Offering a glimmer of hope for Australia’s embattled scientific community, the nation’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, outlined a national science strategy at a press conference in Canberra today. Among a raft of recommendations, his report calls for creating an Australian Innovation Board to identify priorities that would receive earmarked funding, adding to the rolls of science teachers, adopting a long-term R&D plan, and using science as a tool in Australian diplomacy.
Australian science has suffered a number of setbacks in recent months. In September 2013, Prime Minister Tony Abbott abolished the science ministry, handing much of the science portfolio to Industry Minister Ian MacFarlane. And coping with an AU$115 million budget cut to its 2014 to 2015 budget, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation revealed in May that it would shutter eight research facilities.
In an editorial in Science last week titled “Australia needs a strategy,” Chubb, a neuroscientist by training who has served as chief scientist since May 2011, wrote: “It troubles me that Australia remains the only country among the members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) without a science or technology strategy.” Part of the problem is a sense of complacency over Australia’s perceived scientific prowess. “Whilst we claim to ‘punch above our weight’ in research,” he notes in his new report, “we do not out-perform the countries with an embedded scientific culture that we might aspire to match such as the Western European democracies, Scandinavia or the US and Canada. We can and should aim higher.”
It’s unclear how much of Chubb’s advice will be heeded. In an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Chubb, after expressing disappointment with Australia’s efforts in renewable energy, said: “I'll make my views known and I don't know whether it would carry any particular weight or not, but part of my job I think is to make sure that I do express those views when there is a need.” MacFarlane told The Australian that “I don’t think we’re poles apart” and that the government would soon announce initiatives that would “reinforce” some of the ideas in Chubb’s report.
*Clarification, 3 September, 12:05 p.m.: This article has been updated to clarify Chubb's statements in his interview with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.