New chief scientist makes waves with GM and nukes (1/3/2006)

Australia's new chief scientist - Dr Jim Peacock of CSIRO - is about as suspect as they come and the agenda he's pushing is already spreading alarm.

1.New chief scientist makes waves
2.CSIRO - a GM WATCH profile

1.New chief scientist makes waves
The World Today - Wednesday, 1 March , 2006 12:34:00
Reporter: Karen Percy

ELEANOR HALL: Just a day into the job and Australia's new Chief Scientist is already generating controversy.

Environmental groups and some farmers have expressed alarm at Dr Jim Peacock's comments supporting an expanded use of nuclear power and a wider use of genetically modified crops.

Dr Peacock was appointed yesterday as the Prime Minister's part-time advisor on science and technology.

It's a position that was a lightning rod for critics under Dr Peacock's predecessor, Robin Batterham.

And as Karen Percy reports, the post of Chief Scientist seems set to continue to attract attention.

KAREN PERCY: For the past nine months, the main office of the Chief Scientist has been vacant.

Now there's a new boss in the chair.

JIM PEACOCK: I think there's a lot of very important scientific issues in front of Australia at the moment.

KAREN PERCY: 68-year-old Jim Peacock is the CSIRO's leading plant researcher. He's also the President of the Australian Academy of Science.

Now he'll spend part of his time advising the Prime Minister on all things related to science, technology and innovation. And he's got a full agenda planned.

JIM PEACOCK: I think it's really time to reassess and discuss the possibility of using nuclear-based power. I've been concerned for some time in the application of the newer biotechnology techniques into agriculture. I think science education is critically important for the future of Australia.

KAREN PERCY: Few in the world of Australian science would quibble with the need for greater education about science matters.

But the nuclear issue is already attracting critics, like the Greens Senator from Tasmania, Christine Milne.

CHRISTINE MILNE: Nuclear power is an unacceptable option for Australia. It is not an option that is going to address climate change with the urgency that we need, and plus, it has all the downsides of weapons and waste.

Nuclear is not possible to deploy for at least another decade whereas tomorrow we could invest heavily in renewable energy, help the planet, and help ourselves.

KAREN PERCY: Senator Milne also believes Mr Peacock's past ties with the Federal Government could compromise his independence.

CHRISTINE MILNE: Dr Peacock was the recipient of the Prime Minister's inaugural science award some years ago, he then went onto the Prime Minister's advisory council, advising the Prime Minister and Cabinet.

I understand Dr Peacock also nominated the Prime Minister for an Academy of Science medal.

It's clear that they have a long-standing relationship and Dr Peacock will no doubt toe the Government line.

KAREN PERCY: Technology and agriculture have been a passion for Dr Peacock. He led the way in developing insect-proof cotton plants and he's conducted research into new strains of wheat, barley and rice.

This pro-GM stance is prompting concern from some quarters. Juliet McFarlane is the Eastern Spokesperson for the Network of Concerned Farmers.

JULIET MCFARLANE: Jim Peacock, I've heard him say quite publicly that it's time the states drop their moratoria and that we allow GM food crops to be planted in Australia, but what he never addresses is what states have to address, and that is the economics and the marketing side of GM crops.

KAREN PERCY: Juliet McFarlane says farmers who don't want to plant genetically modified crops are currently at a disadvantage.

JULIET MCFARLANE: The GM-free farmers are expected to provide the buffer zones and he's the one expected to keep his crop GM-free rather than the other way round.

KAREN PERCY: And she says non-GM farmers are also losing revenue.

JULIET MCFARLANE: At the moment we are seeing markets in China paying Canada $30 a tonne less for their Canola, which is not segregated, than for GM-free Canola.

Dr Peacock acknowledges the community concerns about GM crops, but he believes if Australians understand the technology better, they'll also realise its benefits.

JIM PEACOCK: I think the integration of these technologies into our agribusiness will be essential for the future.

KAREN PERCY: Dr Peacock will maintain his role at the CSIRO, an organisation that's also been embroiled in controversy of late, with claims scientists are being gagged over sensitive political issues like global warming.

It's an accusation Jim Peacock rejects.

JIM PEACOCK: As far as I can see, the way I've acted in the 40 years I've been with CSIRO I've never been asked to not talk about any particular topics.

KAREN PERCY: But there is a perception, is there not, that there might be a bit of a crisis of confidence in that organisation?

JIM PEACOCK: Well, I think the media reports have sort of cultured that confidence. I am working in CSIRO to ensure that there is no such, as the word has been used, "gagging", in reality. And I'm sure there isn't.

ELEANOR HALL: That's Australia's new Chief Scientist, Jim Peacock, ending Karen Percy's report.

2.CSIRO - a GM WATCH profile

CSIRO stands for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Reseach Organisation . It is promoted as Australia's pre-e


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