Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Meet Our New Chief Scientist

By Stephen Luntz

Professor Ian Chubb says he expects to do his best work behind closed doors, but he has already made a significant mark on the public debate about science.

Australia’s new Chief Scientist, Prof Ian Chubb, has made his presence felt quickly, already attracting a higher profile than many of his predecessors.

Chubb is not a new figure on the national stage, having been Vice-Chancellor of first Flinders University and then the Australian National University after a distinguished career as a neuroscientist. He had already been named the ACT’s Australian of the Year for 2011 when his appointment was announced in April.

Chubb’s appointment coincided with publicity arising from death threats to climate scientists, and he admits that a member of his staff received an abusive phone call after he spoke publically about climate change. While some have described the public discourse on climate change as a “war on science”, Chubb says: “I wouldn’t go that far. Whereas once science was regarded as a great way forward, now that is questioned more often.

“Not every aspect of what science has done for the world has been to humankind’s benefit, although the net balance has been,” Chubb argues, and this has undermined science’s prestige. He also believes that “most scientists are ethical people, doing what they do to advance knowledge or improve the lot of humankind”. However, the prominence of the small number of exceptions has been used to damage science more broadly.

Moreover, the internet has meant that “people don’t have to own their opinions,” making anonymous attacks potent. “Some people don’t care if they are right. They just want to throw mud to make an opposition opinion be thought dubious.

“Over my years as Vice Chancellor I saw when academics have spoken up they’ve often been abused,” Chubb says. “However, this has reached a new low on climate change.”

Chubb is keen to make clear he is not just a spokesperson for the dominant scientific view. “If you have a good argument based on good science you should have every expectation of being given a fair run, even if it is a minority position. However, I don’t like those who misrepresent scientists, who take parts of sentences or data to make people think someone is not worth listening to.”

Chubb has said he is “not the chief climate change scientist,” but the issue has dominated his first few months in office, and there seems no likelihood of change. Whether he is getting through to the general public remains to be seen. When a piece by Chubb titled “Beyond Reasonable Doubt: Respecting the Science” was posted on The Drum (abc.net.au/unleashed/2777942.html), roughly half of the 392 comments claimed either that there was no evidence that human activities contributed to global warming or alleged that scientists had made all such evidence up to suit some unspecified political goals.

Chubb says that science literacy is a priority. He has expressed concern that school students are taught the processes of science as well as a series of facts. “Scientists test hypotheses; they critique their results and observations; they put them out for the peers to critique them; they go back and do it again to replicate or change or do all the things that we know about science and how it works,” he told The Conversation. “I think it’s important that there’s a higher level of that understanding in the community.”

Chubb believes that the lack of understanding of uncertainty in science has undermined the community’s capacity to come to grips with discussion about such hot topics as vaccines and climate change.

While Chubb says that he’ll “certainly be speaking about” this topic, he was non-committal as to his role in changing the school curriculum. However, he definitely hopes to challenge the situation where “different opinions amongst scientists are presented as a rift. There’s no understanding that when we have better evidence we change the ways we think.”

Representing the whole field of science is a challenge that few people have to deal with. “The depths you have to have your head around a topic is the question,” Chubb says. “The primary part of the job is to talk for and about science, not claiming expertise. Nevertheless there are parts of science one can’t avoid commenting about, for example climate change, and one has to have a view.

“You can never have the expertise of someone who has been working in the field for 35 or even 15 years,” Chubb adds. “So it is a question of representing your view and acknowledging others who know more, including recommending who people should speak to about a topic.”

Chubb says he has set about establishing a network of experts he can call on for assistance in fields other than his own. While no formal structure exists, he thinks that all his predecessors would have done something similar.

As Chubb notes, the fields in which an astronomer, such as his predecessor Prof Penny Sackett, most needed support are different from those that a neuroscientist might identify as priorities. Nevertheless, those with experience providing specialist advice to past chief scientists might have a particularly valuable role to play. However, Chubb is not aware of any process of names being passed on from one Chief Scientist to another.

The Discoveries Need Dollars campaign, which was launched to save National Health and Medical Research grants from funding cuts, also coincided with Chubb’s appointment. Australian science has never seen a grassroots campaign like this before, with a blizzard of social and mainstream media culminating in marches of thousands of scientists in every Australian capital.

It remains to be seen whether this was a one off or if the face of scientific lobbying has now changed. If it happens again, Chubb says: “I won’t lead the march,” before joking, “well, maybe on my last day in the job”. He thinks that “the best work I do is behind closed doors. People didn’t appoint me to pick up a megaphone.”

However, Chubb says that “part of this job is to be aware of what people are thinking. Had I been in this position at the time, colleagues would certainly have got onto me about the cuts. They would expect me to be supporting them. My role is to know what the pressure points are, advise on what actions people might take. Some people’s only access is through the grassroots, but I have other options.”