Meet Australia’s New Chief Scientist: Another Old Rich White Guy

Sure, Alan Finkel is all for renewable energy, but let's not pretend this is a progressive move.

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28 October 2015, 3:15am

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Australia has new Chief Scientist—66-year-old Alan Finkel. Unless you go to Monash University, where Alan is the Chancellor, you've probably never heard of him. From a distance Alan looks pretty cool: he drives an electric car, and parks it at his 100 percent solar powered house where he lives with his wife Elizabeth Finkel, the award-winning science journalist. He's got off to an admirable start too. At his first press conference since his appointment (with Malcolm Turnbull at his side) he shared his vision of a future with "zero emission electricity generation" that required no use of coal, oil or natural gas.

To get there, Alan wants us to harness more solar and wind power, while developing feasible ways to store all that renewable energy. More contentiously, his vision of the future is also nuclear powered. But no matter where you stand on the nuclear debate, you can't deny he's a savvy guy. Before becoming the country's number one science person, he co-founded popular science magazine Cosmos and ran a lucrative robotics company out of California.

But no matter how impressive Alan's CV looks, it probably isn't going to guarantee that you, or the rest of the population, have any tangible idea about what the Chief Scientist actually does. Which is understandable, because lately they've done shit all. Traditionally the Chief Scientist acts as an independent advisor to the Prime Minister. But under Tony Abbott—the man who called repealing the carbon tax his "greatest achievement" and erased the Minister for Science—no one really felt like chatting.

Alan's predecessors haven't exactly had a sparkling time in the job. The former Chief Scientist Ian Chubb spent most of his three years giving speeches. Before Ian, Penny Hackett held, and controversially quit, the role. The only female to ever have the title, it was widely rumoured she bailed because the government found her "too outspoken and opinionated." She was publicly critical of the then-government's lack of action on climate change, and she released a damning report about Australia's lack of female scientists.

Since Penny's premature departure, the Chief Scientist's role has been a decidedly quiet one. But that's something Alan clearly hopes to change by collaborating more closely with governmental departments. And while Prime Minister Turnbull is yet to elaborate on Alan's exact position in his government, he has said it'll be "central."

On the surface, it appears we could be returning to Penny's model, where the Chief Scientist is a vocal figure who pushes the government hard on climate change and scientific diversity. But looking more closely at Alan and Malcolm's partnership, it becomes hard to identify any concrete changes they'll throw down. The duo are yet to mention anything they're going to amend in our energy supply, and diversity in our labs hasn't popped up once.

Our continued reluctance to address gender diversity in the Australian scientific community is a big deal. There's a critical lack of high-level female scientists in the country, and existing numbers are only falling with rates of females working in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) industries shown to start hemorrhaging when women reach the midpoint of their careers. Penny pointed out the trend six years ago, and it has since been suggested it's a product of a lack of female visibility in high-level positions. Like, say, Chief Scientist.

Sarah Maddison, an astrophysicist at Swinburne University, elaborated to VICE: "Lecturers, professors and talking heads are more likely to be men. Young women don't see people like them, so they can't say, 'I can image myself being that person later on.' There's a lack of positive roles models."

The appointment of a new Chief Scientist was a chance to do something about that deficit, or at least talk about it. But it's a chance the government totally missed.

And as for Alan's promising vision of a coal-free future? It hasn't got off to a great start. During the his press conference with the PM, Turnbull asserted coal's going to be "a very important part, a very large part, the largest single part" of the world's energy supply for "a very long time." Even with progressive Alan standing by his side, he flatly rejected the idea he'd call a moratorium on coal export. Looks like no one is about to start listening to the Chief Scientist after all.

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