By Grant Jacobs 02/02/2017 22

Over the last six months of or so a number of New Zealanders involved in science have suggested a body represent science and technology be formed, with the aim that government policy and lawmakers be better informed.

What I would like to do to add to this mix is to very briefly introduce two organisations in the UK involved in offering recommendations to governments, the Government Office for Science and the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, and offered a few informal comments.

Professor Shaun Hendy, who has written about the issues surrounding scientists discussing work in public in New Zealand, has commented in the media and elsewhere (e.g. The NZ Herald, New Zealand Science Teacher) and offered a case for a Commission for Science in Science for Policy: the need for a Commission for Science (available as a PDF file).

Writing in her column at the New Zealand Herald late last year, Michelle Dickerson (aka Nanogirl) suggests taking this further,

Professor Shaun Hendy, director of Te Punaha Matatini, has been calling for New Zealand to establish a Parliamentary Commission for Science.

Perhaps this needs to go one step further and include a body focused on current and future technology, ensuring that the public and Parliament are well advised by technology experts around the rapid new developments in the tech sector.

A different type of committee focused on the transition of research to business was espoused by Peter Kerr, taking his lead from the ‘Powering Innovation’ independent report commissioned by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, available as a PDF file.

I’d like to keep aside ‘innovation’ and business aspects and focus on policy formation.

More comments related to this can also be found in Sir Peter Gluckman’s presentations in his role in the International Network for Government Science Advice, such as an account of a presentation he gave in Ottawa earlier this year.

I would encourage interested readers to explore these different sources.

One committee whose output I have used is the UK’s House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.* A feature I like about this body is that their output is available to all.

They describe their remit as,

The Science and Technology Committee exists to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence

In particular, they examine the Government Office for Science.

They produce reports from (formal) inquiries, and, among other things, an ‘Evidence Check’ web forum. Their documents and minutes are available on-line.

It’s all there for any politician, journalist, or interested party to dig into.

Currently they taking ideas for further inquiries.

Another feature of their reports is that government responds to them.

Their membership is made of MPs across the different parties. You could imagine operating something with a non-political membership, especially as few of our (smaller) parliament have a scientific background.

By contrast, the membership of the Government Office for Science (GOS) is lead by the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, and advises the Prime Minister and Cabinet using an informal network of experts,

We ensure that government policies and decisions are informed by the best scientific evidence and strategic long-term thinking.

They’re responsible for –

  • giving scientific advice to the Prime Minister and members of the Cabinet, through a programme of
  • projects that reflect the priorities of the Government Chief Scientific Adviser
  • ensuring and improving the quality and use of scientific evidence and advice in government (through advice and projects and by creating and supporting connections between officials and the scientific community)
  • providing the best scientific advice in the case of emergencies, through the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE)
  • helping the independent Council for Science and Technology provide high level advice to the Prime Minister

While they do produce reports, the GOS address the PM and Cabinet, not the public, journalists or other wider audiences.

It’s hard to see New Zealand wanting both, never mind a third as you can see at the last item of the list of what the GOS are responsible for! Aside from that ‘the inspecting the other’ set-up might be top-heavy in a small nation, we have few members of parliament with a scientific background, and fewer funds to draw from.

I don’t claim to have deep knowledge of how these organisations function, other than having found the public output useful. But it is useful to consider how other nations are tackling this and I would encourage those interested to explore.

Personally, I’d like to see a blend of the two – a public-facing committee that delivers all it’s output openly, as the Science and Technology Committee does, but drawing on an informal network of experts and based around non-political members (i.e. scientists).

If you like, a GOS without the exclusive focus on the PM and cabinet, and with the output approach of the ST Committee. (This is not saying that the PM and cabinet should not have advisors!)

It would be interesting if the concept of government responding to reports were taken a little further. One possibility would be for the committee to be given time before debates in the House to present the issues at hand. Similarly, written material could be distributed in advance of debates.

One more thing I think is important: good use should be made of drawing on the efforts of larger (and better-funded) committees overseas. Often I see calls from members of the public (particularly those with associations to interest groups) that a new ‘New Zealand’ investigation must be made. In practice the scientific aspects are often largely universal, and there is little sense in repeating these core aspects.

(I did something similar to this with the Science and Technology Committee’s report on genetic modification, drawing out what I believe where the useful points for New Zealand – see other articles listed below.)

