Let’s not forget science is one of the pillars of Labour’s primary industries approach

NZIAHS president Jill Stanley – going out to bat for agricultural and horticultural scientists on Radio Live at the weekend – reminded her interviewers and audience of something Labour’s Andrew Little told Federated Farmers almost a year ago.

Mr Little was Labour’s leader at the time and immediately after the introductory courtesies he told the feds:

The future of New Zealand’s primary industries can be summed up in two words — science and sustainability.

These are the twin pillars of Labour’s approach.

Last month Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced 15 appointments to the Primary Sector Council, which has been charged with helping the primary sector to capture more value from its work.

The council will provide independent strategic advice to the Government on issues confronting the primary industries.

But where are the scientists?

Dr Stanley raised that question in a press statement (HERE).

She was asked to discuss her concerns with Radio Live’s Rural Exchange team (the interview can be heard HERE) at the weekend.

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EPA closes the shutters after its CEO is cleared by select committee majority

Environmental Protection Authority board chair Kerry Prendergast has announced – in effect – that her agency’s chief executive, Dr Allan Freeth, has been cleared of misleading Parliament’s Environment Select Committee during a session on 15 February.

She then said the EPA will be making no further statements or accepting any requests for interviews on issues raised during a briefing of the select committee.

But the report on the briefing (HERE) suggests there’s more to be explained or clarified.

First, Government members of the committee used their majority numbers to vote down an opposition request to have the Ministry for the Environment’s chief executive, Vicky Robertson, answer questions about her involvement in the departure of EPA chief scientist Dr Jacqueline Rowarth from the authority.

Second, a minority of the committee’s membership believe the independence of the EPA “has been compromised with the early departure of a highly competent and respected Chief Scientist”.

The minority contends the timing of this departure can be directly connected to concerns raised by new ministers soon after their appointment.

Kerry Prendergast has brushed over the schism within the select committee and the questions raised by the dissidents.

According to her press statement (HERE), the select committee concluded in its report, released on 4 May 2018:

“We are satisfied Dr Freeth did not mislead us at the EPA’s 2016/17 annual review hearing. The majority of us do not have any concerns to raise after reviewing the written evidence and our hearing with Dr Freeth.”

Ms Prendergast’s statement excluded the next significant chunk of the conclusion:

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EPA chief releases statement to Parliament’s Environment Select Committee

Dr Allan Freeth, Chief Executive of the Environmental Protection Authority, today released a statement he made to Parliament’s Environment Select Committee on his dealings with Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage.

The statement deals with his authority’s independence and with the recent resignation of its Chief Scientist, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

The statement says:

I wrote to the Committee last week, in relation to an email I received from the Honourable Nick Smith, raising concerns about apparent inconsistencies in the evidence I provided to the Select Committee at the annual review hearing on 15 February 2018.

I note that the concerns were raised in the context of questions about whether there had been any discussions with the Associate Minister for the Environment, Hon Eugenie Sage, about the Environmental Protection Authority’s then Chief Scientist, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

Thank you for accepting my offer to appear again, although, contrary to media reports, I am not here to correct any previous statements.

Consistent with my communication to the Committee last week, I wish to confirm to the Committee that I did not provide any inaccurate or incorrect information in my previous evidence.

As I stated, at no time, in the period covered by, and up to the Select Committee hearing, did I have any discussions with Minister Sage about Dr Rowarth or the role and independence of the EPA.

I note that, since I communicated my offer last week to return to the Committee, Minister Sage has made a personal statement to the House correcting her answers to oral questions, which touched on whether I had been present at a meeting, which I understand took place on 29 November 2017, when she told officials that her office had received correspondence about media comments by Dr Rowarth.

The Minister said in her correcting statement that (and I quote): “The EPA’s Chief Executive was not at the meeting on 29 November. The meeting was a briefing from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) about the EPA, and I advised MfE’s Chief Executive that my office had received correspondence.”

I also wish to confirm that at no time in the period covered by, and up to the Committee hearing, had Minister Sage raised any issue with me about the scientific independence of the EPA.

The Minister’s office did send me an article that had been emailed to her by a member of the public. I acknowledged that I had seen it and offered to have a follow-up meeting with the Minister if requested. My offer of a follow-up meeting with the Minister was not acknowledged and no meeting occurred.

I regard it as entirely legitimate for the Minister’s office to send media reports to me, in the context of the responsible Minister’s oversight of the Authority. My experience up to now, has been consistent with this practice.

The Chief Executive of the Ministry for the Environment also emailed me about the article. These communications are now a matter of public record. However, I note that the questions raised with me about the EPA’s scientific independence were expressly in the context of Ministerial interference.

