Posts Tagged Science

Science, startups and deciding to pivot Peter Griffin Jul 07

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It was an emotional weekend in Wellington.

There was the thrill of anticipation in the run-up to Saturday night’s clash between the Hurricanes and the Highlanders, then the emptiness of defeat as the Cake Tin emptied and thousands of yellow-clad rugby fans trudged home.

But at Creative HQ a stone’s throw from Courtenay Place where smug-looking Highlanders fans began their victorious pub crawl, 40 or so people beavered away oblivious to the game’s outcome.

They were involved in Startup Weekend – Science and Research, a weekend of frantic activity and creativity, that saw teams form on Friday night to work on science-related business ideas that had to be ready for pitching to a panel of high-powered judges on Sunday night.

The Paper Preen team practicing their pitch in front of Startup Weekend mentors

The Paper Preen team practicing their pitch in front of Startup Weekend mentors

I was one of fifteen or so mentor over the weekend who hopped between the teams helping them tease out their ideas, validate them and develop their business cases. It was a blast and while Startup Weekend has been running for years and all over the world, this was the first local event to focus on science and research-related projects. I hope it is the first of many, as I was truly impressed at the way the teams grew over the course of 54 hours.

Shaky beginnings

It wasn’t so confident a start. I arrived early on Friday afternoon to talk to participants about their pitches which were officially given at 5pm on Friday night with the aim of building teams around the most promising ideas. That 3pm pitch practice was an eye opener  – ideas that on the face of it weren’t that original or tackling a particularly compelling problem, business plans with more holes than a sieve, rambling presentations.

But that’s the whole point of Startup Weekend. You start with the germ of an idea and if a group of people buy into it and you, it takes shape over the next two days – or morphs into something else completely, which is what happened to several of the ideas floated on Friday afternoon.

The big pivot

After working late into Friday night, the teams, ranging in size from three to nine people, had got to grips with the initial idea and decided whether to run with it or throw it out. Of the six teams that went through Startup Weekend, four had pivoted by midday Saturday. It was great to see the teams finally close the book on an idea they had worked to death and move onto something more promising.

We had one team working on a robotic window cleaner they envisaged would roam around the outside of a building on a computer-guided path, cleaning windows and doing away with abseiling window cleaners. But some market research (ie: a few Google searches) revealed that many other companies had already developed robotic window cleaners with mixed results. The various Youtube videos of bulky robots trying to navigate vertical surfaces and clean them at the same time was enough to convince the Squeegee Robot team that this was a tall ask indeed. For starters, you need a robot that can navigate all sorts of buildings, not just the nice smooth ones with plate glass all over.


Winners Message in a Bottle delivering their pitch

Winners Message in a Bottle delivering their pitch

When the pivot came, I was surprised, but impressed. The team, largely made up of engineers and designers, threw out the concept of cleaning windows, instead focusing on developing a robot that would use sophisticated sensors to scan the external and internal structure of a building. It would still zoom around a building but would be suspended from a gantry system and wouldn’t need direct contact with the building surface to work effectively. Internally, the robot could simply move around the floor creating a 3D image of the room but also measuring the density and integrity of the walls and surrounding structures.

With thousands of earthquake-prone buildings in New Zealand in need of regular checks and preparation for upgrading to meet the building code, the team had a strong potential market opportunity. Some more research suggested that thorough surveying of a building can take up to three months, involve a large team and cost as much as $200,000 so there seemed to be scope for doing things more efficiently.

So Squeegee Robot became 3MASS and a much more promising proposition. Daniel, the electrical engineer who initially pitched on Friday night had initially wanted to develop a USB-powered hand warmer for video gamers living in cold Wellington flats.

10 Tips for Startup weekends

Having now participated in my first full Startup Weekend I’ve got a few suggestions for people going into one and seeking to build a team around their ideas:

1. Come into it with an idea you’ve thoroughly thought out and done some research on – there’s no point getting to Saturday morning and finding that someone else is already up and running and doing what you want to do.

