Viewpoint - 19 May 2011

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Professor Robert May

Peter Pockley* Reports on
Divergent Views on the Post of  Chief Scientist

 
Professor Ian Chubb

 

pdf file-available from Australasian Science

 

Following the announcement of Professor Ian Chubb as the Federal Government's new Chief Scientist, several questions about the roles and lines of responsibility remained unanswered in public. Ten queries were filed with the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator  Kim Carr, but before answers were received, former UK government Chief Scientist, Lord Robert May gave his views during the Annual Meeting of the Australian Academy of Science. He has the credentials to know his stuff and the confidence to express his views forthrightly. As we see here, he diverges in significant respects from the Gillard government's prescription for its latest Chief Scientist, in particular the formal lines of responsibility.

 

Lord May of Oxford, OM, AC, FRS, FAA is, arguably, Australia's most distinguished expatriate scientist with an outstanding record for his research and academic and public appointments. He has won several  international prizes. Initially a PhD and Professor in physics in the University of Sydney, he transferred research interests to biology as Professor in Princeton University, USA. He then moved to a Royal Society Research Professorship in the Zoology Department in the University of Oxford and Imperial College. He was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government 1995-2000 and then was elected President of The Royal Society of London 2000-2005.

 

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Lord Robert May

    Australian Academy of Science Annual Dinner, Canberra, 5 May 2011

 

The only advice I have about having more influence with government is: "You have to be lucky". The things that have happened in Britain are by and large good, not necessarily a reflection on the skills of The Royal Society or others [which] have been just good luck. In the general election of 1993 one of the Labour Party manifestos -- which had been influenced by a very interesting eminence grise in the Party, Jeremy Bray -- was to create an Office of Science and Technology and to bring in the sort-of casual Chief Scientist ad hoc one or two days a week - the sort of thing that we've had here in Australia - but to make it a Permanent Secretary -- one of the Sir Humphreys -- and create a formal  Office of Science and Technology and give it a decent staff. He lost the election but William Waldegrave of the Conservative Party, a Treasury Secretary, convinced [Prime Minister] John Major that the manifesto of the Labour Party ought to be implemented.

 

That is the origin of how I came first to be Chief Scientist [full-time] and I've had two successors. As a Permanent Secretary one meets with all the other senior civil servants on Wednesday mornings. One has direct access to the Prime Minister. Until recently, by some anomaly, the Budget Sub-Committee of Cabinet met with each of the Secretaries of State to discuss their budget and the Chief Scientist to discuss the overall research funding, not just the Research Councils but research everywhere. That particular favour has disappeared but the current Chief Scientist [Sir] John Beddington has in its place the responsibility that, in the current negotiations with the coalition government, any department that seeks to make cuts in its research budget (this is distinct from the overall research budget which is already agreed to be ring-fenced), John Beddington must be involved and if he feels upset about it, then he has access to the Prime Minister and he has an adequate staff to do this, quite a lot of people, good people.

 

That is a contrast, I think, to the situation that, at least until very recently, has prevailed here where it has been a part-time thing as it was in Britain for many years after the War. The Royal Society has, indeed at the same time it should be said, been very active. The Royal Society, like most  learned societies has had, for many years, a  habit of producing studies about this, that and the other thing. They are always very good but, until recently, they didn't have much impact and interestingly, the Fellowship on the whole fell into two classes - those who were worried that we had little impact and those who didn't even notice that they had little impact. Whereas now we have a system when government has asked us and we do it on our terms, we ask from the beginning why are we doing it and what is the intended impact and how do we engage the impactees as we begin.

 

Like all things in life that have luck it requires the need to take advantage of it. The Royal Society has a very aggressive Press Office. There are many Fellows in the Society who feel this is an improper and rather vulgar activity getting engaged sometimes controversially with the government.

 

It was a problem when we had an activity we wanted to do with the US National Academy of Sciences. They have a much more difficult position. They have what I consider a huge big bloated staff of about 1,300 people who produce a report that nobody takes notice of, roughly once a day. These people depend on a steady flow of government money. So, if you're the President of the US National Academy of Sciences  you've got all these people dependent on you and telling you not to say mean things about George Bush and you know what will happen if you do. One of the cautions is that you don't put yourself in such a position that you're dependent on the money that you can't exercise that independent voice - and that's much easier said than done.

