Australia’s chief scientist, Ian Chubb, holds the future of science and innovation in his hands. If he can make the government listen. By Ramona Koval.

Chief Scientist Ian Chubb's scientific methods

Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb speaks  at the National Press Club.
Australia’s chief scientist Ian Chubb speaks at the National Press Club.

Professor Ian Chubb, former neuroscientist, former university vice-chancellor and now our chief scientist, leans his large frame back dramatically in his black leather chair in his office at the top of Industry House in Canberra. Worried about being long-winded expounding the ideas he’s passionate about, he is curt when considering things for which he has less time. The previous chief scientist, Penny Sackett, resigned midterm. She was critical of the then Labor government’s lack of action on climate change. Does Chubb find relationships with government difficult?

Ian Chubb I don’t see that it’s my role to provide embarrassing public commentary on government and its actions. A lot of my best work [is] done behind closed doors because I think it’s important that you build trust and confidence from the people you are trying to advise and influence. I learn something new every day so I change the way I go about doing it every day.

Ramona Koval Successful economies such as Singapore, Sweden and Finland have an innovation sector supported by government. The level of collaboration between our researchers and business is one of the lowest in the OECD. Whenever I hear we have to focus on the economy I don’t understand why that doesn’t also mean a focus on science and technology.

IC Yeah, well nor do I. So you can imagine that economists and I have interesting discussions from time to time. The real issue for me is what sort of country are we trying to build here? How are we going to get there? And we’re not going to get there by thinking of economics as an endgame. The economy is a means to an end. Science is a means to an end.

RK What is the end?

IC We want our leadership to say, “This is the country we’re building.” My view, not being a politician of course, is that we ought to be aspiring to something magnificent. And we need a conversation within the community to identify what that should be. And it should be just slightly out of reach. It oughtn’t be something easily obtained. It oughtn’t be something where we can get in a boat with eight oars and row on seven and still get there. It ought to be something we’ve got to strain to get to. And it ought to be big and grand and aspirational. What is the country we’re trying to construct?

RK When you say “magnificent”, what’s in your mind?

IC We would be a country that’s economically rich, culturally rich, a great global citizen. We [would] contribute substantially to the wellbeing of living systems on the planet, protect and preserve our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got and we’re not going to be able to go anywhere else if things get too rough. We’ve got to work together as part of a big global community to make sure it’s safe, secure and prosperous. But prosperous in the real sense, of cultural prosperity, economic prosperity, and socially just. Then we shape the means to achieve it.

RK Is there a problem for you that this government is locked into an outdated economic model that can’t second-guess the market? And that the old paradigm of reliance on commodities is over? And that those who advise the government on business can’t see the importance of laying the ground for an economy based on research and technology ventures? The PM said: “Coal is good for humanity.”

IC So it’s up to people like me all through the science and business community to say that we can’t simply rest on the oars and presume that what we used to do will be good enough for the future. We’re being told very frequently by very many people that that is not the case … What we did, we did. But it is a diminishing part of our future. I imagine that we will be mining coal for quite a way into the future, but at the same time we’ve got to be operating in a way that says alongside that we’ve got other processes, other technologies, other bits of thinking that are just shifting us away from a dependence on something that we can be pretty sure in the long term is causing damage to the planet.

RK You had a disagreement over the human contribution to climate change with Maurice Newman, the chairman of Tony Abbott’s Business Advisory Council, hand-picked by the prime minister himself. How do you see his position?

IC I find it easy to disagree with. I don’t know who gives him advice, but it’s unusual advice that he gets.

RK Is it frustrating for you to think that the chairman of the Business Advisory Council has such a different view of the world to you?

IC What’s more frustrating I suppose is the airtime he gets with these views that are contradicted by most good science and good scientists. Putting him to one side, I think it’s a great pity that there is an approach to these complex matters that polarises the discussion. The reality is when you burn coal you release CO2 into the atmosphere. When we put it out to get it to the concentrations we now see, why would we presume that has no effect? We need sensible responses. It is my job to point out that, if we continue, the impact on the planet will be very severe and it’s not good enough to talk about intergenerational equity when we only talk about debt. There is an intergenerational equity issue when we talk about the sort of planet we will leave to those who come after us.

RK You’ve said you don’t think you’ve ever stopped thinking like a scientist –questioning the evidence – in whatever it is you’ve been doing. What do you do when those you deal with don’t have the same approach?

IC My three-word mantra is: “Passion, persistence and patience.” You’ve just got to change minds and you can only do that by using the evidence that’s available to you and being willing to take the long run.

RK Why are wind farms such a pet issue for this government?

IC Well, they haven’t been particularly friendly towards renewable technologies. But if we think in Australia that the world is not going to be about renewable technologies in the future, then we’re wrong. It will be. Do we want to be part of the main game or do we just want to be a purchaser of what’s developed elsewhere?

RK Does it feel like you’re just banging your head against a brick wall sometimes?

IC Always. But that’s been the whole of my life. It goes back to the patience bit. You’ve just got to keep working at it. Which surprises everybody, because most people would say I’m not a patient man.

RK But they don’t know the half of it?

IC They only know the half I’m prepared to show them.

RK So diplomacy is part of your job?

IC Which also surprises people. But I have learned … you’ve got to keep at it and present it. Whether they take it or not is their call.

RK You weren’t consulted over the $20 billion medical research fund announced in the latest budget. Did they forget they had a chief scientist?

IC I suspect the people who were advising just saw this as an opportunity to present something that might be likely to be accepted. They went down their path without looking to the left and to the right…

RK And got run over by a truck?

IC And got run over, yeah. If they’d asked me I’d have said you’ve got to support long-term funding for research, but we can’t neglect other sciences that feed into medical research. There’s a misty-eyed myth of a physician looking after sick people one minute and then going into a lab, picking up a pipette and having a “eureka moment”. But they go into a lab and it’s populated by physicists and statisticians and nanotechnologists. Medical research doesn’t exist in a little vacuum, it’s part of a whole system of research in Australia that needs to be supported.

RK You said your job is not to embarrass the government, but at what point would you say, “Bugger it I’m going to embarrass them now.” What would it take?

IC It would take my perception of lack of influence, then I think it’s time for us to part ways, and me to go.

RK Would you throw a bomb as a parting gesture? Or is that not your style?

IC No. There would probably be a splash. How big the splash would be would depend on the circumstances at that time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 21, 2015 as "Scientific methods".

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