2. Having said that, don’t be totally put off if others are already doing what you want to do. They may be doing it poorly and that industry may be ripe for disruption ie: the taxi industry and Uber.

3. Establish leadership in the team early, if its a large team, break it down into sub groups to work on different aspects of the problem.

4. Think about validation early – it can be hard to start from scratch on a weekend looking for experts to comment on the validity of your idea or its market potential. If you are an engineer, prime your engineering contacts that you may be in touch as you seek to validate the idea. Have some mobile numbers at the ready and be prepared to get as many views as possible – evidence of good valuation is an important part of the judging criteria.

5. Social enterprise is great, but the judges really want to see how this venture could be sustainable longterm. Don’t rely on sponsorship and grants, which are fickle. Show how you can generate revenue through literally getting organisations or people to buy into your idea.

6. Tell a story – the 5 minute pitch on Sunday night is all the judges see, not the journey the team has gone on. Make it a powerful, confident pitch. Paint a picture for us, use metaphor and analogy to get us engaged and able to picture where you want to take us. Keep the tech set-up simple so glitches don’t spoil your presentation.

7. Really focus on what you have to deliver (a five minute pitch) and what you will be judged on (validation, execution, business plan). Don’t get bogged down in extraneous detail.

8. Identify the strengths and skill sets of the mentors and pull them in when you need them for advice on specific aspects – leverage their contacts when you are seeking validation at short notice.

9. Do lots of pitch practice – amongst yourselves, in front of the mentors etc – get that pitch polished so the words roll off the tongue and you can focus on the presentation rather than remembering the content.

10. Get as much sleep as possible, drink lots of water and eat properly. Enjoy the experience!

Startup teams hard at work on Sunday afternoon.

Startup teams hard at work on Sunday afternoon.

The six teams of Startup Weekend Science & Research 2015

Message in a Bottle (WINNER)

Started out planning to make products from recycled plastics incorporating natural fibres like hemp. Was originally aiming at the high-end market for sustainable, funky looking products made with 3D printing. Quickly found out that there are plenty of players doing this well and that 3D printing wasn’t necessarily the answer.

Pivoted to become a agency working with big corporates and plastics users who want to sponsor sustainability programmes. Message in a Bottle works with these companies, councils and waste management companies to collect plastic bottles in public places, have in processed and use that raw plastic to create plastic products that are at the centre of sustainability projects for the companies involved eg: a plastic park bench for an inner city park or sets of sports equipment for schools. The value add is that Message in a Bottle take care of the whole process, managing all the relationships and producing the goods at its own fabricating facility.

Yes this team is relying on sponsorship money, but their market validation suggested there was strong appetite among companies to get involved and pay for it.

Paper Preen (RUNNER-UP)

A piece of software for stressed out academics writing research papers and wanting to check the formatting, grammar, sourcing and style of the journal they are seeking to submit it to. A number of apps on the market do this type of thing, but none does everything. With the validation exercise showing academics would be willing to pay $10 per paper to purchase everything Paper Preen was promising, it seemed there was strong appetite for a better way of doing things. The system reliesd on APIs that pull in dictionaries and database info from numerous sources so is more complex than it seems, but I think this team could pull it off and develop a decent little business in the process.


The Squeegee Robot that became surveying bot. These guys had the most technically complex idea of the weekend and as such, it was hard to get a handle on whether they would be able to pull off their concept – which involves robotics, sensor technology and software.

But New Zealand seems like a great test bed for such technology given our earthquake-prone building stock and push to upgrade buildings over the next decade. Lots of work to do here, but a high value industry to tap if they can pull it off.

Pet Share

Another one that pivoted – from offering a crowdfunding platform for people seeking money for expensive, cutting-edge medical procedures to one crowd funding for the same thing but for pets. The ethical and legal issues around offering this service for people proved too complex, leading the team to focus on animals. Many platforms already do this, but Pet Share’s aim to leverage existing social media platforms, possibly as a Facebook app, meant it could tap pre-existing networks. This team came the furthest during the weekend – a great bunch of guys who were positive and hilarious throughout.