Other articles in Code for life

GMOs and legislation: useful suggestions for New Zealand in British report

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation

Doggie ERVs

Monkey business, or is my uncle also my Dad?

Metagenomics-finding organisms from their genomes

Kumara are transgenic

Featured image

Women teaching geometry, circa 1309-1316. Source: Wikipedia, public domain.

Wikipedia’s description: “Detail of a scene in the bowl of the letter ‘P’ with a woman with a set-square and dividers; using a compass to measure distances on a diagram. In her left hand she holds a square, an implement for testing or drawing right angles. She is watched by a group of students. In the Middle Ages, it is unusual to see women represented as teachers, in particular when the students appear to be monks. She is most likely the personification of Geometry, based on Martianus Capella’s famous book De Nuptiis Philologiae et Mercurii, [5th c.] a standard source for allegorical imagery of the seven liberal arts. Illustration at the beginning of Euclid’s Elementa, in the translation attributed to Adelard of Bath.”

22 Responses to “A Science and Technology advisory body for New Zealand?”

  • I don’t really want this comment to be published but the first paragraph of this is nonsense.

  • @Steve Evans. Why is it nonsense? Actually, there has been growing discussion of exactly this, most notably Hendy’s Science Commission idea outlined in his book Silencing Science. The word “committee” fills me with dread though. What I think we really need is a decent strategy. Everyone is madly pedaling away in the science system, but not necessarily in the same direction.

  • @Peter:

    Fair point about “committee”. Interesting that looking back my first paragraph says ‘body’, but the title says committee. Perhaps ‘committee’ doesn’t quite carry the flavour of it. This is meant to me some sort of body that offer science information on topical issues, and policy advice.

    As for ‘strategy’, I’d distinguish strategy for the business side of things (‘innovation’ is often the jazz word used…) from scientific information about topics and policy recommendations — I was really meaning the latter two. Not saying it’s not needed, just a different thing.

    I haven’t (yet) read Shaun’s book. I’m not sure I have time, and besides I’m trying not to spend money on books!! Well, at least that’s my excuse! It’s taking me long enough to get through the book I am reading (which I might review on Code for life later).

    @Steve: For what little it’s worth I didn’t approve your comment – there is more than one hand involved here! 🙂

  • Great to see this discussion moving forward – I do wonder how much crossover there is between some of the suggested action and the NZ Royal Society. I know it isn’t exactly the same as what you are suggesting but they do produce public papers, reports and advice to government.

    • It’s worth noting Shaun’s comments near the end of his little book ‘Silencing Science’ that the Royal Society is funded by government and so “quite consciously avoids criticism of government policy”. Part of his suggestion is that the body should be independent, and thence able to speak out more freely.

      As another example, he notes that an expert panel he sat on was canned by the government because they decided they didn’t need it anymore. In principle an independent body might choose to continue (or just not be interrupted) if they felt it the topic needed attention.

      Shaun puts it in terms of a Parliamentary Commission. My initial feels are that I’d prefer a title without either of those two words!, but agree with the general notion he’s putting forward. But that’s about conveying the idea/aims clearly in the title, not the group itself or what it would do.

      ‘Parliamentary’ makes it sound as if it’s prime aim is to government or is somehow associated with it; I’d prefer it directed at everyone, including government, and not be confused with being part of government. ‘Commission’ might to some make it sound as if it were commissioned by the government, and hence subservient to them even if it weren’t – people might come away with the wrong idea. Alternatively, I suspect commissions to many are seen as an opportunity to put their beliefs (I’m choosing that word intentionally) to the government, rather than be about examining the topic per se.

      But as I was saying, that just about names and impressions conveyed.

      Nevertheless, a stray thought here: I’m not sure it helps to set up ‘us’ (the people) v. ‘them’ (government) for a lot of these things. I think they’re better presented as trying to tackle a problem. If that happens to end up recommending a change in policy, that’s then just the way it came out.

  • John, I’m sure there is overlap with the RS — and with many other efforts, too. My thoughts are this should draw on expertise from with RS members and whatever places good scientific expertise can be found,* but the body be, as much as possible, independent of any particular group.

