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Estimates hearings - Chief Scientist on Pulp Mill, nanotechnology, Tassie devil and more

STANDING COMMITTEE ON ECONOMICS

Office of the Chief Scientist
Discussion
03/06/2008

Senator MILNE—I just wanted to follow up on your work as Chief Scientist with regard to Gunns pulp mill in northern Tasmania. After you submitted your report last year has there been any follow-up with you? Have you spoken to the new ministers? Is it expected that there will be any follow-up? Can you just explain to me after you submitted your report, what is next?
Dr Peacock—Once I submitted that report that was the end of my role in that particular task. I believe one of the recommendations about the setting up of an expert committee to watch over the required tasks has been followed up with the department concerned. I have had nothing whatsoever to do with it.
Senator MILNE—Have the new ministers asked for any input from you in terms of overseeing some of the recommendations that you made? In particular, I am unaware if an independent site supervisor, for example, has been appointed, but I do not think that has happened.
Dr Peacock—I am not aware of that. I did supply some requested information to Senator Abetz—
Senator ABETZ—Which was very helpful, I might say.
Dr Peacock—from the last appearance and I think the department was also requested to provide information to Senator Brown. That was also done.
Senator MILNE—You would be aware that you have been quoted in various places as having said that the pulp mill would be world’s best practice. Can you confirm again for the committee the very narrow nature of the assessment you did to which that remark was directed?
Senator ABETZ—That is a very loaded question.
Dr Peacock—I fulfilled the requirements of the task that I was set. I set up an expert committee to look within the bounds of the Commonwealth responsibilities. To that extent it was narrow but we did that, I think, quite comprehensively.
Senator MILNE—And the Commonwealth responsibilities were twofold, were they not: migratory species and Commonwealth waters?
Dr Peacock—That is one way of summarising it, but there was also a concern with regard to other endangered species, threatened species, in areas of the pulp mill construction and in the pipeline.
Senator MILNE—Yes, but it did not include looking at the forests or the atmospheric pollution, did it?
Dr Peacock—Not at all, no.
Senator MILNE—I will move on in relation to other things. Has anyone in the new government asked you to do any work on nanotechnology?
Dr Peacock—Nanotechnology is one of the topics on which I have been in discussion with the minister, Minister Carr. It is one of the areas of science that I believe is very important for Australia. I have been involved in preparing material describing what is being done in Australia at the moment and what is happening around the world so that the minister can consider the future position in support of this, if so, within Australia.
Senator MILNE—You are preparing, more or less, a state-of-play on nanotechnology report for the minister—is that a fair way to describe what you have just said?
Dr Peacock—I think so.
Senator MILNE—In relation to any climate change or emissions trading work, has the government asked you to prepare anything or has there been any interaction with Professor Garnaut in the drawing up of the emissions trading scheme?
Dr Peacock—Not directly, no. I have prepared, in the past, some fact sheets surrounding topics in climate change. I have had nothing to do directly with any considerations of carbon trading matters.
Senator MILNE—You are not essentially involved in that process?
Dr Peacock—No.
Senator MILNE—What about with genetically modified organisms, has the government asked you to prepare any material or are you in the process of preparing any?
Dr Peacock—No, nothing during my tenure as Chief Scientist.
Senator MILNE—Just so that I understand the process as much as anything else, can you initiate any work on your own or do you have to wait to be asked by the government to prepare something?
Dr Peacock—My task includes providing advice on topics that I make a personal judgement about, I guess, from knowledge of science that I believe that the minister, the Prime Minister or another minister in government should know about. So I take that seriously.
Senator MILNE—Can you give me an idea of what work you have been preparing since the last estimates then—what papers you are working on to provide to government apart from the nanotechnology one you have just cited?
Dr Peacock—In the first place I will give examples of 10 areas of science research that I think are key for Australia’s future. The minister has asked me to prepare draft business plans for two of those at the moment. One is in the area of nanotechnology and nanostructures and the other is in epigenetics.
Senator MILNE—What are the other eight?
