OPINION: It was a night to celebrate Australian science and the visionary thinkers shaping our future. Leaders of business and government, led by Prime Minister Tony Abbott, were all gathered at Parliament House to recognise the winners of the PM’s Prizes for Science. But there was one key person missing – the Minister for Science – because for the first time in more than 70 years, Australia’s cabinet doesn’t have a portfolio dedicated to science.

The PM’s Prizes is the premier event for the scientific community and it was fantastic to see Professor Terry Speed from the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute for Medical Research win the top award for his life’s work using mathematics and statistics to solve real world issues. He has helped farmers, miners and criminologists and paved the way to modern biology and personalised medicine – interpreting the actions of thousands of genes.

The Prizes also bring into focus the importance of science education and science teaching, and seeks out the inspirational people who teach in our primary and high schools.

This year, I am particularly proud that two “younger” scientists from UNSW were rewarded with the Malcolm McIntosh prize for Australia’s Physical Scientist of the Year going to Associate Professor Andrea Morello in our Faculty of Engineering and the 2013 Frank Fenner Prize for Australia’s for Life Scientist of the Year going to Associate Professor Angela Moles in our Faculty of Science.

Associate Professor Moles is a “global ecologist” – she has grappled with large-scale ecological systems in all parts of the world. Her work has taken her from the Tundra of Patagonia to the icebergs off Greenland, to gorilla habitats in Africa and to the jungles of Central America.

As part of her “World Herbivory Project”, Angela has worked with many international collaborators to assemble a database that now describes more than 450,000 plant species from 40,000 different sites around the globe. The program now provides data on global patterns of plant distribution and provides the foundation on which we can predict the impacts of climate change on plants and the animals that depend on them.

Associate Professor Andrea Morello is an exceptionally skilled engineer who designs and builds microscopic electronic components that will give us the next generation of computers and electronic devices. Last year, Andrea and his research group reported experiments where they were able to write and read information on the electron of a single phosphorus atom embedded in silicon. This discovery forms the basic elements of a new generation of atomic-scale computer – the so-called quantum computer. The bits in conventional computers are represented as either a one or a zero. With quantum computing, however, the atom-sized elements (called qubits) are not restricted simply to ones and zeros and information processing speeds up exponentially with each new qubit that can be added to a system.

Andrea says: “With just 300 qubits it is possible to store as much information as there are atoms in the universe.” A functional quantum computer will provide much much faster computing speeds and they will be enormously useful in the finance and healthcare industries, and for government, security and defence organisations. Quantum computers also have the prospect to open the door for new types of big computing applications that haven’t even been thought about yet.

With such brilliant examples of scientific research, the fact that the new coalition government was formed with the very obvious omission of a portfolio for Science has been brought into sharp focus. It has been a very long time since Australia didn’t have a Minister for Science (since the 1930s) and all of the developed countries with whom we would normally engage, have Ministers with an identified responsibility for Science. Most of the science and research community (and also the wider community) were agape when Science was simply missing from amongst the portfolio responsibilities.  It’s hard to fathom that a country in this modern day and age can have a Minister for Sport and a Minister for the Arts but no Minister for Science. How can that be?

There has been a degree of patience waiting for government to identify how science is properly located within the parliamentary structure but so far there has been no clear resolution. Science is too important for Australia’s future for it not to have a Minister who takes primary responsibility for it. Each of the Ministers will work hard on their respective portfolio, and unless somebody has identified responsibility for Science, it will always be second fiddle to the main areas where the Minister must perform. Science does seem to be a glaring omission from the government line-up; an omission we can only hope will be rectified in the near-term.

Professor Les Field is Vice-President and Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Research) at UNSW. He is also the Australian Academy of Science's Secretary for Science Policy.

A version of this opinion piece was published in The Australian.