    (* i.e. including businesses, scientific consultants like myself, and so. For what it’s worth, I’ve had several topics I would like to have contributed to but appear not to be able to easily be able to as I’m not formally part of an academic institute – at least that’s the impression I have gotten.)

  • One of the problems here is that “science” is way too broad and vague to carry any real meaning. There is a world of difference between technology, on the one hand, into which category I would basically include health and medical sciences, and more “academic” science on the other hand (into which category I would include ecology, systematics, conservation science, etc.) The above discussion may well apply reasonably well to the former (“technology, health and medicine”), but not the latter, where we currently suffer from scientific integrity being compromised by economic concerns, and nobody wants know about these problems so they just “shoot the messenger”. We have significant amounts of public funding being wasted on nonsense science projects (for the purpose of CRIs making profits without wasting time on actually doing time consuming science). It has become all about the scientists (i.e. people making a good living as scientists) and the actual science is secondary at best. So, the dilemma in the above discussion is how can you justify upholding good science in “cases that matter” (e.g. public health, medicine), while at the same time allowing other insitutions to undermine scientific integrity and continue to put profits ahead of everything else? The extent to which this “profits first” attitude has become accepted, at even the highest levels, is quite disturbing to me. I doubt that these attitudes can be changed as it appears that we are already too far down the slippery slope. Scientific integrity and standards are simply used when convenient as a weapon to control people, but get rapidly ignored at the slightest whiff of profits to be made!

    • Stephen,

      Your comment seems to be about something this discussion is not about! This is not about what CRIs do (or not), what research is done or not, but about if it would be useful to set up an independent advice/advisory body.

      My main interest in this, and I believe other’s main interest in this, was advising the public and parliament about science-related topics. Recent examples would be the fuss at Fonterra over potential milk contamination, gene engineering, folic acid (to be added to bread), environmental issues, or related topics. Some might be more every-day, and directed at the public-at-large.

      It’s probably worth mentioning that many of the public health-related topics are probably already covered, albeit probably scattered over different organisations.

  • The Royal Society is the correct entity to advise Parliament ( all parties ), and could set up a group to partner with interested MPs from all parties, not just the current government. The group could invite interested academics, business people, overseas experts, and laypeople to participate for 12 months. MPs don’t have to have a science background, as the group should be more about strategy, rather than implementation. Having people outside, shouting at politicians, hasn’t worked, NZ science needs multiple champions singing the same hymn in Parliament. The public are not interested in detail, but still expect our politicians to utilise and maximise science in policymaking.

    The recent Paula Rebstock review of Callaghan Innovation highlighted the directionless nature of technology investment in NZ, and the Science Challenges demonstrated the introverted nature of government science. Many science challenges are global, and NZ should partner with science institutions of overseas nations to quickly and sensibly invest in the future. NZ needs to become a global science citizen.

    The group should also ensure strategic science directions in NZ remain relevant. Given our acceptance of human-affected climate changes, how much money should be spent on measuring climate change and attending Pollyanna conferences, rather than specifically addressing NZ greenhouse gas mitigation – which would involve totally different science areas over decades?.

    Predator-free NZ is a valid and worthy NZ-focussed strategic target for the next 35 years, and various science areas should be front and centre – so NZ can select viable options. Doubtless future funding bids will be replacing “climate change” with “predator-free”, but the NZ government needs somebody to keep advising and championing specific science activities. The Royal Society exists, and should be encouraged to push forward into detailed partnerships with politicians to advise on science strategy.

  • @Bruce Hamilton

    >Predator-free NZ is a valid and worthy NZ-focussed strategic target for the next 35 yearsGiven our acceptance of human-affected climate changes, how much money should be spent on measuring climate change…<

    Again, a moot point. I have a very good example, if you are interested, in a long-term public funded climate change project (involving significant travel expenses), for which the experimental design is absolute and complete and utter nonsense! It is merely a money burning exercise for a CRI, and one really has to wonder how much other "climate change research" is in that same category? One bad apple, or is the whole orchard infected?

  • Please disregard above comment (I used a symbol which interfered with the format). Here it is again:

    @Bruce Hamilton

    “Predator-free NZ is a valid and worthy NZ-focussed strategic target for the next 35 years”

    That is a moot point! My view is that it is little more than a gravy train for those involved, i.e. another self-serving bureaucracy doing nothing useful (see the post here:

    “Given our acceptance of human-affected climate changes, how much money should be spent on measuring climate change…”

    Again, a moot point. I have a very good example, if you are interested, in a long-term public funded climate change project (involving significant travel expenses), for which the experimental design is absolute and complete and utter nonsense! It is merely a money burning exercise for a CRI, and one really has to wonder how much other “climate change research” is in that same category? One bad apple, or is the whole orchard infected?

