Australia's first chief scientist, Ralph Owen Slatyer, died in Canberra on Thursday.

Recognised as one of Australia's most distinguished scientists, Professor Slatyer made major contributions to science, science policy and to environmental protection in Australia and internationally.

Born in Perth in 1929, he served as chief scientist from 1989-92. In 1951 he joined the division of land research at the CSIRO and became the division's associate chief in 1966.

He then became a professor of biology at the Australian National University and was a visiting professor at Duke University in the US, 1963-64 and at the University of California, 1973-74.

His research was recognised internationally with his election to the Royal Society of London in 1975 and to the US National Academy of Sciences in 1976.

He was Australia's ambassador to UNESCO in Paris from 1978-1981.

He returned to Australia in 1982 and resumed his professorship at the ANU. Later that year he was appointed chair of the Australian Science and Technology Council and in 1989 was appointed Australia's first chief scientist. In his later career Professor Slatyer had leading roles in science policy, including chair of the National Commission for UNESCO, World Heritage Committee and the ASTC.

His contribution to science and to Australia was recognised by the Clunies Ross Foundation Lifetime Award and by his appointment as a Companion of the Order of Australia in 1993.

Current chief scientist Ian Chubb said yesterday Professor Slatyer was a remarkable man.

He is survived by his wife, June, children Tony, Beth and Judy and their families.