Dr Peacock—I do not know that I can list them all here for you but they would include solar energy, including solar thermal and photovoltaics and matters to do with water security and climate adaptation, things that are clearly of great importance. There is also molecular resistance to virus diseases that applies to all organisms from plants to humans. There are very exciting developments in science in regard to that. I think I have suggested the Antarctic and Southern Oceans; also tropical marine systems are things that I believe the government needs to know where we are at this stage. I am not sure I have given you all eight but I can provide you with a list—
Senator MILNE—I would like to have those topics, if I may—
Dr Peacock—They are personal views of mine, but I can do that.
Senator MILNE—I would like to ask the minister a question with regard to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. As Australia is a member of IUCN, the world conservation union, and there is the congress in Barcelona in October this year, I want to mention there is not currently in IUCN an Antarctic and Southern Ocean program. There is an Arctic program. As a regional councillor from Oceania I have been lobbying with my colleagues from New Zealand for IUCN to increase its level of attention and focus to Antarctica and the Southern Ocean. In view of the work that Dr Peacock has done in relation to identifying why the Southern Ocean and Antarctica need greater attention, could I ask that you might refer this matter to those people in the government who might be preparing Australia’s participation in the IUCN congress in Barcelona to look at providing some support to make sure we get a global program on Antarctica and the Southern Ocean?
Senator Carr—I would be happy to. Any material that Dr Peacock provides to me is not just for me. Of course there is advice tendered to whole-of-government. Part of Dr Peacock’s role through PMSEIC, for instance, is an issue that we have sought. But I have also asked Dr Peacock to serve on the national innovation systems review, so there are other avenues to pursue these broader issues in terms of our national innovation system response. Part of that process is our international obligations and an attempt to expand our international obligations. The difficulty, of course, is that in the straitened budgetary circumstances that we find ourselves in we are trying to maintain capacity in this area, which is not always at the rate I would like, and I know the officers experience constant frustration asking people to engage in international activities, given that they are under such strain as a result of the productivity changes that we have asked them to undertake.
Senator MILNE—In relation to areas of science, have you considered doing any work on the devil facial tumour disease in Tasmania? There is considerable interest globally in that cancer that is passed on by biting and cell-to-cell transfer of cancer. There are quite a lot of oncologists dealing with cancer in humans who are very interested in the disease. The research on it seems to be incredibly slow and the animals are rapidly facing endangerment and probably extinction unless we hurry up. Has anyone talked to you about doing any work in this field? Is it something you might consider taking up?
Dr Peacock—I have been interested in that particular topic for some years and I have been in discussion with scientists involved in that area. I think the identification of the vigorous and attacking cancer cell was really a magnificent bit of research. There were completely different ideas initially. It may seem to have been slow but I think there really has been excellent progress and it has opened up a lot of questions on the immune system that need to be followed up with basic research now. And it has, of course, been important for thinking about management and conservation of the species.
Senator MILNE—Will you give some consideration to maybe elevating the effort and profile of the science around that disease?
Dr Peacock—I have not tried to assess beyond what I said whether the concentration of effort is sufficient or could be increased. A lot of that relates to decisions around the state government, of course.
Senator MILNE—That is precisely why I am asking, because the effort, in my view, has not been given the resources or the profile that is required. There have been many overseas laboratories seeking tissue et cetera. It has taken a long time to get to the point where they have opened up a collaborative research arrangement. As I said, the animals are going to extinction faster than it seems the science is going. I know there is a lot of willingness around the world to deal with it, so I was really hoping you might be prepared to engage it to see if we can lift the profile and get more global science collaboration on this particular disease?
Dr Peacock—I can only say once again that often research seems to be slow, but I consider this to have been a wonderful research effort with a fine outcome in the analysis and I think it has led to global partnerships in research. I do not know all the details. It would be possible for me to find out. I think importantly it has laid open the principles of attempts to make sure there is no extinction of the species.
Senator MILNE—We will see.
Dr Peacock—We can but try.
Senator MILNE—Thank you.

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