Technology

Science minister's cabinet role must be backed with action from Ian Macfarlane

There is hope the renamed portfolio will mark the beginnings of a renewed focus on science in 2015.

The science community wants words backed with action from Ian Macfarlane.
The science community wants words backed with action from Ian Macfarlane. Photo: Glenn Hunt

Restoring science to the federal cabinet has been welcomed by the scientific community, but the move will need to be backed by action from the government to be more than just a name change.

Although science was already under Ian Macfarlane's remit as Minister for Industry, Prime Minister Tony Abbott rebadged the cabinet position to "state in words" what he thought was already "obvious" as part of Sunday's reshuffle.

Far from an attempt to appease scientists, Nobel laureate and astronomer Professor Brian Schmidt and Australian Academy of Science president Professor Andrew Holmes hailed the move as highlighting the importance of science at a time when the country sorely needed to adopt chief scientist Ian Chubb's plan.

But CSIRO staff association secretary Sam Popovski said relabeling the portfolio would only impact the sector and the "decimated" research body if it was followed through with actions to boost science and innovation and Mr Macfarlane had "a lot of work to do".

"CSIRO has lost one in five jobs over two years therefore there needs to be a lot of work done to revitalise the organisation to build funding, morale and output," he said.

Sunday's reshuffle also brought former engineer and co-founder of the Parliamentary Friends of Science Committee Karen Andrews on board as parliamentary secretary for the portfolio.

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Professor Schmidt said Ms Andrews would be thinking about science on a daily basis helping to give it the attention it deserves in cabinet.

"There's an appetite within the government for lots of science policy development which I think the country desperately needs, having her involved will make it that much easier to do," he said.

Professor Holmes agreed saying it would give more voice to the science ministry.

Both hope the renamed portfolio will mark the beginnings of a renewed focus on science in 2015 as the federal government seeks to formalise eight draft national research priorities outlined by Mr Chubb and discussed at the inaugural meeting of the Commonwealth Science Council, chaired by Mr Abbott in November.

"I'm supportiveā€¦ as long as excellence in fundamental research across the board is maintained with a significant amount of funding going to those unprescribed areas as well," Professor Schmidt said.

"Astronomy is one of those things that is curiosity driven but gives lots of good returns for the country. But my sense is the government understands this."

Professor Holmes said the potential tension between funding fundamental research and applied research had worried Australian scientists for many years.

"The lag between fundamental discovery and implementation in commercial products is such that we must allow for curiosity-driven science to provide for ideas that we can't predict," he said.

He said he would like to see the government commit to commercialising "potentially successful opportunities" knowing some were likely to fail.