Australia's Chief Scientist

Professor Ralph Slatyer Memorial Speech

For a printable PDF version of this speech, download here.

It is my honor to be asked to say a few words about Ralph, a pioneer in so many ways, not least for his work as the inaugural Chief Scientist.

Ralph’s work in the role has left several pretty major legacies, and one of them is reflected on the image behind me.

Ralph used to say that he was totally committed to cooperative research. In an interview with theAcademyofScience, he referred to it as scientists “throwing sparks off each other’’

Well he took that belief and turned it into something real, something lasting and something important – The Co-operative Research Centres program.

So how did he do it?

Ralph was on holidays inKorea, celebrating his birthday, when he received the phone call offering him the role of Chief Scientist.

He was told this new role was going to be different in terms of government’s interaction with the scientific community.

He got the call because Ralph had already been advising the Federal government at the highest levels for some time.

Malcolm Fraser asked Ralph to chair the Australian Science and Technology Council (ASTEC) in 1982, and Bob Hawke kept him on when he became Prime Minister in 1983.

This bi-partisan recognition of Ralph’s knowledge; leadership and dedication should not be under-estimated. It speaks volumes about the high regard in which he was held and the weight that his advice to subsequent governments carried.

Which is why he got the call offering him this new job – Chief Scientist.

Ralph was told he’d have access to Cabinet papers and be expected to be across them.

The new framework promised a better, two-way flow of information, between government and science and allowed Ralph to influence policy to a greater extent than he’d perhaps been able to in previous roles.

So in his first year as Chief Scientist, Ralph grabbed the opportunity presented and busied himself with establishing the Co-operative Research Centres program.

Accompanying Bob Hawke to CHOGM in 1990, Ralph used the opportunity to raise with him the idea that would become the CRCs.

He then set about looking at what other countries were up to in Europe, as well as theU.S.,JapanandKorea.

Ralph recognized that if it was to survive internationally, Australian science had to overcome the tyranny of distance – internal and external.

So he worked on his framework to build large, multi-disciplinary teams as a way of overcoming fragmentation of research due to geographic factors.

As you’d all appreciate, this had traditionally been quite an obstacle forAustralia’s researchers, spread out as they were, and you need to remember that this was before the internet revolutionized communication.

Ralph referred to his plans as “a gigantic experiment in distance co-operation research’’ and he worked tirelessly at building support with the various stakeholders, so as to get his plan signed off before the then coming Federal election, something we still try to do..

Well that didn’t quite go according to plan.

In 1990, an election was called and during the campaign, Bob Hawke delivered those now famous lines – “No longer content to be just the lucky country,Australiamust become the clever country’’

Ralph’s plan was now front and centre of an election campaign and you can imagine his surprise when science formed the basis of full-page newspaper ads.

Well the campaign was fought, Bob Hawke won, and Ralph’s hope that his plan could be enacted was finally realized.

More importantly, the CRCs survive to this day, having weathered several changes of government, surely the greatest testament to their perceived value.

The Allen Consulting Group reported to the department this July, on the economic, social and environmental impacts of the Cooperative Research Centres Program.

It estimated the projected net effect would grow the economy by more than $7.5 billion dollars – quite a legacy in the very month that Ralph was lost to us.

Ralph retired as Chief Scientist in 1992, but even then, he was called upon for advice by those trying to fix seemingly intractable problems.

I’m sure many of you here remember the logging truck blockade of Parliament House in 1995 – a pretty clear signal that when it came to management of our forests, things were broken.

Roger Beale, the Associate Secretary of Prime Minister and Cabinet, called Ralph to ask for his help and he quickly assembled and led a team of eminent forestry and ecology scientists.

Roger recounts how it was Ralph’s group’s timely, thorough work that gave the Federal Government a scientific basis to work out which bits of forest to protect, and this laid the groundwork for their negotiation with the States.

He also recounts how it was Ralph who later first raised with him the data proving that land clearing was raisingAustralia’s carbon emissions.

That understanding percolated through to the highest levels of government, which to that point had not understood how important this was to Australia’s carbon emissions profile.

This was important because it formed part of the so-called 1990 baseline – critical because it eventually allowedAustraliato move to its targets under theKyotoprotocol.

What these stories tell us about Ralph is that he was a man who could get people to understand the science, and its importance, which is quite a gift.

And at a time when we find science often gets buffeted by an alarming lack of understanding from the general community, he is a tremendous loss.

Let’s hope that the tireless spirit that drove Ralph to work to make this country and this planet a better place continues to inspire others who would accept the same mission. It does me.

I conclude with a quote that was included in an interview Ralph gave to Ann Moyal for the National Library.

Ralph said: Certainly I think I’ve been privileged to have the career I’ve had.  It’s sort of developed in a somewhat fortuitous way, but I think both my scientific career and my more public career have been interesting, challenging, fulfilling.  Frustrating at times.  But I couldn’t have wished for a more interesting life, I suppose…

Vale Ralph. And thank you.