As the Federal election approaches, the Government and Opposition are promising to give scientists a greater voice in policy discussions. But engineers need to be at the top table too, says Engineers Australia CEO Peter McIntyre.
McIntyre told create it is important that governments of all persuasions move away from populist policy based on opinion rather than fact.
“There’s a trend around the world towards popularism. I don’t think that’s a constructive way for Australia or the world to move forward when there are so many challenging issues facing us,” he said.
“That’s where scientists and engineers will play a role – in supporting governments in proper policy based upon evidence.”
And there are indications that both of the major parties are willing to listen. The Federal Government has recently announced a new National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which they say will help science and technology gain a stronger voice in the policy process.
For its part, Labor has promised to establish a Prime Minister’s Science and Innovation Council and launch a $1 million inquiry into science and research, if it wins come election time.
McIntyre supports these moves to strengthen the avenues for scientific advice, and looks forward to seeing the detail of how they will be applied. He also believes engineers need to be represented on bodies such as the NSTC to expand theory and research to deployment of practical solutions for the community.
“Where the rubber hits the road is through engineering,” he explained.
Trailing our global competitors
Another Labor election promise is to boost research funding to 3 per cent of GDP by 2030. This has been welcomed by Universities Australia Chief Executive Catriona Jackson, who said Australia must keep pace with the investments of leading world nations to remain competitive.
McIntyre agreed, pointing out that Australia’s level of research and development funding is below the OECD total of 2.3 per cent of GDP.
“We’re trailing our international competitors … As a modern community, we need to continually invest in R&D,” he said, adding that the level of funding Labor is proposing will require both public and private sector investment.
According to the latest available OECD data (from 2016), Australia’s R&D spending as a percentage of GDP has fallen below China, Slovenia and the Netherlands, although it is still slightly above the UK and Canada.
Engineering thinking is critical
McIntyre said some governments have already engaged chief scientists and engineers to help inform evidence-based policy.
The NSTC will be chaired by Commonwealth Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel, who is an engineer. Finkel is a Fellow of Engineers Australia and this year’s recipient of the country’s top engineering award: the Peter Nicol Russell Career Achievement Memorial Medal.
Several state governments also have expert advisors. NSW established a combined Chief Scientist and Engineer position a decade ago. This role is currently filled by roboticist Professor Hugh Durrant-Whyte, who is also an Engineers Australia fellow.
Earlier this year, the Victorian Government followed suit, appointing its first Chief Engineer – Dr Collette Burke – to provide guidance on the state’s infrastructure boom. The ACT has also announced a permanent chief engineer position, with public servant George Tomlins as the interim incumbent. The permanent position is expected to be filled early next year.
McIntyre said he would like to see more state governments appoint chief engineers and scientists. He is also an advocate for having engineers at the “top table” in government advisory boards to lend analytical and critical thinking skills to policy discussions.
While he believes dedicated chief engineer roles are ideal, McIntyre supports combined scientist and engineer positions where budgetary or political concerns make this a more pragmatic approach.
“The critical thing to my mind is there is an opportunity to channel engineering thinking and the concerns of engineers through a senior person at the table in government,” McIntyre said.