Thoughts of a former Chief Scientist

John Stocker, previously chairman of the CSIRO and now a private industry scientific advisor, served as Chief Scientist of Australia from 1996 to 1999. He provided his thoughts on the role of the Chief Scientist and the future of the position.


“At the heart of the issue lies the need for the government to make evidence-based policy. And you just have to look at the huge issues facing governments everywhere, and ours in particular at the moment, ranging all the way from decisions on public health, to water use, to energy, to climate issues, to marine eco-systems, vaccination policy, and the role of Australia internationally in big science. We are a small country in population sense, but we punch hugely above our weight in some areas. And they all depend on decision makers having access to the best evidence, and also access to proper debate about the uncertainties that always underpin any evidence.  And so I think the Chief Scientist has a unique role.”


“I think the point that initially the Chief Scientist was administratively within the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet is an important point, and I think the closeness of the Chief Scientist to the Prime Minister, and the likelihood that the Prime Minister is going to say, “Gees, we’ve got an issue here, we need someone to talk to, wheel in the Chief Scientist,” would be greatly facilitated by going back to that model, rather than have the Chief Scientist imbedded in some other bureaucracy.”


John also suggests tailoring the role to the ideal appointee, rather than choosing an appointee who best fits a pre-designed position. “I think to decide up front that anybody who can’t do the job full-time is excluded is a silly decision, and that it may well be under some circumstances beneficial to have someone who is still practicing, active scientist, providing this independent advice to government.  And so I think it forces the course, you choose the best person you can find in the nation who is likely to be able to meet these really, really tough criteria, and then you design the system around that person.”


The Chief Scientist plays a vital role in advising government policy, and, when a new appointee is made they will need to continue this work. While the impact of the Chief Scientist has arguably been diminished recently, governments need to utilise all their resources to make the best informed policy decisions, and the Chief Scientist has, and still does, provide extremely important independent, non-political input into the direction of future government decisions.


Thanks to John Stocker from Foursight Associates.

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