April 24, 2024

State scientists join the dots

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

While Professor Peter Klinken describes his role as an advisor, he is the ‘thinker in residence’ for the Prime Minister of Western Australia.

On any issue that requires a scientific lens, Klinken – WA’s chief scientist – gathers the evidence and takes out the ‘nerd-speak’ before presenting it to policymakers.

This could be an answer to a question from a minister, or a problem or opportunity that he considers important to identify. The issues are as diverse as energy transition, biosecurity, intellectual property, space travel and remote operations.

Before taking on this position in 2014, Klinken was a leading medical researcher and biochemist. In his early career he worked as a high school teacher.

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

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

“A lot of people sit in their silos and do their specific thing, focused on deep diving. My job is to look from a helicopter view, sit over the top and try to connect the dots,” he says.

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

Yet, being effective in this role still requires an understanding of the political system, public services and the context and time frames in which they operate.

“You just have to make sure you’re aware of some of the other factors that could influence a decision that needs to be made.”

A lot of people sit in their silos and do their specific thing, focused on deep diving. My job is to look from a helicopter view, sit over the top and try to connect the dots

Professor Peter Klinken

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

Queensland is also revamping and broadening its science strategy, with the state’s chief scientist, Professor Kerrie Wilson, leading the effort.

The new strategy will build on the existing ‘Engaging Queenslanders in Science’ strategy and include new elements such as science infrastructure and talent development.

While Klinken may be one of the state’s longest-serving chief scientists, Wilson is one of the newest, taking on the role last November.

Her professional background is as a researcher in environmental sciences and conservation, an interest “germinated when I was growing up being quite close to really beautiful places in Queensland such as 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 challenges such as land clearing, as well as the best ways to achieve an ambitious updated 2035 emissions target – a 75% reduction below 2005 levels – announced by Prime Minister Steven Miles in 2035. December.

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

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

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

But Wilson says there is increasing public demand for evidence-based policies.

“The lead scientist provides an opportunity to gather that evidence and provide it in an impartial, apolitical way,” she says.

Wilson adds that having Heads of State whose role includes promoting engagement and participation in science and research performance in Queensland is also “a recognition that science underpins much of our economic growth and that much of our future jobs will be STEM related. ”.

Being a chief scientist is like a dot-connector: you have broad visibility across disciplines and agencies

Professor Kerrie Wilson

That’s why she works closely with Queensland’s ‘chief entrepreneur’ – Julia Spicer – on initiatives such as low-carbon accelerators.

While the energy transition and decarbonization may be a central focus, it is far from the only topic requiring scientific advice.

For example, Klinken was asked to assess the state’s response to a biosecurity pest called the tomato-potato psyllid, a small insect that can damage crop yields and spread 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 and emphasize the importance of science and technology to their communities.

While Klinken and Wilson are focused on what is in the best interests of their respective states, they do come together – with key or leading scientists from other states, such as NSW Chief Scientist and Engineering Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, Victoria’s Chief Scientist Dr Amanda Caples et al. state and territory representatives – convened by Australian Chief Scientist Dr Cathy Foley.

They may come from different sides of the country, but there are many shared issues and common ground among the lead scientists, and even similar language to describe their respective roles.

Wilson says that being a chief scientist is “a kind of network generator or point connector […] with that broad visibility within relevant disciplines and agencies throughout government.”

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