New chief scientist Ian Chubb aims for influence

By Sunanda Creagh, News Editor

Australia’s newly appointed chief scientist, Ian Chubb, has vowed to lobby hard behind closed doors to ensure government policy is informed by science, saying that the point of his job is to wield influence.

Prof Chubb, a neuroscientist who served as Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University for 10 years, replaces former chief scientist Penny Sackett, who left the post in February partway through her term. In February, Prof Sackett told a Senate estimates hearing she had met formally with former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd just once and not at all with his successor, Julia Gillard.

Prof Chubb, who is known for his excellent contacts in the Labor Party and was equally well-connected to senior ministers in the Howard government, told The Conversation that his top priority in the new role is to be influential.

“I don’t see any point in speaking for the sake of it. I see a need to ensure that we work collectively to put science as a very high priority in everyone’s mind, including the government and also the community,” he said.

Prof Chubb is a famously effective networker on good terms with many senior policy makers and politicians, including former Prime Minister and ANU graduate, Kevin Rudd. Under the Rudd government, ANU received extra funding for new research centres and building upgrades.

Prof Chubb told The Conversation that his new role demanded someone who can persuade important people.

“We need people who can talk persuasively to politicians and public officials because ultimately it’s the quality of the advice that’s given that influences the public policy and the outcomes in a way that benefits this country,” he said.

“You have got to know them, you have to network, you have to have something worth saying and worth giving up time to hear. Most of the people you want to influence are going to be very busy people. You don’t want to waste their time or your own.”

Prof Chubb is known as a forthright speaker unafraid to make his opinions known. That has earned him the respect of people like the Minister for Innovation, Kim Carr, who on Wednesday described him as an “outstanding leader” who “understands that government needs frank and objective advice.”

The neuroscientist is known as an expert in working formal and informal channels to effect change. Formally, he is expected to reform the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council (PMSEIC), an advisory round table of scientists, government mandarins and senior ministers, including the PM.

But insiders also expect to see him regularly walking the corridors of Parliament House, popping in and out of ministerial offices and getting in the ear of key people.

A former Vice-Chancellor of Flinders University and senior executive at Monash University and the University of Wollongong, Prof Chubb boasts an impressive range of contacts in the scientific community and will use them to ensure the best experts are put before the government to explain the science.

Communicating science to the broader community is also part of the chief scientist’s role, but don’t expect Prof Chubb to campaign through the media.

“It’s very important to understand that the bulk of the work is done behind the scenes. The communication is important but you don’t get effective change and your position adopted by communicating through through media and publicly,” he said.

“I wouldn’t be doing the job if it was easy. But as I always say, oars are for pulling, not for resting on. Yes, it will be a challenge, but is it a challenge worth putting effort into? Yes, it is.”

Prof Chubb, who was named the ACT’s Australian of the Year in 2011, begins his three year term in May.

Announcement by Prime Minister’s Office

Photo credit: AAP

Read more at The Conversation