By now you’re probably familiar with the role of Chief Health Officer, but what about Chief Engineer?

They’ve advised governments on everything from synthetic turf, wild horses, digital transformation, coal-seam-gas, education and net zero strategy.

Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, many Australians are now overly familiar with our Chief Health Officers. Some even have nicknames (like SA’s “Saint Nicola”), or their faces printed on throw pillows (like Victoria’s Professor Brett Sutton).

Along with CHOs, many states and territories also have Chief Engineers.

But who are they, and what do they do?

NSW created the role of Chief Scientist and Engineer in 2008. Victoria followed in 2018 appointing a Chief Engineer to oversee the state’s gargantuan infrastructure pipeline, in a role separate to its Lead Scientist. And ACT appointed a Chief Engineer in 2019.

What does a Chief Engineer do all day?

The issues Chief Engineers are asked to respond to are extremely diverse.

Nsw chief scientist and engineer, hugh durrant-whyte
NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte / Credit: Supplied

Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte says in his role as NSW Chief Scientist and Engineer, he provides independent, evidence-based guidance to the state government.

Those requests for advice can come from any ministry. Durrant-Whyte has looked into topics as wide-ranging as synthetic turf, wild horses in the Kosciuszko, energy security and semi-conductors. In responding, his office will often bring in relevant external expertise, like leading academics in different fields.

The role also supports researchers and universities, helps drive commercialisation of research and early-stage companies, as well as science and engineering outreach. 

Luke Belfield took on the role of Victoria’s Chief Engineer in 2021, following on from Dr Collette Bourke. Unlike the independent advisory role in NSW, Belfield’s role sits within the Victorian government. 

Belfield works across the state government advising on everything from the state’s $21.2 billion infrastructure pipeline, to improving indoor air quality for public health, a registration scheme for engineers, and the state’s hydrogen energy supply chain.

His role isn’t necessarily dealing at the design level, but rather assisting with challenges at the policy level in government. This requires a skill set which combines navigating policy, together with engineering expertise and project management experience.

Victorian chief engineer, luke belfield
Victoria’s Chief Engineer, Luke Belfield / Supplied

Recently Belfield has been working on the state’s digital transformation, moving government towards more digital practices and processes. His office has developed guidance for government projects as well as legal contracts to support the policy.

For example, a pilot project Belfield is working on is “a progressive handover of assets using 3D models and 3D scanning. Rather than the traditional approach, which has been 2D drawings and, marking up onsite as-builts [in] redline pen.”

The ACT’s Chief Engineer Adrian Piani says his role is focussed on providing infrastructure advice and ensuring the ACT government has the engineering skills its needs to make Canberra one of the world’s most liveable cities. He also advocates for the role of engineering.

One of the projects Piani is most proud of is “a secondment program where early career engineers from the public and private sectors do a job rotation through two firms. This enables participants to work for a construction contractor, a design consultant firm, and a government directorate, giving them an integrated view of infrastructure delivery.”

Is there any difference between a chief engineer and lead scientist?

Other states and territories have leading scientists, rather than engineers. There are subtle but important differences between the two fields.

Engineers and scientists have similar interests, but it’s usually engineers who convert that knowledge into something tangible, says Durrant-Whyte.

“Engineering is about translating science into things that not just work, but create prosperity and better outcomes.” 

Engineers are involved in designing and building almost everything around us. From chemistry of dyes in dress fabrics, to the manufacturing and quality control of RNA or semiconductors, he says.

Belfield agrees, “engineering is the practical application of science”. 

Read more: Kitchen engineering and the Great British Bake Off – can kids develop a taste for engineering?

Cosmos was curious about whether the state government chiefs of science, engineering, health or architecture ever get together. Belfield says he has worked with many of these experts individually, most recently with the Chief Health Officer on indoor air quality.

What has engineering ever done for us?

Act chief engineer, adrian piani
ACT Chief Engineer, Adrian Piani / Supplied

Belfield says engineers use science and maths to solve problems. They try to understand how and why things work, and work to improve the state of the world, amplify human capability and make people’s lives safer and easier and more enjoyable.

Durrant-Whyte says, “there’s an interesting need […] to communicate to society, the value of engineering, and the joy of it, as well. I think that’s important. And to move away from the idea that engineers just build buildings. But actually, the fact that we create everything that’s around us.”

Piani adds, “engineers create technology and deliver infrastructure which provides the foundation for community wellbeing. Engineers are central to happiness!”

Jane MacMaster is Chief Engineer of professional body, Engineers Australia. Her role focuses on upholding professional standards, ensuring Australia’s engineers are ethical, competent and high-performing. She also engages and advocates on behalf of the profession in policy conversations and raising awareness of engineering with young Australians, career advisors and teachers.

Jane macmaster, chief engineer for engineers australia
Engineers Australia, Chief Engineer Jane MacMaster / Credit: Engineers Australia

MacMaster says government-appointed Chief Engineer roles like those in the NSW, Victoria and the ACT, “are critically important for ensuring that decisions made for the community are informed by engineering knowledge and experience“.

And as well as state-based chiefs, she says there should be a Chief Engineer advising the Australian Government. 

While MacMaster has heard reluctance to the idea of a national Chief Engineer as ‘yet another’ advisory position, she believes the benefits of such a role far outweigh any real or perceived costs.

MacMaster says engineering is a rewarding career which contributes to society. 

“An engineering qualification is an asset for life. Your career can take so many fascinating twists and turns – it really is a ‘choose your own adventure’. That’s exciting because no matter how you want to contribute a positive difference to the world, there is almost certainly an engineering contribution to be made.”

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