Electric Share

A car sharing platform focused on electric cars. The idea is that Electric Share leases electric cars, such as the Nissan Leaf, then sub leases them to groups of people keen to share access to an electric car, paying an upfront fee and ongoing weekly payments for access. The big issue here was scheduling, which Electric Share planned to address with a nifty online scheduling tool and points system to ensure it was fair. But the overriding problem was that people would likely want to borrow the car at the same time – evenings and weekends, and without significant scale in the network, this would put off would-be investors. Still, car sharing schemes are common overseas, and City Hop existings in Auckland, so a scheme with electric cars isn’t out of the question.

Well U

A major pivoter, switching from developing a children’s game to encourage healthier living to one focused on PhD students and their wellbeing. They were trying to address the issue of high drop-out rates among PhDs, but doing a weekly survey of wellbeing, with reporting back to supervisors. But how effective would it be and who would pay? The execution and validation questions weren’t properly fleshed out, but there could well be an opportunity here with some further development.

Well done to Stefan, Nick and the team at CreativeHQ for another great Startup weekend. I hope we see another science and research one next year.

Budget 2015: What’s in it for science? Peter Griffin May 21

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Budget 2015 is done and dusted and it appears there are few surprises for the science sector, other than an interesting move to replicate the success of the independent, Nelson-based Cawthron Institute.

Screen Shot 2015-05-21 at 3.29.12 pm$25 million in funding has been allocated over three years to establish “between one and three” new Regional Research Institutes outside of the main centres of Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Regional economic development seems to be front of mind with this move, which will see private organisations chip in to develop the institutes.

There’s no indication of what types of institutes they will be – presumably a contestable funding round will be launched, much like the recent CoRE selection rounds.

Hmm, maybe the Hawkes Bay and viticulture, Dunedin for high-tech as the country’s Gigatown? Who knows?

The institutes will leverage off the “unique business, technology, and economic growth opportunities in a region”.

With an increased number of Centres of Research Excellence recently funded by the Government, here then is an additional opportunity for a focus on specific areas of research.

Other science-related Budget highlights

- An $80 million operating boost over four years to R&D growth grants administered by Callaghan Innovation – announced in April, this will support innovative Kiwi businesses carrying out research and development by contributing 20 per cent of their R&D programme costs.
- The science and innovation system performance report and data collection programme – the first in a series of annual reports on the performance of New Zealand’s science and innovation system which will be published later this year. Funding of around $3 million over four years will be met by reprioritisation within the science and innovation portfolio.
- An international investment attraction programme – a new $1 million programme to attract multinational companies to undertake R&D in New Zealand will start in 2015/16, funded by reprioritisation within the science and innovation portfolio.
Science in Society – lifting New Zealanders’ engagement with science and technology is the key focus of the national strategic plan for Science in Society: A Nation of Curious Minds – He Whenua Hihiri I Te Mahara.

- An additional $2.2 million in 2015/16 will support the plan’s implementation, funded by reprioritisation within the science and innovation portfolio.

“The additional funding announced in Budget 2015 will bring the Government’s total investment in science to more than $1.5 billion in 2015/16,” Mr Joyce says.


New media rules hit UK government scientists Peter Griffin Apr 02

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Science communication bodies have criticised a UK Government code for civil servants requiring ministerial approval before they talk to the media.

Fiona Fox

Fiona Fox

The UK’s Civil Service Code was updated this month requiring the pre-authorisation, which in theory also applies to scientists working for the government in units such as the Met Office and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control.

In an open letter to cabinet secretary Francis Maude, the UK Science Media Centre, the Association of British Science Writers and Stempra, a science PR and communications network, wrote that the minor wording change could have a major chilling effect on government scientists speaking to the press on controversial issues.