    • Those are your views, mine are clearly different.

      With regard to predator-free strategy, there may well be technological solutions ( eg drone delivery of poisoned baits ) as well as scientific developments ( eg improved chemical and/or biological toxins and baits ) that make introduced predator extirpation viable. This is not only a group of bureaucrats, but people who have already actively participated in successful programmes to make some islands predator free. It’s the vision that could inspire, and is not an alternative to other conservation programmes. If “predator-free” status is achieved locally and data then shows species are still being harmed, other local and national solutions can be applied.

      With regard to human-induced climate change research, once again examples of bad science abound, however the obvious research direction should be mitigation. There are new technologies that will address many of the transport fossil fuels ( eg EVs, improved ICE, autonomous vehicles).

      NZ still needs to to downsize ICE vehicle mass ( eg shorter parking spaces, tax gross vehicle mass at registration, replace static speed camera with automatic rocket launchers to randomly annihilate ICE-powered SUVs, etc. ). We also need to look at moving heavy road transport to EVs and sustainable fuels, and improved separation and protection for small road vehicles, so occupants aren’t turned into puree. Most transport solutions are already being developed overseas, so NZ research should focus on local issues, such as mitigation of agricultural and marine emissions.

  • The point with Predator-free NZ is, to quote the linked blog post:

    “While the rest of the world is talking about reconciliation ecology and novel ecosystems, in li’ ol’ New Zealand (NZ) we are talking war on exotic species at an unprecedented scale and in a theatrical and highly politicised fashion to restore our ecosystems to how they were once upon a time.

    Eradicating to be Predator-free by 2050 is attempting to return our ecosystems to how they were before people and exotic species. It is a step in the opposite direction to the future that the rest of the world is contemplating.”

    As for “climate change research”, ha, I hadn’t thought of the fact that the very project that I alluded to actually adds to emissions by way of significant travel (between Auckland and Fiordland, and up and down Fiordland mountains by helicopter!) Given that the experimental design is utter nonsense, the net effect of the study would seem to be counterproductive to mitigation of climate change, but my main point was that scientific research into climate change is, as you admit, abounding with bad science, motivated by profits, and therefore, to get back to the topic of the above post, any advisory body is going to be put under significant political pressure to shut up and keep quiet about such bad science in the name of profits, which sets the whole idea sliding down the slippery slope.

  • You see, Grant Jacobs (above) seems to see the issue as politicians needing to be better informed by listening to scientists before making decisions, but my point is that scientists also have vested interests, so you can’t simply equate what scientists say as being representative of good (unbiased) science, at least not always. It is plausible that, for as long as “climate change” remains a lucrative funding source for scientists, no scientist is going to advise government that the problem isn’t really that urgent and the funding could be better spent elsewhere. It just wouldn’t happen, regardless of “the facts”.

  • Stephen,

    A few quick comments –

    Specific policies aren’t really what I was writing about. On that note, wee tip: it’s usually good practice to replied in nested fashion if you know you’re going on a sideline.

    “the issue as politicians needing to be better informed”

    Actually I was saying what the topic here is. You’ll note I wrote that the audience for such a body would be everyone, not just politicians, although it would include material that would be directed at policy.

    “by listening to scientists before making decisions,”

    Close, but not quite right. Engaging what evidence there is related to the issue is what is important. (As always in science, it’s not the scientists that matters in the end, but the science.)

    You’re over-playing your hand, I think, but the usual way of mitigating against individual’s views is simply to have the topic covered by a group, and to make sure you draw on a wide range of material. It’s worth noting that the documents I’ve read from specifically deliberately include material from “opposing” views; it’s common practice in developing advice. I get the impression you think these things are written only from viewpoints, rather than from surveys of the evidence.

  • Bruce,

    I think it’s worth distinguishing having appropriate expertise (within the membership) and being the appropriate organisation.

