Who or what is a Chief Scientist?

Australia’s Chief Scientist, Penny Sackett, has made news recently by abruptly leaving her post. Last week marked her last days in the role, and her departure leaves the position vacant. However not many people realise that Australia has a Chief Scientist, and even less understand what role the Chief Scientist plays.


The Chief Scientist of Australia

Australia has had a Chief Scientist since 1989 when Ralph Slatyer, an ecologist, was appointed to the position. He was succeeded in 1992 by biologist Michael Pitman, with both men serving the role full-time and accountable to the Department of the Prime Minister. Being accountable to the Department of the Prime Minister allowed both men to provide input across multiple portfolios, however in 1996 the position was moved to become part of the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Technology (DIISR) and reduced to a part-time position. John Stocker, an immunologist from the CSIRO was appointed at this time, followed by Robin Batterham, then Jim Peacock. Astronomer Penny Sackett was appointed in 2008 when the role returned to a full-time position.

The main role of the Chief Scientist is to act as an advisor to the government on scientific and technology issues. In addition to this direct advisory role, the Chief Scientist is also involved in numerous committees, for example the Research Quality Framework, the National Research Priority Standing Committee and the Australian Climate Change Science Framework Coordination Group, amongst many others. The Office of the Chief Scientist also provides the secretarial service to the Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Innovation Council, and the Chief Scientist him or herself holds the position as Executive Officer of that group. Through this group the Chief Scientist can greatly influence future policy decisions, in addition to their direct advisory role to the Prime Minister. For example, the Square Kilometre Array, effectively a giant telescope, was one instance when this council convinced policy makers to become involved in this international project.


The changing of the role from full-time to part-time and back to full-time, and also the move of the role from the Department of the Prime Minister to DIISR has slightly changed the effectiveness of the Chief Scientist. Positioning the Chief Scientist in DIISR potentially restricts their ability to provide input across portfolios and the advice they can provide to government, while the change in time commitments may also restrict their abilities. Whereas a full-time role allows the position-holder to concentrate solely on the role, a part-time position may allow them to keep a foot in the field and remain current in the research occurring. According to Anna-Maria Arabia from the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies and a former political advisor “I think each of those issues in terms of the terms of engagement, accountability and where the Chief Scientist and his or her office sits are all useful in determining the input that a person holding that position can have.”


Thomas Barlow, a former government advisor and a renowned corporate strategist agrees that the changes to the role have affected the abilities of the Chief Scientist. “If I had to choose between a part-time and a full-time position, I would tend to lean towards a part-time position.” He points to the need for the Chief Scientist to remain a practising scientist to retain credibility in the scientific community and not being perceived as a part of the government bureaucracy, and that with a full-time Chief Scientist “you end up with a Chief Scientist who, to an outsider, becomes seen as a spokesperson for the government, rather than an advisor to the government. And I think within the government, a Chief Scientist in a bureaucratic full-time role is very easily seen as part of the bureaucracy rather than as a part of the constituency… politicians will tend to listen more to their constituents than they do to their bureaucrats.”


International models of the Chief Scientist

It is interesting to compare the Australian model of a Chief Scientist to those found overseas. Where Australia’s Chief Scientist works within in a government department, in the UK, which has had a Chief Scientist since 1964, the Chief Scientist is more like a personal advisor to the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The Chief Scientist also has more public exposure and is one of the government’s most visible experts. In addition to the Chief Scientist, each government department (with the exception of the Treasury) has their own chief scientific advisors which come together as part of the Chief Scientific Advisor’s Committee. This type of model ensures a greater coverage of scientific advice over multiple portfolios, and allows the Chief Scientist to act mainly as an advisor to the PM and Cabinet rather than part of departmental bureaucracy.


The United States model is also based on an advisor working for the President. The Office of Science and Technology was established in 1976, and their main role is to advise the President and his office staff on issues relating to science and technology. A second role is to ensure that policies of government departments are informed by sound science, and that this process is properly coordinated.


It is notable that the role in both the UK and US are both more tightly associated with the head of government than it is in Australia. This potentially gives the position more impact both in advice given to the head of government and also in its ability to advise policy across departments.


Tomorrow, the thoughts of a former Chief Scientist.

Thanks to Anna-Maria Arabia from FASTS and Thomas Barlow from Barlow Advisory

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