 

I think this conference  [at the Academy on population policy] is a really important thing for Australia. I don't think Australia's record on climate change is particularly brilliant at this point. A lot of this is luck.

 

Transcribed from recording courtesy of ABC's "The Science Show".

 

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 Exclusive

 

Senator Kim Carr (KC), Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science & Research

 

   Responses to questions from Peter Pockley (PP), received 13 May 2011

 

  1. PP: Given that it was a joint announcement between the PM and Minister Carr, will this Chief Scientist have a direct line of responsibility and communication with the PM as well as the Minister.
     

    KC: The Chief Scientist reports directly to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research but operates on a whole of government basis. He is required to provide advice, as requested, on science, engineering and innovation issues to the Prime Minister, the portfolio Minister and other areas of government.

         This advice may take the form of direct briefings to Minister Carr, the Prime Minister and or other Ministers as the situation requires. It will also be provided through the Chief Scientist's participation in a number of government advisory committees including the Prime Minister's Science Engineering and Innovation Council.

         The Chief Scientist does not formally commence in his role until 23 May, so some of the details in relation to both these avenues of communication - direct briefings and via advisory committees - have yet to be fully determined.


  2. PP: If there is a direct relationship with the PM, where will the Chief Scientist office be located administratively?

    KC:  As noted in the response to question 1, the Chief Scientist reports directly to the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research but he operates on a whole of government basis. Consistent with this arrangement, the Office of the Chief Scientist will be located within the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research.


  3. PP: If there is a formal list of duties, please copy it.

    KC: The duties of the Chief Scientist will include:
     

  4.      a. Providing advice, as requested, to the Prime Minister, the portfolio Minister and other relevant Australian Government Ministers on science, engineering and innovation issues;

         b. Drawing to the portfolio Minister's attention emerging issues and opportunities in science, engineering and innovation that may affect national well-being or require attention by the Government;

         c. Occupying the role of Executive Officer to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (or such equivalent position in any successor to the Council);

         d. Acting as an advocate for science, promoting science education skills development, and career information in schools, vocational and higher education institutions, engaging students and researchers of all levels (e.g. primary, secondary, tertiary, undergraduate and post-graduate) in science and broadening awareness of the types and variety of careers available through participation in education initiatives;

         e. As requested by the portfolio Minister, participating in government advisory and/or other bodies in an ex officio capacity;

         f. Fostering close and effective working relationships between the Government and organisations involved in science, engineering, and innovation;

         g. Providing advice, participating in public discussions and stimulating informed community debate within the wider community on science, engineering and innovation related matters;

         h. Supporting Government action to strengthen Australia's scientific profile internationally.


     

  5.  PP: What guidelines if any are in place for ensuring and protecting the independence of the CS in publishing reports and advice?

    KC: There are no guidelines in place regarding the publication of the Chief Scientist's reports and advice.


  6. PP: Will the CS have formal involvement with Departments other than PM's and DIISR with regard to scientific aspects of their responsibilities? i.e will the post have a whole-of-government purview?

    KC:  As noted earlier, the Chief Scientist will operate on a whole of government basis.


  7. PP: How broadly is science defined in respect to the Chief Scientists scope? In particular will this include the social sciences and humanities? If not, how will those research disciplines be incorporated?

    KC: Science is defined broadly in recognition of the important contribution the social sciences and humanities make to driving the community's understanding and take-up of scientific research findings.


  8. PP: To what extent is this appointment full time or part time?

    KC: Professor Chubb's appointment as Chief Scientist is full time.


  9. PP: What is the salary for the post and budget for the office?

    KC: The salary for the post is commensurate with the duties of the position and is determined by the Remuneration Tribunal. The budget for the Office for the current financial year was $2.3 million. A comparable budget is envisaged for the next financial year.


  10. PP: Is Professor Chubb being charged with any particular lines of inquiry and advice as his early priorities?

    KC: Professor Chubb will officially commence in his role as Chief Scientist on 23 May. Professor Chubb and the Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research will discuss priorities after he commences.


  11. PP: Before he takes office on 23rd May where can I best communicate with him? via the office of the chief scientist?

    KC: All queries should be forwarded to Chief.Scientist@chiefscientist.gov.au

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*Dr Peter Pockley is a noted science writer and broadcaster who in 2010 was awarded the Australian Academy of Science Medal for contributions to Australian science other than through research.