The New Chairman of CSIRO – Simon McKeon

Today marks Simon McKeon’s first day as Chairman of the board of CSIRO, Australia’s national scientific research agency. McKeon is an experienced professional executive, leaving an Executive Chairman position at the Macquarie Bank to take up the CSIRO role. Amongst McKeon’s other roles are directorial positions with VisionFund Inernational and the Global Poverty Project, both of which are Christian organisations. He is also Chairman of the Point Nepean Trust and MS Australia.

McKeon recently conducted and interview with the Sydney Morning Herald’s The Zone, which can be found here. McKeon is obviously comfortable in front of a camera, and in interviews. However, there are a few points that I would like to comment on;

  1. McKeon states that most areas of science are under debate (in reference to climate change I suppose), and this isn’t true – especially when it comes to climate change. Whilst there may be small, niche areas where experts are debating details, the reality is that most scientific research is conducted in such a way that when new discoveries are made, and findings reported, there are sufficient data and evidence to back up the conclusions drawn.
  2. And speaking of data, McKeon is in the majority, the WRONG majority, when he uses the word ‘data’ as a singular noun. I find my colleagues who are professional scientists usually confuse the plural for the singular too, but its widespread usage doesn’t stop it from grating on me immensely. People who use the word regularly must learn to use it properly.
  3. He doesn’t appear to know how to correctly pronounce ‘meteorology’! – I am almost inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt and put it down to a slip of the tongue under the pressure of a filmed interview, but everything else he says is so measured.
  4. It takes a fair bit of prodding from the interviewer to get McKeon to acknowledge that climate change is real. Whilst he is careful to toe the line and not stick his foot in it about any contentious issues before he even starts his new job, he is pretty much just straddling that fence most of the time. Maybe he has assumed this ‘safe’ position as he still is not completely informed on the subjects on which he is being questioned.
  5. Finally, and most frighteningly for me, McKeon alludes to his belief in a God. Debates about accommodationism and the reconciliation of science and religion are not going away any time soon, and whilst it is clear that it is possible for people to lead successful scientific careers whilst simultaneously holding a belief in a supernatural being, that doesn’t mean that I think it’s OK for a devout Christian, with vested interests in Christian organisations to be running Australia’s premier scientific research organisation.

Science requires clear logic, rational, reasoned thought processes and the critical analysis of data and evidence. The unfounded belief in an omniscient higher power demonstrates a fundamental lack of these skills, or an inability or unwillingness to apply them consistently.

The previous Chairman, Dr John Stocker AO, is an experienced immunoligst, with a distinguised international career in the biomedical sciences. Surely someone with a similar professional record to Dr Stocker would have been a  more appropriate successor.

I can only hope that board members Clark (who is also CEO), Chubb, Rathbone and Spurling have sufficient training in the sciences to make up for the skills McKeon lacks, but are so important to this position.