Published online 5 May 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.266

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Australia's new chief scientist reveals his plans

Higher-education advocate Ian Chubb will take a 'back room' approach to science advice.

ChubbIan Chubb

Neuroscientist Ian Chubb will take up his position as Australia's new chief scientist on 23 May, after astronomer Penny Sackett resigned suddenly earlier this year.

Chubb is seen as being a politically savvy advocate and he expects his most effective work will be from "behind closed doors". He doesn't believe government responds well to people trying to embarrass them into doing something: "I've never known a government to be seriously affected by loud-speaker diplomacy," he says.

Some observers speculated that Sackett resigned halfway through her term because she failed to get the ear of the government — she never met with Julia Gillard in her role as Australia's prime minister, and the former chief scientist was not invited to give advice on greenhouse-gas emission targets before the Copenhagen summit, despite being outspoken about the need to act on climate change. Sackett has denied that her resignation had anything to do with the government's lack of response to her advice on climate change.

Chubb says he has a "good relationship" with Gillard and has met her several times both in her capacity as education minister and Prime Minister. He has an extensive career in university administration, including 10 years as vice-chancellor of the Australian National University in Canberra, and in senior roles in Commonwealth bodies advising on education and science. During this time he worked extensively with politicians and senior officials, and now plans to make the most of those contacts in his new role. "I think my networks are quite different from the ones that Penny brought," says Chubb. "She did it her way, and I'll do it mine."

Science advocate

Chubb says that he will be a proactive lobbyist for science, helping the government and the public to appreciate the role of science in coping with the major challenges facing society. Doing this, he says, should help to insulate science from budget cuts. "If we can get science and its value to the community sufficiently high up the priority list," he says, "the job should be half-made each year before you go into bat for specifics."

Although Chubb intends to help top experts be heard by the government, he cautions that scientists should be careful about giving advice on policy issues. "There is a line that you shouldn't cross," he says. "It might be a bit blurred in places, but I do think government is government and what it does is its business."

They should also avoid getting too personal on issues, he says. In the field of climate change, for example, the public has become confused and science's reputation has been damaged by experts slinging mud at each other rather than debating the science. "Science should be above that sort of thing," he says.

Chubb is also keen that all views on issues such as climate change are given due consideration. "The bulk of the world's scientists think that climate change is occurring at a reasonably rapid pace and that a fair bit of it has been caused by human beings," he says. But it is important to also take notice of people with alternative views. What climate policies the government chooses to pursue, however, is a "political issue" and not a matter for him, he adds.

Healthy science

One of Chubb's first jobs will be to check the "health" of Australian science which includes making sure that the country's universities are producing enough graduates from different disciplines to underpin its current scientific needs and to address future problems. He is not in favour of setting narrow priorities in specific disciplines, however.

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Chubb stresses the importance of research with no direct commercial benefit and of rewarding problem-solving interdisciplinary research.

He says he looks forward to taking advice from the social sciences and humanities too, which are key to "humanizing" science. It is important, he says, to "take communities with you" on controversial issues such as genetic engineering, carbon capture and nuclear energy. Chubb believes it is important to think about how people will respond to particular developments, help them understand the pros and cons and address their concerns about the risks. "To dump them on a society that's unprepared is likely to be unsuccessful," he says.

While being careful not to tell his colleagues in higher education how to do their job, Chubb will continue to pursue his somewhat controversial agenda in higher education. He says he supports a merit-based approach to funding Australia's nearly 40 universities, which run on a mix of government funding, student fees, research contracts and philanthropy. Just a handful of these are included in the top 100 of oft-quoted university rankings. Chubb believes that Australia can afford only a limited group of universities that produce internationally competitive research and expertise. "I think developing talent and positioning Australia in what is a hostile and unpredictable world is a part of my future job as well," he says. 

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  • #61861

    I think we have a bigger problem with innovation rather than just cramming people into STEM careers. Australia's business environment and academic environment has slowly evolved to be increasingly hostile to innovation.

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