In conclusion, Dr Freeth said he trusts this clarifies the situation.

He assured the committee the EPA takes the issue of its independence extremely seriously. He saw no basis for concerns in regard to this status; nor did he expect concerns to be raised in the future.

Source: Environmental Protection Authority

More transparency advocated by “critic and conscience” of land and water science challenge

Baisden

Professor Troy Baisden … open up, please.

Questions have been raised about the  achievements of the Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, launched in January 2016 by Steven Joyce, then Minister of Science and Innovation, with the worthy aim of enhancing New Zealand’s primary sector economic contributions while improving the environment.

Transparency is one of the concerns raised by Waikato University’s Troy Baisden.

This concern was heightened at a symposium last week when the governance board’s chair, Dr Paul Reynolds said:

“Sadly … we are not going to tell you much about the excellent science we have done.”

The curious explanation – apparently – is that the symposium needed to focus on the Challenge’s future.

When the challenge was launched, Dr Reynolds said (HERE) the primary sectors underpin the country’s economy and it had never been more urgent to provide research solutions that enhanced productivity while maintaining and improving the environmental values on which farming, as well as society, depended.

He said researchers had worked extensively with farmers, growers and foresters, environmental managers and Māori to co-develop a programme to meet the challenge’s objective.

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Associate Minister is questioned about emailing of article critical of EPA’s chief scientist

Eugenie Sage, the Associate Minister for the Environment, faced further questioning in Parliament today about whether a Minister should interfere in the independence of the Environmental Protection Authority, particularly in its employment of its Chief Scientist.

She was asked why she instructed her office on 15 December to email a copy of a highly critical article about the chief scientist to the chief executive of the EPA with the subject “Great article”?

In answer to the first part of the question, Ms Sage said “yes”.

In answer to the second part, she said she simply forwarded an article to her private secretary to pass on to the chief executive for their information.

“To be clear, I did not write the subject line of that email; it was written by a member of the public who sent the article to me.”

The questioning presumably is aimed at determining if inappropriate government pressure was a factor in the recent resignation of chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth.

National’s Scott Simpson then asked what was the date of the meeting where matters relating to the employment of the EPA’s chief scientist were discussed between the Minister and the EPA chief executive, referred to in answer to a question on 22 March, when she said, “I was told the matter was in hand.”?

This was “a status meeting”, Ms Sage replied – her first meeting with the EPA.

She said she thought it was on 29 November

“… and there was no substantive discussion of the work of Dr Rowarth”.

Mr Scott asked the Minister why she feel it necessary to involve herself in a series of emails and meetings both seeking and approving a “course of action” around the EPA’s chief scientist, in the emails dated 28 November.

Ms Sage replied:

The email dated 28 November was from the Secretary for the Environment, setting out a course of action. I simply said that I approved the course of action. There was no substantive discussion.

“If the member would be aware of the Crown Entities Act, that gives the Minister, in relation to Crown entities, a responsibility to manage the risks on behalf of the Crown.”

Ms Sage quoted from the guidance to Ministers:

“Along with being answerable to the House of Representatives, you are also answerable to the public for problems or controversies arising in connection with the entity by responding to questions and participating in debates and reviews.”

She repeatedly had said the public needs to have confidence in the independence of the EPA, therefore matters in the media questioning that independence should be of interest to the chief executive.

Hon James Shaw: What has Dr Rowarth herself said about why she left her post at the Environmental Protection Authority?

Hon EUGENIE SAGE: Dr Rowarth has said publicly that she was not pushed out of her role and that she continues to do contract work for the EPA.

Ms Sage said “yes”, when Mr Scott then asked if the Minister stood by her answer to a question last week that it would be entirely inappropriate for her to be involved in an employment matter.

Hon Scott Simpson: Isn’t the only obvious conclusion from the emails exchanged on “a course of action” and the discussions and meetings held by the Minister with the EPA chief executive that she wanted the chief scientist gone and that the chief executive then initiated an employment conversation with the chief scientist that led to her going?

Hon EUGENIE SAGE: No.

Submissions sought on EPA proposals to change new organism status

What do a beetle, a ladybird, a wasp, a bacterium and a virus have in common?

The answer is that their status as a “new” organism under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act could be reclassified to reflect their established presence in New Zealand.

The organisms are a beetle known as Cybocephalus sp, a ladybird (Harmonia axyridis), a wasp (Aridelus rufotestaceus) a bacterium, (Komagataeibacter xylinus) and avirus (Listeria phage P100)

Dr Fiona Thomson-Carter, General Manager of the Environmental Protection Authority’s HSNO team explains:

“Under a process known as ‘denewing’ the EPA is seeking public submissions on a proposal to remove the ‘new organism’ status of these species – a move which would free up existing research impediments for scientists wishing to work with them or further study them.”

