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Ian Chubb: ‘This is not the office of the chief climate change scientist’

Chubb: “You’ve got to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth.” AAP/Alan Porritt

Welcome to In Conversation, our series of discussions between leading academics and major public figures in Australian life.

In this, the second instalment, Rod Lamberts, deputy director of the Australian National Centre for Public Awareness of Science at the ANU, is in conversation with Australia’s recently-appointed Chief Scientist, and former vice chancellor at ANU, Professor Ian Chubb.

Ian Chubb was appointed to the role of Chief Scientist on April 19 of this year following the departure of previous chief Penny Sackett, who left half-way through her term.

Professor Chubb is a neuroscientist by training and has authored or co-authored 70 academic papers and one book.

This conversation is not intended as a traditional media interview: it is a discussion between a leading academic and a senior figure in Australian science. It touches on a wide range of themes including:

  • the role of the Chief Scientist in Australian politics
  • “trolls” and anonymous critics
  • the damaging illusion of “balance” in the climate change debate
  • supporting colleagues who come “under-fire” for their opinions
  • reinvigorating science education in Australia
  • why science matters to Jane and Joe Public

We hope you enjoy it. There are five short videos below.

Lamberts: It’s not everyone’s plan of attack for retirement, becoming Chief Scientist …

Chubb: I told the Chancellor [of the Australian National University] in January 2010 that I was going to retire. I had to give a year’s notice, so I told him in January, and we announced it in June.

They appointed my successor at ANU a bit earlier than they thought they would, so I left in February. Very soon after that I was asked whether or not I’d be interested in taking on this job [of Chief Scientist].

I thought: I’ve always loved science. I mean, I’d been out of it for a bit with the role that I’ve had [as Vice Chancellor of ANU] but this was a good opportunity to get back into it, and probably at an important time because of what we call a “debate” going on at the moment.

I think this “debate” is beginning to have an impact on community regard for science overall. I’d hate to be one of those retired, grey-haired, portly gentlemen who sit down with lots of time on their hands and fire off letters to the editor on a daily basis.

Lamberts: Did you ever think you would become Chief Scientist? Did it ever cross your mind?

Chubb: No. I mean, I was on the selection committee that appointed Penny [Sackett, former Chief Scientist, who resigned ] but I never really thought: “one of these days …” I mean, I’m a fair bit older than Penny.

I hadn’t especially thought it would be a job for me.

I talk to the minister [Senator Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research] from time to time about the place of science in Australia and all that sort of stuff.

The whole issue of whether you want to go back into a job with a public profile when you’ve just left one was an important consideration for me. Despite what people think of me I was once very shy, although I don’t think anybody would say that of me now [Laughs]–

Lamberts: –I didn’t want to say anything …

Chubb: I think the possibilities of the job were too great for me to ignore.

Lamberts: I can imagine it would have been quite a temptation …

Chubb: Yes, I didn’t have to think too long once the job was offered. Part of my interest is influencing policy outcomes and based on science, and this particular position gives me the opportunity to do that.

We give advice, we give good advice – we can put it on the table and what the government does with it is the government’s business.

We’re not policy writers – the department will write the policies that will ultimately be sent up the line and end up on the minister’s desk and end up on the cabinet table if it goes that far.

Video courtesy of Dr Will Grant.

Lamberts: How political do you think this position is? How political would you like it to be?

Chubb: I don’t want it to be political.

It’s not my job to defend government policy; it’s not my job to go out there and talk about something that might have been based on scientific advice but is actually the policy response to that advice.

So it’s not my business to talk about a carbon tax. I will make sure that the government either has available to it the real expertise or the advice we can give that might summarise some of that expertise so that they can choose from the options given to them. That’s my role.


Lamberts: This position is appointed by a Labor government. Do you feel that you could equally and fairly critique or support any side of government? Do you feel freedom is a part of the role of Chief Scientist?

Chubb: You mean if the Coalition wins government?

Lamberts: Yeah, or if there are quite-strongly non-science-based policies going up – do you just need to say: “Well it’s up to them, they’ve made the call”? Or would you be a little more pressing?

