Chief taps brightest minds for nation’s hot-button issues

Meet the Chiefs is an occasional series by Petra Stock. She previously covered CSIRO’s chief scientist.

Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley has a ‘no’ button on her desk.

The bright red disc – which when pressed simply says “No. N. O.” in a commanding tone – was a parting gift from Foley’s predecessor, Dr Alan Finkel.

“Setting boundaries is about the hardest thing, making judgements on how to use the time best,” Foley says. 

Australia’s Chief Scientist is a broad role – providing independent, evidence-based advice to government, working to elevate Australian science and research so that it can be efficient, effective and impactful and representing science on a long list of government committees.

It’s a role that expands to fill the hours available, which means Foley sometimes has to make tough decisions about what to prioritise.

“The number one role is to make sure government has the best information possible, providing evidence-based advice,” Foley says.

A key forum for that advice is the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), chaired by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, and deputy chair Science Minister Ed Husic. Foley acts as the executive officer.

Foley says: “any part of government can come in and ask questions, and we’ve got the funding to be able to do research projects that gather and synthesise the answers.”

Setting boundaries is about the hardest thing, making judgements on how to use the time best

Dr Cathy Foley

That might be in the form of a rapid response – a framework established by Finkel during COVID-19 as a way to quickly gather scientific evidence to inform decisions. It’s a process that continues under Foley.  

She says the format of the rapid response has proven really valuable. It helps make scientific advice more responsive to government timeframes, bringing together evidence in plain English.

“It’s a lot of work, and the research community are very generous in the way they respond to this,” she says. 

A recent example of a rapid response in action was a report commissioned by the NSTC on the opportunities and risks of generative artificial intelligence, to inform the government’s approach to safe and responsible AI. 

Other issues might require a longer time frame. Examples include improving STEM career pathways and rethinking the metrics used to hire, promote and fund researchers.

As well as responding to questions, sometimes the advice given is proactive – raising awareness in government about scientific issues or developments of significance. She says quantum technologies is a good example, highlighting an area of industry and technological development with opportunities for Australia.

The continuity of the rapid response framework, established under the Morrison Government and continued under Albanese, highlights the rare space that science – and the role of chief scientist – occupies in the often divisive world of federal politics. 

“I call it the Sheriff’s Badge,” Foley says about her position. “It’s the extraordinary respect for the role”. Although unlike the ‘no’ button, the chief scientist’s badge is purely figurative. 

The respect for the Chief Scientist’s role is a bit like wearing a Sherriff’s Badge

That respect for science within government is something which cuts across party lines. It enables her to talk to all kinds of people – from industry, universities, publicly funded agencies and the public – in a way that few government positions allow. 

And doing so provides Foley with a birds-eye-view of common issues affecting different parts or departments of government – “you’re able to bring in information and make connections”. 

That convening capability – bringing people together in the name of science – is something Foley clearly revels in.

She’s set up a Government Science Group – corralling science expertise across more than 20 publicly funded agencies like sport, medicine, weather, technology, statistics, defence. 

Most people don’t realise the contribution of the public service to research in Australia, she says. 

“That’s such a hidden gem for Australia,” she says.

“We’ve got this incredible capability of people who are directed in their research, addressing what the government needs, so Australia’s ready and capable to respond to anything. Whether it’s regulatory things from pests and insects and weeds, through to medicines through to the weather and responding to AUKUS and nuclear capability.” 

She also regularly hosts a forum of state and territory chief scientists to discuss science, technology and research issues which cut across borders and government responsibilities. 

Forum of australian chief scientists 2023 10 05
The Forum of Australian Chief Scientists brings together state and territory science chiefs with Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley / Credit: Office of the Chief Scientist

There’s even get togethers globally, among chief scientists from ‘five eyes’ countries: Canada, the UK, US, New Zealand and Australia. “At the moment they’re all women,” she says, noting things might change when New Zealand’s chief hands over, and when Foley herself finishes up at the end of this year.

A highlight of her time in the role? 

Foley says there are many. But singles out leading the public conversations to support the refresh of the National Science and Research priorities as an “extraordinary privilege”.

She says it was extraordinary having conversations about those priorities across the country – whether talking to school kids, the research community, the public from urban to remote – and finding how aligned the responses were.     

The draft priorities, published last year, include: ensuring a net zero future and protecting Australia’s biodiversity, supporting healthy and thriving communities, enabling and productive and innovative economy and building a stronger, more resilient nation.

It’s not clear whether the ‘no’ button gets much use.

Foley is cramming as much as she can into her remaining time in the role, before she hands over her chief scientist’s badge. 

As the interview with Cosmos concludes, Foley opens a folder jam-packed with fresh information and scientific thinking to prepare for the next opportunity.

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