Fiona Fox UK SMC director Fiona Fox told the Guardian: “What we need are messages from on high that are supportive and back scientists sharing their evidence and expertise to better inform these debates. Unless the situation is clarified, this will have a chilling effect. Scientists will keep quiet to be on the safe side.”

In an editorial on the issue, science journal Nature said changes to the Civil Service Code may not become a topic of debate in next month’s UK general election, but that scientists should “find their voices again” and question its meaning.

“Any block on transparency and openness is a step backwards. The government that takes over after the general election should clarify what it wants from its scientists, and how the rule change alters that. It should consider an exemption for researchers talking to the media about their work in acknowledged areas of public interest, such as climate or health.”

The New Zealand situation

Government-employed scientists working in New Zealand’s Crown Research Institutes generally can speak to the media as long as interviews are approved by their institute’s communications staff. But major controversial issues are often dealt with by senior ministry spokespeople, so scientists are told to defer to the officials. Many CRIs also undertake contracted work for ministries so are contractually obliged to refer all media queries to the ministry they are working for.

The New Zealand Association of Scientists will explore the issue next week in its Wellington conference Going Public: Scientists speaking out on controversial issues. The conference will feature journalists, scientists and the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman, who is developing a scientist’s code of conduct for public engagement with the Royal Society of New Zealand.

When scientists don’t speak out – gag orders and funding fears revealed Peter Griffin Nov 03


There’s been much debate about the forthcoming Code of Conduct on Public Engagement the Royal Society of New Zealand is developing.

This piece of work is part of the Government’s Science in Society Strategy and is laid out in Annex 4 of this document, which outlines initiatives that will be rolled out as part of the Strategy including:

“The RSNZ will lead development of a code of practice on engagement for scientists. To begin 2014/15.”

I was involved in a expert reference group for the Science in Society project so I heard about the proposed code early on.

From my perspective, it would be useful to clarify the type of interactions with the public scientists can engage in. I manage the Science Media Centre, which collects and publishes commentary from scientists often at short notice and often on controversial issues. As such, we rely on the ability of scientists to be able to speak freely on issues in their areas of expertise that are of importance to society. We quote more university scientists than Crown research institute scientists because the former group has more freedom to comment – and turn things around quickly for the media.

The situation varies by organisation – some university departments tightly manage access to the media, particularly if the scientists are involved in industry collaborations. Others would rather journalists deal directly with scientists and have little interest in monitoring what their scientists are commenting on. Some CRIs require all media-related queries to go through a central communications unit. Others let scientists use their own judgement and talk to the media without prior authorisation – according to pre-agreed ground rules.

We navigate all scenarios, not always successfully. The point is, there is no one way of engaging with the public or the media. I’d love more clarity around what scientists can and can’t say and when.

From the answers to the New Zealand Association of Scientists’ most recent survey, if appears scientists would also like the ground rules clarified.

When asked in the survey: “Have ever been prevented from making a public comment on a controversial issue by your management’s policy, or by fear of losing research funding, the results were as follow:

Source: NZAS Survey 2014

Source: NZAS Survey 2014

So that is around 40 per cent of survey respondents who have been prevented from making a public statement, either because their management said they couldn’t or because they feared having funding cut.

The anonymous comments collected as part of the survey and published on the NZAS website outline numerous examples of this. They include:

[redacted] terminated my employment because of unauthorised media comment


We are expressly prevented from making any comment to the public without prior approval. On contentious issues such as GMOs and plant import we are not to make any comment at all under any circumstance. That role is now exclusively the mandate of management.


In my university there have certainly been attempts by the senior leadership team to place constraints on academics speaking in public on controversial issues or on issues that might impact on the reputation of the institution itself. These attempts have been in breach of the principle of academic freedom and undermine our statutory duty to act as critic and conscience of society.

