Why having a Chief Scientist is good for business

An effective Chief Scientist is someone who can apply science to offer both insight and foresight for the betterment of the state, writes Sarah Keenihan.

Sep 18, 2023, updated Sep 18, 2023
Professor Caroline McMillen, AO, Chief Scientist for South Australia, at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). Photo: SAHMRI

Professor Caroline McMillen, AO, Chief Scientist for South Australia, at the South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI). Photo: SAHMRI

In South Australia, an established government advisory role recently became vacant – that of Chief Scientist. After being appointed in 2018, Professor Caroline McMillen is relocating to Melbourne for family reasons.

“I have stepped down from my role as Chief Scientist for South Australia,” McMillen revealed in late August 2023.

“I am sorry to leave the state and my wonderful colleagues from research and industry communities across the full breadth of South Australia.”

So what’s McMillen’s legacy? It seems like a simple question. But in reality, it can be hard to measure the impact of a job like Chief Scientist.

Part of the difficulty stems from the very nature of science itself.

Science is a noun, an adjective and a verb combined into one – it’s a thing, a describing word and an action all at the same time.

Science is an approach for understanding the world. It refers to how you conduct observation and research, and the results that are generated. Science is also an umbrella term that encapsulates different areas of expertise: things like geology, immunology and meteorology.

The Department for Industry. Innovation and Science states the role of Chief Scientist is to “provide independent advice to the Minister and Cabinet on matters related to STEM, research and development, and innovation to support the state’s economic growth and productivity”. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and maths.

By that definition, McMillen certainly has been successful.

She worked with career scientists in research institutions and universities, and with young scientists in schools. She set up the state’s EXCITE plan that identifies SA’s strengths and outlines strategies to drive widespread impact. She was key in establishing a program to drive collaboration and knowledge transfer within Adelaide BioMed City, and in joining the Tonsley Innovation District and Lot Fourteen with an established global innovation network. She doubled South Australia’s share of income in industry-led collaborations between business, researchers and end users.

“Being Chief Scientist requires working to support the priorities of the elected government of South Australia,” McMillen said.

“For me, one of the joys of the role was to offer connection across the entire ecosystem – not just working with the Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, but also with Trade and Investment, Energy and Mining, Environment and Water, Health, Education and others.”

“The role of the Chief Scientist isn’t strictly about your own knowledge per se, but more about assisting with finding the right expertise and independent data to support decision-making.”

Has McMillen’s work delivered economic benefits?

On the whole, we don’t really know yet. Because that’s another tricky thing about science – it takes a long time to do, and even longer for impacts to become clear.

Science’s timelines are something Dr Hannah Brown understands all too well. A former research scientist, Brown was recently appointed Executive Director at the South Australian Research and Development Institute (SARDI).

“For a body of scientific work, there might not be a measurable impact for two years, for five years, maybe not even for ten or more years,” Brown said. “In fact, sometimes there may be no obvious outcome at all – maybe it was about preventing something from happening.”

Brown says critical thinking and application of evidence to support decision-making is what makes science so relevant to good governance.

“It’s so valuable having people with STEM training in government,” Brown said.

“Layered over that, I think the Chief Scientist is able to remind people about the importance of scientific thinking and processes, no matter what the challenge is.”

The role of Chief Scientist for South Australia was first established under the leadership of Premier Mike Rann.

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Appointed in 2005, South Australia’s first Chief Scientist was a physicist, Professor Max Brennan. He was followed by another physicist (and former national Chief Defence Scientist) Dr Ian Chessel (2008-2010) and then water quality expert Professor Don Bursill (2011-2014).

The first woman to hold the role was biotechnologist Dr Leanna Read, who was in the role prior to McMillen.

“Done well, the Chief Scientist role acts like glue, holding all the pieces of a bigger science, development and innovation picture together,” Read said.

Read established a research consortium program that led to SAHMRI’s Registry of Senior Australian’s (ROSA) – an entity which applies data to reveal how older people navigate the aged care and health care sectors, and their overall health and quality of life.

Read also set up SA’s venture capital fund, which has supported SA companies including digital healthcare platform Personify Care and cancer detection start-up Ferronova.

The Department for Industry, Innovation and Science will be responsible for identifying potential candidates for the next Chief Scientist and making a recommendation to the Minister for Industry, Innovation and Science, and Cabinet.

“The next person should have a career’s worth of experience, but also be able to free themselves up to take on what is effectively a full-time commitment,” Read says.

Brown wonders if having the seat empty for a period might provide an opportunity to think about other models

“What if instead of one person working four to five days per week in the role, we appointed five people sourced across different areas of scientific expertise?” Brown said.

“This approach could result in a working group of Chief Scientists, each committing one day a week to the role but still embedded in their current areas of research.”

No matter who is next appointed, McMillen believes there are two key characteristics of an effective Chief Scientist: someone who can apply science to offer both insight (accurate and deep understanding of issues) and foresight (looking forward and anticipating what is needed in the future).

“Fundamentally, the job is about helping the government know where the global strengths and gaps of the state’s capabilities are, and getting from where you are to where you want to be,” McMillen said.

“That’s how science can have lasting impact.”

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