Here's what you need to know about Australia’s new chief scientist

Photo: Monash University.

Dr Alan Finkel has been named as Australia’s next Chief Scientist, replacing Professor Ian Chubb in January 2016 after a five-year stint.

Dr Finkel, chancellor of Monash University and is president of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering, is an engineer, neuroscientist, entrepreneur and philanthropist.

“Dr Finkel is renowned for his outstanding research, industrial and entrepreneurial achievements in Australia and overseas, his leadership and service in the university and education sector, the academies and national science bodies, and his experience in providing high-quality expert advice to government,” minister for industry, innovation and science, Christopher Pyne said.

“His will be a vital role in shaping Australia’s economic future and leading our national conversation on science, innovation and commercialisation across the research, industry and education sectors and with the wider community.”

Dr Finkel was made an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2014 for “distinguished service to science and engineering, and to tertiary education administration, and as an advocate for the protection of children, and to philanthropy”.

Prime minister Malcolm Turnbull said Finkel’s expertise will help Australia “stay ahead of the curve” in terms of combining science with industry in an innovative way.

“Finkel is remarkably qualified for this,” he said, adding that he will help improve Australia’s weaknesses in the collaboration between industry and researchers and universities.

“He has been a formidable communicator about science to the whole of the community,” he said, “able to make science and technology accessible to all Australians”.

Pyne hailed him as “a living example of how to commercialise research”.

“He fits precisely into the Government’s priority, or its cutting edge in this area which is to link business and science,” he said.

Finkel was across the news of the day responding to questions about the World Health Organisation’s report which found a link between processed meats and an increased risk of cancer.

“I’m not an expert, I did see the study and you can see a lot of contrary points… I don’t know the numbers, but of hundreds and hundreds of environmental chemicals and food stuffs that were looked at, only one was not regard as carcinogenic,” Finkel said.

“So moderation is probably the best approach.”

But he was soon grappling with a major political issue, energy, at today’s media conference announcing his appointment, and appearing to look beyond the government’s most recent view that there was a “moral” case for more coal mines and courting controversy in the process.

My vision is for a country, society, a world where we don’t use any coal, oil natural gas,” said Finkel.

“What we need to do is optimise the technology so that with we can cost effectively introduce alternatives. The best way to get rid of coal is to introduce alternatives that deliver value at a reasonable price rather than just arbitrarily turning it off.

He later added that it is “not unreasonable” to look at nuclear energy as a viable option.

“Nuclear is a zero emissions energy,” he said, but “it comes with issues. Including the fact we don’t yet have the infrastructure, the training, all the things that would enable it to be a viable industry. So it’s something that should be absolutely considered for a low emissions or a zero emissions future, if that is what we are looking for. But it is not the only way forward.”

His energy priority will be to reduce emissions, which is said can also be achieve through solar power and the improvement of batteries, and storage.

Turnbull said coal will continue to be a large part of the global energy mix and very important part of the energy agenda in Australia.

He also said he did not support a moratorium on new coal mines.

“If Australia stopped exporting coal, the countries to which we export it would simply buy it from somewhere else,” he said.

“If Australia were to stop all of its coal exports it would not affect – it would not reduce global emissions one iota. In fact, arguably it would increase them because our coal, by and large, is cleaner than the coal in many other countries.”

His view follows an open letter published in Fairfax newspapers today, signed by 61 prominent Australians, including three former Australians of the year and Wallabies star David Pocock, which calls on the PM to stop new coal mines and include discussions on a moratorium on coal to the Paris climate change agenda.

When it comes to the current climate change targets, Dr Finkel said “it’s an evolving thing” and would look into it more once he is in office.

“My role is to advise the Prime Minister and the relevant Ministers. That is the way that I would hope to be operating. My intention will be to give the best possible evidence-based advice and I am absolutely confident that I will get a receptive audience,” Dr Finkel said.

“In terms of climate target, it’s an evolving thing. I will need time to engage on that.”

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