What is the Chief Scientist for?

The UK Government has appointed a new Chief Scientist, Sir Mark Walport, for whom Roger Pielke Jnr has written a thoughtful comment, wishing him every success. Pielke Jnr’s essay is one of a number in a book that the Guardian has assembled at the time of Walport’s appointment, another being one about the situation in Australia, by Paul Harris of the ANU. In both essays you can sense the uncertainty of what it is that the office-holder is expected to do. The rhetoric is that the Chief Scientist is to give independent, authoritative scientific advice. The reality is that government is about politics, not about science, and if the Chief Scientist wants to be authoritative, he or she will need to have a finely tuned understanding of politics.

I have known all the Australian Chief Scientists save one, and known some of them well. What follows is not about the chaps (or the one chapess, Professor Penny Sackett), but about the problems of providing scientific advice in a political context. Because science is today seen as the basis of everything (for some it is becoming the new religion) there could be a ‘science’ perspective about virtually the whole of any government’s agenda, and indeed in the USA, according to Pielke Jnr, there is an astonishing number of people and organisations involved in giving such advice.

The history of it in Australia is interesting enough. We had something  called the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) from 1977 to 1998, and I served on it for two terms, 1986 to 1992. It was at arms’ length from the Government, a statutory authority with the capacity to do its own thing as well as to respond to requests from the Prime Minister, to whom it reported. It was a busy organisation, with an excellent staff and an annual production of well-researched reports. It was responsible among other things for recommending the establishment of the Australian Research Council (ARC). Its Chairman at the beginning of my term was Ralph Slatyer, a most able scientist who had served as Ambassador to UNESCO and was a school mate of Bob Hawke, the Prime Minister, a connection that did us no harm.

But in the late 1980s things were not at their happiest in the world of science. The Dawkins changes had sequestered $65 million from the universities’ operating grants for redistribution via the newly formed ARC, and worse still, a social scientist (me) was in charge of it. Not only that, CSIRO staff were grumpy about the reorganisation of their empire, and were complaining noisily about inadequate spending on science. In November 1988 Bob Hawke went off to open the new National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, and was roundly booed and hissed by hundreds of white-coated scientists from CSIRO. He didn’t like that, and wasn’t used to being booed by anyone, let alone scientists. What in blazes was going on, he wanted to know.

In my ARC role I became for a time part of a ‘Co-ordinating Committee on Science and Technology’ which had the task of preparing a major ‘Science and Technology Statement’ for delivery early in 1989. Out of that Statement came the appointment of a Chief Scientist who was to advise the Prime Minister and establish a Prime Minister’s Science and Engineering Council (the latter would be renamed more than once). Guess who the first appointee was — Ralph Slatyer. Hawke admired and trusted Slatyer, and gave him plenty of room to move, allowing him, for example, to set up the Co-operative Research Centre system. And in typical fashion, Hawke decided that he would take all this science stuff seriously. He chaired an early meeting of the Council in the Cabinet Room with astonishing insight and command.

His successor, Paul Keating, however, was uninterested — he hadn’t discovered science for himself — and Ralph decided it was time to retire. Before long the post was downgraded to a part-time one, and ASTEC itself limped on, unloved and unwanted, until its Act was finally repealed in 1998. The Howard Government revived the full-time character of the Chief Scientist position and its occupants since have all been scientists with strong backgrounds and forceful personalities. John Howard too decided that science was important, and apparently insisted that the relevant Ministers attend meetings of his Council.

The great problem is the fine line that the Chief Scientist has to walk between ‘evidence-based policymaking’, where one provides the PM with what is thought to be known, and the options that follow from that knowledge, and ‘policy-based evidence-making’, where  one is asked to support, with whatever science one can find, a position that the Government has already adopted. I think I have seen too much of that side, and it leads to what Roger Pielke Jnr has called ‘the pathological politicization of science’. There are very many people, especially the ‘believers’ in science, who think that in such statements the Chief Scientist has a standing equivalent to the Pope in matters of faith and morals. It ain’t so, but it can suit governments that many think so.

And the mess we get into as a consequence was beautifully illustrated some little time ago when the Chief Scientist and the equivalent office-holder in New South Wales could be seen providing at different times almost opposite statements about the danger of rising sea-levels. It did seem to be the case, I say it no more strongly, that the two Governments had different political agendas about the issue.


Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Peter Lang says:


    You’re way out of date. Way behind the times. A dinosaur, in fact. There is no need for chemistry any more. Or the other sciences, for that matter.

    All that old stuff has been superseded by neo-this, neo-that, and neo-whatever. And neo-science!

    (/sarc, off)

  • Malcolm Miller says:

    Yes, a purely political office. Nothing to do with science, really.

  • PeterE says:

    Thanks. I believe that you are right, science has become politicised to the detriment of both politics and science. I did have dealings with Professor Slatyer, a most impressive and authoritative man, very balanced and impartial. Only with such a figure can the position of Chief Scientist be of value. I wonder if the concept (of CS) has outlived its usefulness.

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