Chubb: I think it would depend on what it was and how significant it is.

So I said this week in my Press Club address that if politicians consistently ignore good advice then basically they’ll do a disservice to the nation and they willl have to answer for it at some point.

With respect to working with the Coalition, as ANU Vice Chancellor I had to work for a lot of my time with Coalition ministers and I always got on pretty well with them. I can work with any able and committed people.

Come election time, I’ll go and vote and, as far as I know in Australia still, who you vote for is your business. I think we still have a secret ballet … and where I put the “1” is my business.

Narrowing focus

Lamberts: I can imagine, having worked briefly with you in other roles in the past and seeing the role of a vice chancellor from a very distant point of view, this must be kind of relaxing: you can just focus on the science – you can narrow your focus down a little bit more.

Chubb: Yes, that’s true. The minister asked me the other day how I was coping and I said: “I think I’m working using about 15% of the energy level that I was working at four or five months ago”.

Of course, it’s not quite like that but it’s a different job and it’s a different operation and it’s a different style and a different set of outcomes.

I was responsible for 4,000 staff and 12,000 students six months ago, now I’ve got ten or 12 staff out there and a different set of responsibilities; and a different focus, as you say. I think that’s a very accurate depiction.

I’m not having to worry about how many tree branches fell on cars the last time the wind blew hard – all of that sort of stuff is gone.

Anonymous critics

Lamberts: Is there anything in this job that would make you walk away from it, other than family or health concerns?

Chubb: I don’t think so. You’ve got to be prepared to take the rough with the smooth and some of the sillier comments that were made about my speech yesterday, you’ve just got to roll with. Whatever you say, people will interpret it their way.

I made a comment yesterday that, while I wasn’t a climate change scientist, I could read English and understand it so I thought the science was in. I got an email from someone saying: “So I suppose that means I can opine about climate change as well?”.

Well of course this person can. What I’ve argued is that it should be rational, that the debate should be civil and that people should be able to debate different perspectives in a reasonable and decent way, instead of the person who rang my quite new staff member and was angry with her because he didn’t like what I’d said.

It’s what I define as outrageous. Weak and pathetic actually. He might have wanted to speak to me but he got through to her. There was no reason he should have been discourteous to her and I think it’s a sad reflection on that person, who wouldn’t give his name.

Lamberts: They never do. I don’t know if you’re a follower of the commentary response on online articles – they’re quite spectacular some of them.

Chubb: Yeah, I don’t think they [comments] should be published if people aren’t prepared to own them.

To call yourself Fred the Chimney Sweep and slag somebody off is pretty bad behaviour – pretty poor form that does not reflect well on the organisation that publishes it.

Lamberts: Do you think maybe [media outlets] should I.D-check people or something before they can comment?

Chubb: No, but I think people should be made to put their name on comments. They may put false names or whatever – people always play games … but they should be prepared to own their opinions.

I didn’t go out there wearing a funny mask yesterday nor will I in the future. I’ll be out there as me so they can aim it at me yet they don’t have to tell me who they are. And these comments get published.

Video courtesy of Dr Will Grant.

Personal criticism

Lamberts: Possibly the closest thing to real criticism I heard about your appointment from within the university sector was: “He hasn’t been a practising scientist for ages”. What do you think of that?

Chubb: Well, I mean, it’s true, but is that what I have to be? Do I have to come here with ninhydrin-stained fingers actually to prove that I can do the job? I don’t think so.

There are a lot better scientists in Australia than I was and ever would be, but not many of them could do my job. They have a different instinct, they have a different experience base, they have a different concept of what the sort of role is and how you play it.

So I think you bring a whole lot of experience to a job like this and the important thing is that you are able to be a serious advocate for science, which means you know how science works, you know how scientists think, you know how science progresses knowledge, you know what the issues are for getting research funding or getting papers published – all of the things you need to know.

Again it’s a sort of easy free-kick really: “Oh yeah, well he hasn’t stood at a bench for 25 years”. Well, it’s true.

