The position of Chief Scientist was created in 1989 by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and to date has been occupied by six eminent scientists. The most recent, Professor Penny Sackett, is the first woman to have held the position and the first to hold it full-time. The former head of the ANU’s Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, Prof Sackett was appointed to succeed CSIRO’s Dr Jim Peacock by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in November 2008. In accepting the appointment, she said:
In conversations I have had with the Minister [for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, Senator Kim Carr] and with the Prime Minister [Kevin Rudd], I’m confident that we have the same understanding about the necessity for independent advice… the Chief Scientist must be a strong and continuous advocate of evidence-based decision making.
That was pretty much the last time she had a conversation with Kevin Rudd, who spent much of the next year telling the people that climate change was the ‘greatest moral challenge’ of our time and that he would save the planet at the Climate Change Summit (COP15) in Copenhagen with his ETS. His failure to do so ultimately cost him the prime ministership when the people deserted him in droves and his own party followed quickly thereafter.
His successor, current Prime Minister Julia Gillard, has now occupied the big office with the flag in the corner and the courtyard out the back for eight months and has not called on her Chief Scientist once. Not a single time has Ms Gillard picked up the batphone and said, “Penny, I need some advice on climate change and what to tell the people seeing as how Kev’s dithering about morals clearly got right up their noses.” It’s not like the PM is a climate scientist and I’m guessing she has a lot to read already without having to digest the contents of scientific journals as well. That is, after all, why she has a Chief Scientist, no?
So Professor Sackett, internationally renowned rocket scientist, chair of several leading scientific committees and advisory bodies, extensively published and with immediate access to some of the biggest brains on the planet occupied the position of the Government’s chief advisor on all matters scientific for over two years and only once met with a PM.
Last Friday Professor Sackett tendered her resignation from the position giving two week’s notice and citing personal and professional reasons. Appearing before Senate Estimates on Wednesday, however, she let the government have it with both barrels. There were no clear boundaries or definitions of the role, and no indication as to where science and public policy should interact. Professor Sackett was also concerned that the climate change debate had been hijacked by “the distractions of politics”. Sackett called for a clearer line between science and policy so as to reduce the confusion of the message that is getting to the public:
Scientists of all sorts, in all countries are telling us the same thing [about climate change] and that is a message that I am greatly concerned is not reaching the general public at a level that engages them and enables them to answer the questions that they have.
The climate change debate is being dominated by ideology, by bickering over details of specific policy measures and by denialists, such as Cardinal George Pell, continually stepping into a debate about which they are fundamentally ignorant. Meanwhile, the Office of the Chief Scientist is gathering cobwebs.
If the government is going to appoint seriously high level people to advise it on matters beyond its collective comprehension, the least it can do is to call on those people for advice. The role of Chief Scientist was created to enable the government to base policy decisions on the most recent research from the best people in the respective fields. Not just climate change, but everything from the siting of toxic waste dumps to the conservation of species of flora; from feral pest control to funding research on GMOs.
While Kevin Rudd was waffling on about moral challenges, the science of climate change could have been used by government to press their case for action, get the opposition into line and develop strong policies for addressing emissions and meeting our international obligations. The fact that the Gillard government has moved on a carbon tax without once referring to the Chief Scientist for advice and how best to communicate the whole climate change issue is simply unbelievable.
I, for one, would welcome a more scientifically-oriented approach to climate change. That would remove it from the hands of the moralising deniers, the economic rationalists and the politics of short-term thinking.