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.



Govt seeks feedback on $1.5b science spend: researchers are urged to have their say

Science and Innovation Minister Steven Joyce has released the Government’s first draft National Statement of Science Investment (NSSI), which sets out the current settings and proposed future priorities for Government’s science investment, for public feedback.

In a media statement, Joyce said the Government’s science investment would be almost $1.5 billion in 2015/16, a figure which has grown by more than 70 per cent across government since 2007/08.

To capitalise on opportunities to increase the value and effectiveness of this investment, the draft NSSI proposes a series of key priorities for action over the next five to 10 years, he said.

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Food-for-health Challenge scientists will aim to boost NZ exports

The University of Auckland, Massey University and University of Otago, along with Crown Research Institutes AgResearch and Plant & Food Research, are being teamed up for the Government’s High-Value Nutrition National Science Challenge.

The task for the scientists from the five institutions – with other collaborators – is to produce cutting-edge, multi-disciplinary research to help New Zealand companies take advantage of global demand for foods with health benefits.

The ten year challenge is approved with $30.6 million subject to finalisation of contract conditions.

A review at the end of five years means another $53.2 million becomes available for a second five-year period.

Total funding for the High-Value Nutrition Challenge is up to $180.8 million over ten years.

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Sir Peter raises funding questions

Sir Peter Gluckman has raised questions about the public funding of science in a speech to the 2013 conference of the New Zealand Association of Scientists.

The full speech can be read here.

In it Sir Peter asks why NZ has taken a different path in its public science, compared to other successful western nations, for at least three decades.

Over that time most countries have committed to major increases in public investment in science. This has been particularly the case for the small advanced economies such as Denmark, Israel and Singapore. But, in contrast, until recently we have essentially only tinkered with a system established years ago.

Sir Peter says the contestable funding system remains the one part of our science and innovation system that has not been looked at in recent years.

He also says there is is good evidence to suggest that peer review processes, as they are undertaken in NZ, are high in burden and less than ideal in outcome.

Discussion paper aims to help judge if science is being properly used in shaping public policy

A discussion paper released today by Sir Peter Gluckman, the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, is intended to help the public and policy makers judge whether a piece of science is being appropriately interpreted or whether it is being misused or overstated.

Something may be presented as established science when it is not, or it may not suit advocates to accept the science as established when it is, Sir Peter says in a media release (here).

The discussion paper (here) gives examples of each of these and highlights the questions that should be asked when interpreting a scientific report. It also explains the scientific process and discusses how scientific conclusions can be established even when all the details may never be resolved or there is still debate over some specifics.

In his media release, Sir Peter says the way in which society obtains and understands scientific and technical knowledge is critical to a well-performing participatory democracy.

Many of the complex issues science now deals with have high values content – for example climate change and the use of genetic modification).

How science is presented and used therefore can have major impacts on decision-making.

Scientists and those who are active in science communication have crucial roles to play in allowing the public and the policy maker to better understand what they know, what they do not know, and what might be concluded from the evidence, but there are many challenges in the way that science is communicated and used.

Sir Peter says he is particularly concerned by the trend for the complex nature of science to be ignored or misunderstood in societal debates, leading to the argument that you can find a scientist to support any given position.

This, he says, totally misinterprets the way that scientific consensus is achieved and can engender serious mistrust in the scientific enterprise. Society will be better served when science is used appropriately.

The challenges of the 21st century will require society to have an understanding of the uses and limits of science and technology, Sir Peter says The discussion paper is intended as an early step in promoting that understanding.