This mirrors the sort of anecdotes I regularly hear as scientists sheepishly tell me why they can’t contribute to one of our SMC expert round-ups on an issue in their area of expertise.

On the other hand, there may be good reasons why it is inappropriate for a scientist to go public on an issue. Maybe a colleague is far better qualified to talk about it, is more media savvy and better at communicating risk and uncertainty.

When is and isn’t it legitimate for management to instruct scientists not to speak out on an issue relevant to their area of expertise?

This is the sort of thing I hope the consultation around the development of the Code of Practice will flush out. The NZAS survey is a helpful precursor to that.

A week of science about to kick off Peter Griffin Aug 19

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Next week is going to be science-central in Auckland – literally thousands of scientists will be in town for a number of major conferences, many of which are accompanied by public events.

Screen Shot 2014-08-15 at 9.35.55 amWorld New Zealand Science Week groups together everything from the SCAR Antarctic research conference to the ICSU General Assembly.

I’m even hosting my Science Media Centre colleagues from around the world who will be meeting in Auckland for the first time ever, a proud moment for me and the SMC team.

The Royal Society of New Zealand has a detailed breakdown of the events that will be running next week.

Here are a few of the highlights…

  • The 31st triennial General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU). Established in 1931 and based in Paris, ICSU represents more than 121 national science academies and 31 scientific unions. 25th August – 3rd September
  • The 6th biennial Open Science Conference of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR). With more than 1500 attendees, it is by far the largest international gathering of Antarctic scientists.
  • The annual general meeting of the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs (COMNAP). Symposium Auckland 25 August, AGM Christchurch 27 – 29 August
  • The 4th biennial United States – New Zealand Joint Committee Meeting on Science and Technology Cooperation (JCM), a joint dialogue on areas such as natural hazards and resilience, climate change, and oceans.  25th -26th August
  •  The Science and Diplomacy Symposium, focusing on how scientists can input into foreign affairs. 27th August
  • Inaugural Science Advice to Governments conference involving the world’s most eminent Science Advisors.  The conference will focus on the practice of providing policy-relevant science advice to governments. 28th – 29th August
  • The 2nd APEC Chief Science Advisors and equivalents meeting, a forum for informal discussion on the science and policy interface amongst science advisors to the highest level of government within APEC economies. 30th August

The Chief Scientists gather

Sir Peter Gluckman will be bringing together scientific advisors from all over the world for a two-day summit that I’ll be present at and live blogging from. Check out the line up of guest speakers – it will be a high-powered event and highly relevant to some of the big science-related issues we are grappling with in New Zealand at the moment.

Negotiating science communication minefields

Also head along to listen to myself, Dr Susannah Elliot and Fiona Fox, the founders of the NZ, Australian and UK Science Media Centres respectively, talk about some of the big science-related controversies we’ve worked on over the last decade.

It is a public event organised by PRINZ, the Public Relations Institute. There’s a cover charge, but there will be booze and nibbles…

New Zealand’s seven most influential scientists Peter Griffin Jun 23


UPDATED: At least seven New Zealand scientists have featured in a list including the top 1 per cent most-cited researchers in science worldwide.

They include (I missed a couple of expat Kiwis out so have updated the list):

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.20.45 PM

A couple of ex-pat Kiwis also make it into the 1% club. Professor Rob Knight, University of Colorado at Boulder is actually the most-cited Kiwi on the list. Here’s a Nature profile on him.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 1.23.35 PM

And Robert Webster, an avian influenza expert who was born in Balclutha. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand.

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.29.07 AM

The list is compiled by Thomson Reuters, who assessed papers indexed between 2002 and 2012 in 21 broad fields of study. They tracked authors who published numerous articles that ranked among the top 1% of the most cited in their respective fields in the given year of publication.

