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Simon Says

Simon Says column

Science Council’s Renovation Rescue

By Simon Grose

Remodelling the edifice that delivers science advice to the highest level of government seems to be an interactive work in progress.

Last month this column deprecated the advent of the Commonwealth Science Council as a poor replacement for the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. That opinion was written after Minister Ian Macfarlane, in response to our question at the National Press Club, said that the new council would have a “second tier” that would have “direct access to the Science Council and also to the Prime Minister”.

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.

On Feeling Precious

By Simon Grose

The Minister responsible for Science has described scientists as “precious petals”. Crunch the numbers and he may be right.

It’s a given that Australian scientists are intelligent and well-educated, but that doesn’t protect them from being sensitive and insecure.

The Federal Minister with responsibility for Science, Ian Macfarlane, dobbed them in September when he told a business gathering in Brisbane that he was fed up with “some of the precious petals in the science fraternity” who couldn’t get over not having their own Minister.

Of Hobbits and Hoodies

By Simon Grose

The main critic of the view that a now-extinct human species inhabited the island of Flores has a good record for media coverage but not so good for scientific judgements that bear scrutiny.

The work of Prof Maciej Henneberg recently made the news on two different fronts.

Adelaide University’s Wood Jones Professor of Anthropological and Comparative Anatomy first gained media exposure with his latest tilt at the mainstream view that “hobbit” people who inhabited the Indonesian island of Flores up to around 18,000 years ago constituted a species – Homo floresiensis – distinct from Homo sapiens.

Weird Scenes Outside the Coal Mine

By Simon Grose

The MH17 disaster and the carbon price debate tossed up some surreal juxtapositions.

Ukrainian coal miners were among the first responders to the crash site of Flight MH17. Like slaves redeemed from a netherworld, in coal-dusty charcoal grey clothes they sullenly stalked through sun-drenched grainfields and rows of towering sunflowers.

Their usual work takes them as deep as 1.2 km underground to follow coal seams in grimy gloom, wary of death on every shift. Suddenly they had a day or two in the fresh air to search for people who death had claimed about 10 km above in the bright summer sky.

Driving with Clive

By Simon Grose

Science could be promoted to the front row of the political agenda by advising the under-resourced Senators who hold the balance of power.

In this column last November I lamented the lack of a science runner in the microparty preference-swapping stakes at the last election. Instead of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party, the Australians for Intelligent Government (I give AFIG) Party could have won a pivotal share of the balance of power in the Senate.

Knowingly Diving into the Unknown

By Simon Grose

Advancing autonomous vessel technologies are revolutionising underwater search – and warfare.

The search for Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 provided a glimpse over the side into the deep pool of underwater detection.

It began with ships trawling sound receptors below the thermocline layer – the layer warmed by solar energy – which reflects sound. After several detections of pings, a Bluefin autonomous underwater vehicle supplied by the US Navy began searching a targeted section of ocean floor of about 2000 km2.

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.

Two Drought Policies

By Simon Grose

How you cope with long dry spells depends a lot on your place in the evolutionary tree.

If you were one of those outback frogs that spend droughts underground in a self-induced coma you might have been lured to the surface in February when the first real rain for almost 18 months fell on western NSW and Queensland.

You would probably have been spawned almost 2 years earlier when that part of the world was in flood. Those were La Niña days, so La Niña that in April 2012 the then-Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig declared that the whole continent was officially drought-free for the first time in more than a decade.

Curriculum Wars

By Simon Grose

The troubled saga of the national school curriculum has more turmoil ahead, and perhaps an unhappy ending.

You’d have to be wondering if the national school curriculum is worth all the strife.

The main justification for the urge to merge state and territory curricula into a national menu for creating optimal 21st century Australians was the changeover trauma experienced by an estimated 80,000 school students who move interstate each year.