Opinion- 29 December 2008

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Is the phoenix rising from or
sinking into the flames?
Hey, Therese, I'm Shrinking Science,
but I don't think  the voters have noticed


 pdf file-available from Australasian Science



While the US President elect, Barack Obama, is assembling a science advisory cohort for his executive branch  of unprecedented credentials, Kevin Rudd in his thirteen months as Australian Prime Minister has quietly relegated science to the edge of the event horizon. Of course what use Mr Obama puts to his brains trust remains to be seen.


Locally, it is significant that the appointment of the nation's Chief Scientist, Professor Penny Sackett is to remain with the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research rather than being elevated to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet where the position would be comparable to that of Britain's Chief Science Advisor and the US President's Science Advisor.


Professor Sackett took up her position at the beginning of November this year.   A depressing indication of the role she is to play is suggested by the five media releases that her office has put out. They are in fact the perfunctory speeches she has made to various groups and which contain no hint, let alone indications, of any major science policy initiatives.


30 Sep 08 First Speech as Chief Scientist (12 kb PDF)

11 Nov 08 Official Launch of the National Youth Science Forum (15 kb PDF)

12 Nov 08 Address to the China-Australia Remote Sensing Symposium (19kb PDF)

24 Nov 08 Opening address to Forum for European-Australian Science and Technology (19 kb PDF)

5 Dec 2008 Why Physics is Important to Australia (29 kb PDF)


So far the Chief Scientist's website gives the impression of being preoccupied with aesthetic appeal rather than occupied with disseminating useful information.


One claim made by Professor Sackett when she accepted the chief scientist's position is that she: "work[s] very closely with the Prime Minister in my roles as Executive Officer to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council [PMSEIC]".


Since Mr Rudd assumed the prime ministership PMSEIC has met twice. On April 23, 2008 and more recently on October 9, 2008, i.e. shortly before Professor Sackett became Chief Scientist for Australia. It is Professor Sackett who has emphasised that she is "Chief Scientist for Australia" rather than of Australia. Perhaps the next months will indicate to the Australian population just how seriously she takes the distinction between the prepositions.


But to turn now to Mr Rudd's relationship to PMSEIC.  The day after the April meeting TFW reported:


The Prime Minister affirmed the Government's commitment to science and innovation by chairing the first meeting of the Prime Ministerís Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) of the Rudd Government.


The Prime Minister said:


"Innovation, science and research are central to advancing our agenda for a globally competitive Australia Ė they are not a marginal interest but a key force in driving our economy.


"I presented council members with a number of challenges and asked for their best advice on:


"PMSEIC is a critical part of the Government's agenda to bring together the best and brightest from across Australian society, to formulate evidence-based solutions to key problems and drive economic and social change."


So what came to pass at the October 9th meeting of PMSEIC? Below is the media release from the Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research in its entirety:


The nineteenth meeting of the Prime Ministerís Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC) was held on 9 October 2008 at Parliament House. The meeting was chaired by the Prime Minister and focused on PMSEIC non-Ministerial member views on the report on the Review of the National Innovation System Venturous Australia - building strength in innovation around four key areas:

  • People, skills and resources for innovation;
  • Innovation priorities, collaboration and public sector innovation;
  • Market-facing innovation; and
  • Governance. 

The Prime Minister welcomed member views on these issues. 

The meeting also provided an opportunity for Ministers to report back on the Government's progress in implementing the recommendations from the PMSEIC Working Group reports which were considered at the 23 April 2008 meeting. The Minister for Health and Ageing, the Hon Nicola Roxon MP reported back on the report Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health focusing on Maternal, Fetal and Post-natal Health (PDF - 1.15 MB). The Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator the Hon Kim Carr, reported back on the report Science and Technology-led Innovation in Services for Australian Industries (PDF - 882 KB).


Well, does Professor Sackett take up Mr Rudd's April challenges in the broadest sense and turn the post of Chief Scientist for Australia into a meaningful and powerful position - but more to the point has Mr Rudd any real interest in having her do so, or were his challenges just political hyperbolic utterances which can now be ignored using the global financial deleveraging as an escape clause.


On the other hand from a political perspective does it even matter?



Alex Reisner

The Funneled Web