Lamberts: Well, I confess I was surprised by the criticism because actually I think the last person I’d want in a job like this is someone who has just stepped away from the bench.

Chubb: Yes, because they don’t know how the political system works, necessarily – very few do. They don’t know how to manage and massage the political system.

Lamberts: That was literally the only criticism I heard, other than the one you defended at the Press Club yesterday on the partisanship we’ve spoken about already.

Chubb: The press has had a report of that in a couple of places today. I did a radio interview a little earlier where I was asked whether I was partisan because I came to the position with a view on climate change.

So I said: “Well, what do you want me to do, stick my head in a giant magnet so that I try to come in with no knowledge at all and start from scratch?” I mean, it’s the sort of stuff you’ve got to put up with, I know, but …


Lamberts: So do you still keep up with your own science? Are you still enthused about your original work [in neuroscience]?

Chubb: No, but I was certainly enthused about it when I did it.

As I’ve said in many interviews, I turned 40, life was very comfortable, I had a good and flourishing research lab with a lot of money in the middle of the 80s, and I turned 41 in fact, and I said to my wife: “Life’s got to be harder than this” and I was right: the one testable hypothesis that I think was actually proven …

If I had my time again it would be great to be a philologist or a linguist or a physicist. Actually no, not a physicist, that would be too hard! [Laughs] And then you read some of the stuff and you go and you meet the people; you go to the seminars and the lectures and things and it’s just mind-boggling where things have got to.

In my field, what we did in today’s terms is pretty primitive. The equipment, the facilities, the capacity to do things these days is so much greater than it was when I was younger.

One of my former colleagues – who’s still a great friend – sent me a paper which referred to a number of our papers from the 1980s and so all the work you do, if it’s any good at all, will have had some consequence on later work.

So some of what we did, no doubt, has lead to some of what’s been done today, and if I had not stopped doing it, could I still be doing it today? Sure, but when you think about science as a whole and you look at what people do you look at some of the discussion pieces in The Conversation – it’s awesome.

I’ve resolved not to present myself as a deep and meaningful expert on too many things because if I do I’ll be able to be tripped up by the next question and I don’t think that’s my role in any case.

My role is to know where the experts really are, to be in contact with them on the understanding that we may need to be in contact with them regularly or very intermittently or whatever, but to use those contacts in a way that means we can get the advice we need from the expert pretty quickly because to pretend that you know …

I’m looking at setting up a small group of people who can be here and talk to us and talk about what’s happening in physics, what’s happening in mathematics, where you can go to get more advice about a particular aspect of physics or mathematics.

We’ve got to look at the whole science; we’ve got to keep the focus of the office on the whole of science, and that means we’ve got to have some people who can keep feeding us information we can call on regularly.

Video courtesy of Dr Will Grant.

A society-wide approach

Lamberts: I want to ask, the integration of social sciences and humanities and arts into this bigger practice, do you see that happening?

Should there be a chief social scientist? Should there be a chief humanist? Any thoughts on how that might stick together?

Chubb: The big advances that will potentially change humanity are going to come out of the sciences. The question then is how do you get them embraced by the community.

I don’t know that you need one bunch of people working here on their thing and another bunch of people there working on their thing and then having a meeting from time to time.

I think the real issue is how we get the scientists – who are going to provide the bulk of the inventions – and this knowledge turned into something that is used and useful.

That’s the work of all those other groups and I think working with them is important. You’d have to totally avoid setting up little silos where the scientists did their thing and said: “Oh by the way …”

Lamberts: You had a part in, or at least a sign-off on Inspiring Australia Conference. Coming from my background of science communication, I’m very interested in that sort of science in the greater public eye, and you’re throwing up that idea of enhanced science literacy in the population.

My question really is: what would that look like and how would you get there?

Chubb: Well I think it’s got two or three elements to it.

One is making sure that you start teaching science properly and adequately in primary school and that you take it through secondary school. Whether people then go on to do science degrees and PhDs and all the rest is one issue, but even if they don’t they’ve got some science literacy.

