State science chiefs are joining the dots

Meet the Chiefs is an occasional series by Petra Stock. She previously covered the role of CSIRO Chief Scientist.

While Professor Peter Klinken describes his role as akin to consultant adviser, to Western Australia’s premier he’s the ‘thinker in residence’.

On any issue requiring a scientific lens, Klinken – WA’s chief scientist – gathers the evidence and takes out the “geek speak” before presenting it to policy makers. 

That might be a response to a question from a minister, or a problem or opportunity he thinks important to flag. The issues are as diverse as the energy transition, biosecurity, intellectual property, space and remote operations.

Before stepping into the role back in 2014, Klinken was a leading medical researcher and biochemist. In his early career he worked as secondary school teacher.

Now, as chief scientist, he sits outside academia, the political system and the public service – a position which offers him a “helicopter view”, Klinken says. 

It offers the rare privilege of presenting the evidence as he sees it. And enables Klinken to talk to people, and “knock on doors” across the state’s political, bureaucratic and education systems. 

“A lot of people are in their silos doing their particular thing, focused on deep diving. My job is to take a helicopter view, sit over the top, and try to join the dots,” he says.

Any advice he provides is independent, unfiltered, apolitical. “It’s just gathering all the evidence that’s available at the time, and then presenting it to the policymakers,” Klinken says. 

Yet being effective in the role still requires an understanding of the political system, the public service and the context and timeframes they operate in.

“You just need to make sure that you’re cognisant of some of the other factors that might have an impact on a decision that needs to be made.”

A lot of people are in their silos doing their particular thing, focused on deep diving. My job is to take a helicopter view, sit over the top, and try to join the dots

Professor Peter Klinken

At the moment, Klinken is heavily involved in the development of a new strategic 10-year science and technology plan for Western Australia, expected to be completed mid this year. 

Queensland too, is refreshing and broadening its science strategy, with its state chief scientist, Professor Kerrie Wilson, leading that effort. 

The new strategy will build on the existing ‘Engaging Queenslanders in Science’ strategy to encompass new elements like science infrastructure and talent development. 

Whereas Klinken might be one of the longest serving state chief scientists, Wilson is among the newest, coming into the role in November last year.

Her professional background is as a researcher working in environmental science and conservation, an interest “germinated in my childhood growing up, being quite close to really beautiful places in Queensland like K’gari [formerly Fraser Island] and also the Wet Tropics”.

Wilson’s expertise and networks are likely to come in handy as the state grapples with major environmental issues like land clearing, as well as the best ways to achieve an ambitious updated 2035 emissions target – 75% reduction below 2005 levels – announced by Premier Steven Miles in December. 

It’s a similar story in the West. Klinken’s top priorities – “numbers 1 to 10”, he says – are his state’s energy transition and decarbonisation.

“There is nothing more important for Western Australia, Australia and the planet, than getting this transition right.”

In both states, the chief scientist role is to provide independent advice on such matters. Ultimately how that advice is implemented and what decisions are made, is up to elected representatives.

But Wilson says there is increasing demand from the public for policies to be evidence-based. 

“The chief scientist provides an avenue for soliciting that evidence and providing it in a nonpartisan, apolitical way,” she says.

Wilson adds that having state-based chiefs, whose job includes promoting engagement and participation in science, and the achievements of Queensland research, is also “recognition that science underpins a lot of our economic growth and a lot of our future jobs will be STEM related”.

Being chief scientist is like being a dot-connector – having broad visibility across different disciplines and agencies

Professor Kerrie Wilson

It’s why she’s working closely with Queensland’s ‘chief entrepreneur’ – Julia Spicer – around initiatives like low carbon accelerators.

Energy transition and decarbonisation might be a central focus, but it’s far from the only issue requiring scientific advice. 

For instance, Klinken was asked to review the state’s response to a biosecurity pest called the tomato potato psyllid, a tiny insect capable of damaging crop yield and spreading disease. 

While Wilson has been tasked with chairing a new quantum innovation body to provide advice, after the Queensland Government committed $76 million towards a new quantum strategy.

Both are ‘chief cheerleaders’ for science, spruiking the importance of science and technology to their communities.

While Klinken and Wilson are focused on what’s in the best interests of their respective states, they do come together – with other state’s chief or leading scientists, like NSW chief scientist and engineer Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, Victoria’s lead scientist Dr Amanda Caples and other state and territory representatives – under the convening of Australia’s chief scientist Dr Cathy Foley.

They might be from different sides of the country, but there’s plenty of shared issues and common ground among chief scientists, and even similar language for describing their respective roles.

Wilson says being chief scientist is “kind of a network generator, or dot-connector […] having that broad visibility across relevant disciplines, agencies across the whole of government”.

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