You can view their report: The World’s Most Influential Scientific Minds 2014

Highly cited

Screen Shot 2014-06-23 at 11.36.31 AMAlexei Drummond is a Professor of Computational Biology at the University of Auckland. According to Google Scholar, his work has been cited 22,211 times. He has an h-index of 48 overall. As BenchFly explains:

“…the larger the number of important papers, the higher the h-index, regardless of where the work was published. To calculate it, only two pieces of information are required: the total number of papers published (Np) and the number of citations (Nc) for each paper”.

Professor Harvey White is research leader and cardiologist at Auckland City Hospital Green Lane Cardiac Service. A personal scandal in 2005 hasn’t dented his citation record – he is considered one of the top cardiologists in the world. Here’s an in-depth interview with Harvey White. According to ResearchGate, his work has been cited 14,647 times.

Professor Richie Poulton is Director of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, which conducts the Dunedin longitudinal study. According to ResearchGate, his work has been cited 13,392 times. One of the papers he was a co-author of was cited 3341 times alone.

Philip Hulme is a Professor of plant biosecurity at Lincoln University. According to Google Scholar his work has been cited 8508 times and he has an h-index of 49.

Robert Webster, who is based in the US, is highly-cited – I can’t find a tally of total citations for him, but one of his papers, from 1992 has been cited 3209 times. I interviewed Robert back in 2010, reflecting on the N1H1 pandemic.

Rob Knight is a Professor at the BioFrontiers Institute and in the Departments of Chemistry & Biochemistry and Computer Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is a member of the Steering Committee of the Earth Microbiome Project, and a co-founder of the American Gut Project. He has 31,270 citations according to Google Scholar and an h-index of 80.

David Wardle has 28,254 citations according to Google Scholar and an h-index of 77. He is Professor of Soil and Plant Ecology at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and also works at Landcare Research here in New Zealand. His research “explores the links between aboveground and belowground communities and their consequences for ecosystem functioning”.
Did I leave any kiwis off the list?

And because we love comparing ourselves to our friends across the Tasman, how many Australia-based scientists make it into the highly-cited one per cent? That would be 65.


Is CRI science being twisted to commercial ends? Peter Griffin Jun 12


UPDATED: We all know that our Crown Research Institutes carry out a lot of commercial work for clients, in fact they are encouraged to do so in the interests of returning a dividend to the Crown which funds them.

But are those commercial relationships influencing the scientific advice that scientists give?

Back in April, Massey University freshwater scientist Dr Mike Joy claimed this was exactly what was happening in an explosive Science Express talk at Te Papa. Well, it was explosive because I live-tweeted the talk, including some of Dr Joy’s remarks, which attracted a lot of discussion on Twitter. A few of Dr Joy’s tweets:

This morning Radio New Zealand’s science reporter William Ray had a story about that approach to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which hosts the Science Media Centre which I manage. I’ve had nothing to do with internal discussions of the issue, but the radio report revealed that two letters have been written to the RSNZ by Wendy Pond of the Manu Waiata Trust and Bryce Johnson, chief executive of Fish & Game. The letter from the former apparently claims CRI science has been slanted towards the commercial interests of clients, with NIWA singled out for specific mention. The letter from the latter calls on the Royal Society to take a lead in exploring how conflicts of interest can best be handled in the context of giving expert advice.

UPDATE: See bottom for the letter from Bryce Johnson to the Royal Society of New Zealand, which was obtained under the Official Information Act.

At the heart of the issue, is scientific advice given over the environmental impact of the Ruataniwha Dam, a controversial irrigation project in the Hawkes Bay that is looking shaky after several major backers withdrew their support.

If NIWA or any other CRI is “giving biased evidence to support commercial contracts”, as the Radio NZ piece suggests, that’s a huge scandal. I haven’t seen the letters sent to the Royal Society, so don’t know the details of the allegations. However, NIWA has responded indignantly, with CEO Jon Morgan saying the suggestion was an “insult” to the scientists employed there. Association of Scientists President Dr Nicola Gaston was interviewed and said she had “no evidence” this sort of manipulation of science was going on. But she pointed out that CRI scientists don’t have the same level of academic freedom as university scientists.