By the time [these students are] into middle secondary school, they’d be beginning to understand that scientists test hypotheses; they critique their results and observations; they put them out for the peers to critique them; they go back and do it again to replicate or change or do all the things that we know about science and how it works.

And I think it’s important that there’s a higher level of that understanding in the community.

If some percentage, say 5%, 10%, 15%, go off to be real scientists in the sense of doing a BSc [Bachelor of Science] and a PhD and going off and working in their field as researchers it would be good; if we can increase that number through this process, that would be good, too.

But I do think that in the present debate on scientific matters, whether it be vaccines or whether it be climate change, what you have is a community trying to understand and needing to understand.

But that community might not have the capacity or the background that lets them start off and say: “Well I understand there will be uncertainty always in science. I understand scientists will always have a dispute about some issues sometimes.

I understand that science is not unlike the law, really: you’ve got an advocacy, you’ve got a prosecution and a defence. You’ve got an argumentation that has to go on for science to be prosper.”

And “beyond reasonable doubt” is where we get to.

Lamberts: I think that’s a much better way of putting it than “uncertainty”. Uncertainty gives a very different impression but using the phrase “beyond reasonable doubt” – I think is a language that people can actually understand.

Chubb: It’s important that people understand it. So when people come in from the outside and say: “I think scientists are a bunch of creeps who are only saying this or that because the government funds them”, people will actually begin to understand, or they’ll have some inkling that if they’re interested they can go and read more.

I think it’s getting that interest to the point where if they want to, people can go and read more, find out more: that’s important.

Video courtesy of Dr Will Grant.

Supporting teachers

Lamberts: I’d agree with that. This solution of better teaching in primary school and all the way through [schooling] is a solid one. What it would mean is, if we started that today, there’s a lag of people who are 15 to 100.

Chubb: I think you’ve got a large teaching workforce, and I think that somebody somewhere should be investigating how well we’re supporting our teachers to do the job they need to do in 2011 and beyond.

And so it’s true – you can’t start from today and say: “We’ll change Australia’s way of doing this by 2020”. You can say: “Well, that’s what we’re going to do and we going to have changed the way Australia goes about this”.

One way to do that is to make sure we develop properly the teaching workforce and [to ensure] the existing teaching workforce is properly supported.

The Academy of Science told me, and I think this figure’s right, something like 80% of teachers are teaching out of field – it’s a tough gig.

If they’re not getting adequate support to go out of field, it must be discomforting for them – and their students probably realise it – that the system is not supporting the discipline well enough yet we say that we need it. So, if we’ve really got the need, we’ve got to give the support.

Lamberts: But if the teaching magically got better today, what about the people that have left school?

We have this whole backlog of society, so to speak, who won’t have had the benefits of the new system, and reaching them and dealing with them is the question.

Chubb: I think part of that is sort of the communication job all scientists have. The big danger with the calibre of the present debate is that people just won’t do it and I’m not going to say there’s an explicit intention to intimidate people into silence because I wouldn’t know whether that’s true.

But I am going to say that if you’re sitting over there and your colleague says something publicly and gets a string of abuse of invective or whatever and you’re asked to do it, you might well say: “No, I’m not going to put myself through that”.

I’m talking in general terms now. I’m not saying that it’s peculiar to one particular part of the scientific community, but I think as a general rule you would imagine that, if people are treated with gross disrespect when they speak publicly, when they do have expertise, just because people don’t like what they’re saying, then other people will be less willing to stand up and say it.

Our democracy suffers when that happens.

I don’t think we can afford to let it happen, and that’s part of my job. At ANU I used to put out statements saying “academics have an obligation to speak publicly in their field of expertise and if they get attacked they can look to the university to support them” – if they got attacked personally, not their ideas.

That’s what we tried to do then and I think it’s important we continue to do it.

Why science matters

Lamberts: I’ve given presentations to the Australian Skeptics Society and things like this, and they’re extremely passionate, verging on zealots for science. Their question to me invariably is: “How the hell do we make people listen?”