Input from the public and interested parties is now being sought on the effects of this proposed change.

To find out more you can view the proposals below:

Submissions close at 5 pm on Friday 27 April 2018.

Readers can go HERE for a submission form.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency.

 

Postgraduate science scholarships offered for primary industries research

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is offering Postgraduate Science Scholarships for Masters and PhD candidates engaged in primary industry research in New Zealand.

The ministry’s food and regulatory policy director, Ruth Shinoda, says the scholarship will build science and technology capability within the primary industries.

“Our aim with this scholarship scheme is to encourage Masters and PhD students to pursue research within the primary industries, particularly where there are research gaps, as outlined in the Primary sector science roadmap,” says Ms Shinoda.

“It’s an exciting time in the primary industries, from genetics to measuring and managing ecosystem impacts, to consumer and market insights, there’s a number of areas where we know we need to strengthen our understanding.

“This scholarship scheme is an investment in the future of our primary industries. Innovation in this sector is more important than ever, so it’s vital our researchers in New Zealand are working on filling our knowledge gaps.”

Successful recipients will work with ministry staff to get practical, frontline experience alongside their academic pursuits.

The total value for each Masters scholarship will be up to $12,000 and the total value for each PhD scholarship will be up to $50,000.

Apart from funding, scholarship recipients will have the opportunity to receive co-supervision or mentoring from one or more of the ministry’s subject matter experts.

The deadline for applications is 5pm, 12 March.

Scholarship winners will be announced in June.

Professor Hendy makes the case for a Parliamentary Commissioner of Science

Shaun C. Hendy,  Professor of Physics at the University of Auckland, is pressing for NZ to have a Parliamentary Commissioner of Science.

His case is set out in an article in Policy Quarterly which has been reproduced in the latest issue of New Zealand Science Review (here). 

Among his considerations is the public’s increasing expectations that the conduct of scientific research be open to their scrutiny as well as the scrutiny of fellow scientists.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for Science would be responsible for ensuring the scientific use of evidence by government and fostering corresponding levels of trust in the public.

The post would be modelled on the role of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment and would carry out several of the functions envisioned by the Sedley inquiry in Britain, which found the  UK government doesn’t know how much policy-linked research it has commissioned, or how much of it has been published.

The Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills were among the British agencies which could not provide a list of the studies they carried out or commissioned.

British civil servants acknowledged they often wasted time trying to find past studies paid for by their own departments.

The Sedley report (here) also notes several cases of publication of reports being delayed because of political concerns about the implications of the research.

It calls for a central register of all government-commissioned research, a commitment to prompt publication, and routine publication of any work that has been used to inform government policy.

In his summary, Professor Hendy says new institutions are needed to govern the way scientific research is used and conducted by government.

In New Zealand, a Parliamentary Commission for Science would be responsible for reviewing the Government’s processes for generating and utilising scientific evidence, and reporting on this to Parliament and for maintaining a register of internally and externally commissioned research by government, together with a pre-analysis plan with timelines (where appropriate); requesting, and then publishing, policy outcomes of each research project. It would be responsible, too, for investigating any matter where scientific misconduct may have occurred and reporting, on a request from the House or any select committee, on any petition, bill or any other matter which may need scientific input.

MBIE appoints new Chief Scientist

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has appointed University of Auckland’s Deputy Dean of Engineering, Margaret Hyland, as its new Chief Scientist.

Paul Stocks, the ministry’s Deputy Chief Executive Labour, Science and Enterprise, said this would be a crucial leadership role as the National Statement of Science Investment was implemented and would contribute to the deepening relationships between the Ministry and the science community.

Margaret is Professor of Chemical and Materials Engineering at the University of Auckland. She holds a PhD from the University of Western Ontario in Canada and has spent her career specialising in aluminium technology, and the chemistry and engineering of material surfaces.

She is a Fellow of the Institute of Chemical Engineering and, in addition to her numerous teaching awards, she was the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Pickering Medal for excellence in technology by the Royal Society of New Zealand in 2015.

Margaret previously was the Director of the Science for Technological Innovation National Science Challenge.

“As Chief Scientist, Margaret will provide science leadership, and work with teams providing advice on science systems, policy and investment. She will be tasked with building on the existing strategic direction of the science system, with a particular eye on the capability of the sector and opportunities going forward. She will also play a crucial role in ensuring that the sector’s expertise and intelligence are captured and communicated during the development of policy and investment plans,” Paul says.

Margaret will be seconded to the ministry for 80% of her time for the next two years, starting  from February 1.

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.