Christopher Pyne

Credit: Policy Exchange/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Australia gets a new science minister

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA—Australia has a new science minister. Christopher Pyne, a lawyer and veteran politician who has been serving as the conservative government’s education minister, was sworn in to his new post today as part of a reshuffle by new Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

Many Australian researchers say they hope Pyne’s appointment will mark a turn in policy under Turnbull, who ousted former Prime Minister Tony Abbott on 15 September after an internal party uprising. The hard-charging Abbott had drawn fierce criticism from many in Australia’s scientific community as a result of his moves to make deep cuts in nonbiomedical research budgets, and to weaken climate and environmental protection policies.

“After the weirdness of Abbott and the obtuse ideology of the hard right, we all hope for a better day,” says Peter Doherty, an immunologist at the University of Melbourne and Nobel laureate who criticized the last government. Nothing is certain, he adds. “But as of now, [the new government] should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

Ian Chubb, Australia’s chief scientist, is also expressing guarded optimism. “There has been a lot of comment [from the new government] about the future, and the role of science and innovation in that future,” he says. “This is good and helps build the environment in which we can have a serious discussion about the pros, any cons, and certainly about [policy] actions.”

“We look forward to working with Minister Pyne to ensure Australia takes a long-term strategic approach to scientific infrastructure, careers, and research funding,” says Andrew Holmes, president of the Australian Academy of Science.

In a statement released 20 September in Australia,  Pyne praised Australia’s “world leading” researchers, universities, and institutions such as the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. “We have a major agenda in the commercialisation of research outcomes,” he adds, echoing Turnbull’s earlier promise to put innovation and technology at the center of his government.

As the newly minted Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, Pyne takes over from former industry and science minister Ian Macfarlane, who has been bumped entirely from Turnbull’s ministerial team. Working with Pyne will be assistant ministers Karen Andrews (science) and the government’s youngest member, 25-year-old Wyatt Roy (innovation).

Under Abbott, nonmedical science had a rough ride. After its election in September 2013, Abbott’s government slashed more than AU$3 billion from science, research, and innovation.

Pyne, as Abbott’s minister of education and training, followed the government line, overseeing cuts of AU$300 million from university research grants, AU$174 million from research training, and AU$75 million from the country’s major science funding body the Australian Research Council (ARC).

Now, researchers are waiting to see how those budgets fare under the new government, and which minister will oversee them. “Questions remain” about who will be responsible for research infrastructure and funding bodies like the ARC, notes Catriona Jackson, CEO of the industry body Science and Technology Australia. “We want to see them under Minister Pyne’s portfolio,” she says. Details should be worked out before 12 October, when Parliament next meets.