Science Advisor’s 2016 priorities include work on primary production research needs

Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, has been taking stock of the progress made in promoting the use of evidence in public policy formation and his office’s work programme for the first half of 2016.

The seasonal glad tidings for NZIAHS members is that Sir Peter’s agenda next year includes working with government departments on the longer-term research needs of Government and New Zealand in areas such as primary production, conservation and the environment.

The tidings will be even gladder, a year hence, if scientists can look back and see his work in this area is being translated into more accommodating funding decisions.

But Sir Peter’s big achievement in the past year has been more a matter of injecting a stronger scientific influence on government policy than on the funding of science. The first item listed in his just-published press statement is the establishment of further departmental science advisor positions in  ministries in the environmental and social sectors.

A network is now established with scientists who are also skilled brokers at the interface between science and policy, he said.

Sir Peter chairs this Committee of Science Advisors, “which also includes the Chief Economist and the Government Statistician”, according to the press statement.

The “chief economist” of what exactly?

Sir Peter was more illuminating last month when he was a member of a keynote panel on science advice to governments at the Canadian Science Policy Conference 2015. He said then:

This Committee Of Science Advisors also includes the Chief Economist from Treasury, the Government Statistician and, as observers, the President of the Royal Society of NZ and a deputy head of the public service commission. As well as networking and providing mutual support and peer review of their respective activities to lift the use of evidence within their ministries, the committee is increasingly assigned tasks by the Government, including a request to provide independent review of the evidential support for a number of budget bids from within the social sector.

Next year, according to the pre-Christmas press statement, Sir Peter and the Science Advisory network will turn their attention to developing further guidance on:

  • The procurement and commissioning of research by government departments and agencies; and
  • The engagement of the academic community with government data.

This work, expected to take six months and including extensive consultation, will likely result in further recommendations to the Prime Minister on the principles and practices for the production and treatment of science-based evidence for public policy decision-making and on the interface with academia.

He is talking here of yet another report which he describes as the logical next step in a series of reports he has produced on the use of evidence in policy making in New Zealand.

The objective of the 2016 project is to produce practical guidance for agencies, research providers and academics on the interface between government departments and the research community.

Sir Peter said:

Government departments increasingly seek to commission and use science in their decision-making. Conversely, there is a growing opportunity to promote academic research that requires access to governmental data.

In these interfaces the integrity and independence of the science, its process and its findings must be protected. However, there often needs to be engagement between the policy maker and the research community to ensure the questions addressed can impact on policy processes.

The key is how to strike the right balance, with appropriate provisions in place to protect the integrity of both the science and the policy process. The culture of accountability in the public service can be strengthened with principles-based guidance for policy makers on how to treat scientific knowledge production and its use within the public sector.

One other project is well under way and will be delivered in the first half of 2016.

This will be on “decision making in the context of uncertainty,” looking at popular and scientific understandings of risk, uncertainty and precaution and how these are applied in different contexts.

This report is intended to be a discussion starter for New Zealanders about risks faced, risks taken and how better-informed decisions can be taken.

We may suppose big decisions on matters like genetic modification come into this category.

Sir Peter will also continue also to devote time to supporting New Zealand’s international interests through science diplomacy and to promoting science in society initiatives – in particular those initiatives launched through A Nation of Curious Minds.  He said he looks forward to visiting many of its school- and community-based science projects throughout the year.

Sir Peter will also be developing initiatives to engage emerging scientists in understanding the science-policy interface.




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