Revitalised Science Council – what does it mean?

Changes have been announced to the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. Briefly, PMSEIC becomes smaller; meets more often; has a budget to commission investigations through the Australian Council of Learned Academies and its terms of reference have been altered to make it take a more strategic approach to Australia’s science, engineering and innovation. PMSEIC now has the ability to look at shorter-term issues.

There has been a mixed reaction to the changes. Science and Technology Australia expressed concern at losing its position on the Council, while the Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering welcomed the changes.

In my view, the changes are unequivocally good.

Getting the most senior people in Government to sit three times a year with the highest level scientists and technologists in the country is good. Meeting three times a year, rather than the once or twice previously, will allow for much greater interaction. An annual meeting tends to only bring people up to speed on the issues at hand whereas a regular meeting schedule will change the focus to looking at how to improve things.

It’s understandable that no one likes to lose their place at a prestigious table. But a smaller, more stable membership will provide more focus and continuity. The Council has the ability to seek views and data from outside. If there is a cause for concern about the size of the Council, it should be that several Ministers have dropped off and will attend in the future only on the Prime Minister’s invitation. Given the importance of science and engineering in portfolios like health, agriculture, environment and infrastructure, it would be good to see the PM send that invitation often.

The CRC Association has argued in our 2012-2013 Budget Submission that there is more room in Australia for top-down priority setting in the innovation system. There is a lot to be said for Government providing scientific support for major policy initiatives. For example, when this Government boosted the mental health budget significantly; the two new CRCs for that round were the Young and Well CRC and the Mental Health CRC, which was a great outcome. No doubt those CRCs will make contributions to improving treatment options in the area. But this outcome was not really planned for – mental health had not appeared as a priority in the CRC funding round.

Relatively strong priority setting from PMSEIC is desirable. For example, Australia is planning big changes in the way the community will assist disabled people in the future. The National Disability Insurance Scheme will change things for the better. It also comes with a big price tag. For my part, I’d love to see PMSEIC taking the lead and fostering a whole-of-government approach to the technological issues associated with big policy change. It could encourage, say, the Australian Research Council to look at the possibilities of a Centre of Excellence in Preventing Disability and the NH&MRC or CSIRO might be given responsilibity for deep investigation of particular forms of disability. Maybe the CRC Program could give priority to a CRC for Improving Particpation in Education by disabled people?

That’s not to say government should tell all scientists what to do. But science needs a lot of support from the top as well as good grass-roots generation of ideas and knowledge to actually result in innovation – for things to change.

A whole-of-government approach stimulated by PMSEIC would potentially spark much greater involvement of Government Departments and Agencies in more innovative approaches to service delivery. Any company implementing major changes in delivery would harness the involvement of the R&D Department. The changes at PMSEIC could help foster a similar “Team Australia” approach to the big issues we face.