a meeting with the Chief Scientist and made sure that pictures of them smiling together were flicked out and about.

Maybe this would have happened under the hyper-responsive previous Labor regime, but things have changed.

That they sat down together in December only came to light when Chubb answered a question after addressing Science Meets Parliament delegates at the National Press Club in March.

They had “an hour or so, 45 minutes,” and no, he hadn’t given the PM any advice on climate science because he didn’t ask.

Chubb would later tell Australasian Science that the PM was “up to speed” on his plans to reorganise scientific advisory structures that support policy-makers.

The absence of a Science Minister creates a space that the Office of the Chief Scientist can fill, and Chubb just happens to have a process underway to do the job. As mentioned here in December, he has convened an Australian Research Committee drawn from senior levels of all departments, research agencies and peak bodies. “We have been turning what we believe to be a strategy into what we will call an action plan,” he said.

At its most basic level this would aim to coordinate advice to government and link research-related activities to reduce duplication. At its highest level it would aim to relieve politicians of tough decisions about research funding.

Chubb surmises that a government trying to decide between buying a new icebreaker for the Antarctic Division, another tranche of funding for the SKA telescope or a big machine for fundamental physicists would be grateful for a central source of guidance from the research sector.

“That is a role the Chief Scientist can play,” he said. “It doesn't lock politicians into the outcome but it can actually do a lot to bring the various departments and agencies closer together.

“I think that the Chief Scientist is in a position to be able to do that, because I'm independent from the other processes.”

Bold ambition that, gathering together scientists competing for government money and getting them to agree to form a queue rather than pitching their own bids. It would require a robust process and a collegial culture across disciplines and institutions, neither of which can be taken for granted.

It would also require the Chief Scientist to be given more resources, be respected by the nation’s scientists, and able to wield the skills of a politician.

Having a skin of bio-carbon fibre would also help. Perhaps that should be an early research priority.

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