    If we take Shaun’s point that I referred to earlier (“that the Royal Society is funded by government and so “quite consciously avoids criticism of government policy”. ”) it would seem that would limit that Royal Society ability to speak out. Also note the example of the government closing a commission I mentioned earlier too.

    The RS members certainly have expertise that can be drawn upon, but it would seem better than an advisory organisation be independent of government associations.

    Not this doesn’t make the RS of no use, but rather how we make use of their members.

    I’d also personally prefer a body outside of the RS if drawing on a wider audience is intended (something I’ve advocated elsewhere). With all respect to the RS, my personal experience is that they do not do very well at engaging scientists outside of academia. Maybe that reflects my own scene, but it has been something of a problem for me. There are several initiatives and events that I would like to have been part of (finance permitting), but they mainly engage via the large (academic) institutions. There’s more, I lack time right now, and it’s a side topic.

    “Having people outside, shouting at politicians,”

    I’m not making that suggestion. Please note that a key element to what I was putting forward was that the material be made available to everyone (not just politicians), in a non-combative way. I’d like to think that I made that clear. A point about making it available openly is that everyone can discuss the same common document.

    Worth considering, too, is if trying to represent both scientists and evidence creating issues for an ‘evidence’ organisation.

    I’m a bit short on time here, but you’ve focused on strategy in the rest of what you wrote. The brief I suggested was wider. Strategy is certainly one thing to tackle. There is also advice on matters that arise – I gave some examples earlier. There is also informing the public about issues that matter to them (related but different to my last). It might help to read Shaun’s little book if you haven’t already. (It’s not long & a fairly quick read.)

  • Grant,

    You said “As always in science, it’s not the scientists that matters in the end, but the science.”

    I fully agree, but that is the whole point! Although that SHOULD be so, in practice it is often the exact opposite. I see a very real risk, given the way that the world is, for any advisory body composed of scientists to give advice which benefits scientists first and foremost, not “the science”. That is how I see things happening in practice in the real world.

    • Aside from that I’m not sure you’re read my comment fully (you appear to have responded without reading all of it), you seem to be missing that advice regards, for example, the Fonterra food scare, what’s the story with gene editing, etc., aren’t of benefit to scientists’ careers anyway (beyond a few getting a little airtime in media, perhaps).

      That said, your logic to me reads as “no advice organisation can work properly because people play to their interests” – you’d have to apply your logic exactly the same way to any other people, and end up dismissing all advice organisations of any kind!

      Either way, I don’t think sweeping generalisations about particular groups of people as whole help or are very meaningful.

      There are people and groups who work very hard to try take on all relevant lines of play (a point I tried to make earlier). It is important they do that, and I made reference to that for that reason.

      I’m sure some groups promote their own interests, and intentionally – activist/lobby organisations come to mind, and of course that is their aim.

      Being an independent organisation rather than one that also has to represent it’s members would help counter the impression a science advisory organisation might do this, but in practice I think it’s more about how you approach the work, and that people can see that you’ve made a sincere effort to do things fairly. For example, as I mentioned earlier, surveys are often constructed so that all views have to be noted and considered. Disclosing everything (as the House of Commons Sci+Tech Committee does) would also help – it’s all out in the open for everyone to see. Journalists can pick at it, etc.

      I suppose you could at a pinch argue that having a few non-academic scientist members might not hurt: of course, including independent consultants like me! 😉


  • What I am saying is merely that, based on my own experience, there is a very real risk that any sort of advisory body cannot, in today’s world, be as neutral and objective as would seem to be required. For a start, it is going to be financially dependent on somebody (agency, govt., or other organisation), who may therefore have influence on outcomes. Also, members of such an advisory body will not be vetted to anything like secret service levels of clearance, so it may be fairly easy for vested interests to infiltrate and influence outcomes. That aside, the advisory body will have to be made up of scientists, in order to give scientific advice, so they may in some cases face a dilemma between giving advice that it best for scientists even if it isn’t best for science. These are just factors to be taken into consideration. Simply charging ahead and creating advisory bodies is not likely to be a good idea (not that I am suggesting that you are going to do that). My other point is that are enormous pressures in science these days to make profits. I doubt that any advisory body who didn’t take profits into consideration would last very long, but then we are already sliding down the slippery slope (once you start compromising standards for the sake of profits, taking it a little further becomes easier and easier, and before you know it you are at the bottom of the slippery slope).

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