So do we have a problem here? Fresh water quality management and monitoring is hugely controversial. Is this simply a case of various groups and parties disagreeing with advice given by CRI scientists on a nuanced and complex issue or is there something more sinister going on?

Scientists as friends of the court

Bryce Johns from Fish & Game raises an interesting question in the Radio New Zealand interview – could we develop a system in New Zealand where independent experts can be called by a court of law to give neutral evidence on matters? He describes this as a “friend-of-the-court” system. This regularly occurs in other parts of the world, but is not without its own problems.

Take this example to do with Obamacare and contraception schemes. The US Supreme Court is looking at whether corporate employers with religious objections must include contraceptive coverage in their employee health plans. Various groups have taken it upon themselves to provide friend-of-the-court expert briefs in an attempt to influence the case. The science, not surprisingly, is interpreted differently. Indeed, the science involved in the specific questions is complex, but the Supreme Court won’t be making a ruling based on an interpretation of the science anyway.

What may work better to avoid duelling experts in the Environment Court and other courts, could be for the court to seek independent expert advice from a neutral body – say the Royal Society or the Association of Scientists. In some European countries, such as Norway, this is often what happens. The Court appoints expert witnesses to give evidence. But this also has its issues, as was discovered with the case of mass murderer Anders Breivik.

In that case appeals against the evidence generated by the court-appointed expert witnesses led to additional expert advice being sought by the court. This piece on The Conversation outlines the differences between the inquisitorial system of seeking expert advice in Norway and the adversarial system used in New Zealand and Australia, where both parties in the case will employ their own experts to give advice that helps their respective cases.

An expert witness is recognised by the court as a person who can give an opinion in a specific area of knowledge that is outside the understanding of an “average person”. Psychiatry and psychology expert witnesses must have relevant qualifications, training and experience to be recognised by the court as having such expertise.

Within Australia’s adversarial legal system, the defence and the prosecution will usually engage their own experts, even though the expert should not be an advocate for either party (defence or prosecution).

Usually, the expert will conduct an independent assessment and provide a report outlining the basis for his or her opinion. The report should state the facts or assumptions on which the opinion is based, and should not omit or fail to consider material facts which may contradict the opinion.

The expert should also make it clear when a particular question or issue falls outside his or her area of expertise. If the expert also considers there is insufficient data available, this must be stated to indicate that the opinion is no more than provisional.

In Norway, similar principles apply to being an expert witness, except that under their inquisitorial legal system, the court appoints the expert. (In an “inquisitorial” system, the court is actively involved in investigating the facts of the case, whereas in an “adversarial” system, the court acts an impartial umpire between the prosecution and the defence.)

I don’t see the use of expert advice in legal cases changing any time soon in New Zealand.

And our research institutions will continue to be encouraged to pursue contracts with the private sector – this is not unusual in science anywhere in the world.

But when it comes to CRIs giving advice is there evidence of bias based on them protecting their commercial interests? Do you have examples of where scientific advice has been manipulated or changed to suit the needs of industry?

Fish & Game letter

Good afternoon Di,

Fish and Game New Zealand is a significant participant in various Resource Management Act related statutory procedures, for which we engage a range of ‘expert witnesses’. The recent Board of Inquiry case involving the Ruataniwha irrigation scheme in Hawke’s Bay is a case in point, where Fish & Game engaged many experts and lead their expert evidence before the BOI.

Separately, we are encouraging members of the science community to become more intellectually visible in the public arena, so that the wider public might benefit from their knowledge, become more informed, and generally better appreciate the role of science.

One complication that emerges from this is that a confusion, and even conflict, can develop between the common notions of being an ‘expert’ and being an ‘advocate’, with scientists becoming very edgy about being branded the latter, which I fully understand.

So I am wondering if the Royal Society would serve the science community well by taking the lead and holding a workshop/seminar to discuss how this developing conundrum might best be handled, as I suspect it is escalating across all areas of scientific endeavour and concerning a growing number of ‘experts’.