One of the comments I say to them is: “Why would they listen, their lives already work.”

What’s your take on that? How do you make people, Jane and Joe Public, actually give a toss about this stuff? And why?

Chubb: Well I think part of the answer – and I don’t know the full solution – is to point out to people and make sure people are constantly reinforced with the knowledge of what science has done for them and what’s around them.

You only have to think of what science has done for you as you’re sitting here today on that chair, with that watch, with that material in your trousers, with whatever it is in your shoes.

I mean, what would we be like without science? I think it’s so much a part of our lives we just don’t give it any thought. I don’t pick up a pen and think to myself: “Isn’t science wonderful?” I pick up a pen and use it.

But I wouldn’t have the pen if somebody hadn’t invented the plastic, the ink, the spring, the device. I think an important part of the message is to indicate to people broadly, constantly, what science has actually done for them up to this point, and then they don’t need so much to keep being told what’s going to happen in 10 or 15 years.

I think that’s eventually part of the story but the short-term issue is: how would people actually think science has had any impact on them?

Lamberts: To get to the point where science is seen as an investment, not a cost …

Chubb: One of the ways to do that is for the community to want it and to be something we want. That means the community will be aware of the fact that scientists will always be having some sort of debate about the meaning of results that have been observed or going from experimentation.

It’s a legitimate part of science, it’s always been a part of science, and should still be part of science; but in my day it was done with a certain level of civility and shared respect.

Video courtesy of Dr Will Grant.

Science under attack?

Lamberts: There’s a lot of talk (and I’ve written things and so has my colleague) about science being under attack in Australia from the public, from government, from private sector etc.

Do you think it is?

Chubb: Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily under attack from government. I don’t think it’s under attack from the politicians. There are individuals who’d like to fight science in a dark alley one night I but I think it’s a small number.

Generally speaking, I think the groups you mentioned are supportive and just wished it [science] gave better answers to things like climate change

Lamberts: “Solve my damn problems.”

Chubb: Right, I mean it’s inconceivable that any political party in the history of government wants it to be incontrovertible evidence for climate change.

I can imagine everyone wishes it would go away tomorrow but I don’t think it is going to go away tomorrow. Different parts of the media are feeding the public different lines.

I think the public is probably quite genuinely confused about it, and where are they turn to to get better advice?

I bet you the people who get some of our newspapers in our country do not read The Conversation, where they probably could get better advice.

I can understand why the public is confused. It’s partially because scientists have an argument about climate change, who’s right and who’s wrong. and about the validity of the projects, and all of that will get published in a particular way.

I said that I thought the media conversation should be published with regard to the weight of the evidence and–

Lamberts: –and not the decibels–

Chubb: –not the decibels. If 99 people say one thing and one person says another thing, the one person has a right to have their view on the table but they don’t have a right to be given the same amount of time and space as the 99 without qualification.

The point is that they will get the same amount of space [in the media] but the article doesn’t say there are 99 people thinking this and there’s one person thinking that: we’ll give them each two column inches so the public can get a distorted view of where the arguments really are.

I think that’s a great pity I don’t think that adds a great value to the public debate. The media has a particular and important role to play and the sooner they play it better, the better.

I don’t care if they want to be hostile to the notion of climate change but I do think they’ve got to be reasonable and rational about the approach they take.

Lamberts: I’m going to close on a classic blue-sky question: when you leave this office what would you like to leave behind?

Chubb: I’d like to leave behind an office that’s had quite a lot of influence in future policy options of the country, and based on the scientific evidence that is needed to make that policy better.

I didn’t take this job just to be called chief – none of those things are of interest to me. The reason for taking the job is because I think it’s important that science has a voice and that somebody with a voice knows how it works.

One message is that this office is not the office of the chief climate-change scientist: this office is the office of the chief scientist and our job is to worry about, concern about, and advise about public science in Australia and its place in the world.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation between Professor Ian Chubb and Dr Rod Lamberts. Please leave your comments and opinions below.

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