Who needs a science minister?

By Peter Griffin 17/09/2013

Australia’s new Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has announced his maiden cabinet line-up which has drawn flack on many fronts including for its lack of a science minister.

Tony Abbott

Abbott said yesterday that the science portfolio will be shared between the Industry and Education ministeries, the first time there hasn’t been a science portfolio since the creation of the position in 1931. That reflects a move by governments worldwide to view science and research as enablers of skills and economic development. Here in New Zealand, Steven Joyce is Minister of Science and Innovation. But the science ministry is no longer standalone – it is part of the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment.

Still, there is plenty going on in the science and innovation portfolio – the creation of Callaghan Innovation and the National Science Challenges among them. Science has also received funding top-ups since 2008, including additional funding for the Marsden Fund, which is managed by the Royal Society of New Zealand.

What does Abbott’s move mean for the Australian Government’s relationship with the research community? It is still figuring out how to manage research funding and science policy. They’ll likely be bundled into divisions of other ministries. There was a telling comment from Abbott yesterday:

“Science, as in the CSIRO, will be with industry.”

Naturally, the science sector isn’t happy. My colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre gathered these comments in reaction to the news:

Professor Les Field is Secretary for Science Policy, Australian Academy of Science, comments:

“The Academy is surprised and disappointed that Prime Minister Abbott has not announced a minister for science. We hope that he might make such an announcement within the next few days. Science reaches into so many areas of our lives and is so important to informing and shaping the world in which we live and work – it is integral to health, industry, food and water security, transport, defence, IT and much more. A scientifically literate society is a society which is equipped to hold informed debate and make intelligent decisions about big issues that affect us all.

We would be heartened to hear that Ian Macfarlane has charge of a broader science portfolio, not just the CSIRO. Mr Macfarlane has long been interested in and engaged with science.”

Catriona Jackson is CEO of Science and Technology Australia comments:

“Scientists around the nation are asking: Where’s the Science Minister?

“The nation’s scientists are confused and disappointed by today’s announcement of the new Federal Government Ministry.

“Science and technology are central to virtually everything Government does, from industry to universities to agriculture to health to creating the kind of jobs that will ensure a prosperous future.

“We await the release of the Government’s administrative arrangement documents which will hopefully give further clarity about who is responsible for science.”