Such an event could also traverse the situation where scientists become employed by organisations with a particular purpose, and how they might be able to retain their ‘expert’ status given the partiality of their employer. Another is the impartiality of scientists employed by CRIs – ‘Crown Research Institutes’ but increasingly being viewed as ‘Client Research Institutes’.

If you would like to discuss this further please do not hesitate to contact me.



Budget 2014: Live coverage on Sciblogs Peter Griffin May 15

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News on and reaction to Budget 2014 will be featured here this afternoon, as our Sciblogs and Science Media Centre experts and contributors offer their take on the state of the Government’s finances and its funding priorities. Follow the Storify our feed to get the latest updates in one place…

Live updates on Storify below…

The nuts and bolts of our knowledge economy Peter Griffin May 01

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The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment has just released the last of its Sectors Report Series, a very useful snapshot of the New Zealand economy and which sectors contribute what economic output.

Many Sciblogs readers, according to the demographic info a computer algorithm throws up for you, are involved in the knowledge intensive services area of the economy. This covers everything from legal services to public relations to scientific research and development.

What can be said about this segment of the economy? MBIE summarises:

The knowledge intensive services sectors account for 20% of New Zealand’s GDP, a fifth of all firms amounting to 100,000 companies, 19% of employment and 4% of exports.

A number of themes in the knowledge intensive services sector are highlighted in the report, including

  • The number of firms grew at 6% per annum to 2009, driven by finance, insurance, scientific, professional and technical services, but growth has been slow since the global financial crisis (GFC).

  • Knowledge intensive services added 61,634 jobs to 2008; 22,000 jobs were lost during the GFC, but employment growth since 2010 has seen job numbers regain 2008 levels.

  • Knowledge intensive services sectors generated 62% of all commercial services exports (amounting to $2.494 billion) in 2011.

  • Professional, scientific & technical services (a subset of knowledge intensive services) are important inputs to the Canterbury rebuild, with a large increase in employment in engineering, design and consulting services in that region.

  • Workers in professional, scientific & technical services firms are paid $31,000 (40%) more than the New Zealand average, reflecting higher qualification levels.

All that knowledge generation employs a lot of people and contributes a fifth of GDP. But only 4 per cent of exports? That seems really low to me. This graphic from the MBIE report gives more insight…

Source: New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

Source: New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

I’d like to think knowledge services as a proportion of exports could be much higher. But that slide is only part of the story. Consider the indirect contribution knowledge services have to other exports…

Source: New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

Source: New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

And look how important professional, technical and scientific services are to the rest of the economy…

New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

And here’s the money shot… the improved pay prospects of being a knowledge worker in New Zealand…

New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series

New Zealand’s economy: Sectors Reports Series


Finding the right balance on Seven Sharp Peter Griffin Dec 20

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The TVNZ current affairs show Seven Sharp has been criticised this year for dumbing down current affairs. A shake-up of the show is coming in the New Year, with seasoned broadcaster Mike Hoskings to anchor the show when it returns.

Dr. James Renwick on Seven Sharp

Dr. James Renwick on Seven Sharp

But while the frivolous banter of the Seven Sharp presenters, social media pop-ups and soft news stories may put some off, Seven Sharp hasn’t abandoned current affairs entirely. Many of its stories are actually quite solidly put together. Take Gill Higgins’ piece in March that imagined a world in 2100 and examined the projected impact of a three degree temperature increase. Higgins interviewed Victoria University climate scientist Dr James Renwick on the potential environmental impacts of a three degree increase, while the University of Auckland’s Alistair Woodward, a professor of epidemiology and biostatistics, looked at the potential impacts on human health.

All of what they said is backed up by models and research published in the peer reviewed literature.

Seven Sharp did quite an innovative treatment of the story, graphically re-imagining  Raumati Beach without its beachfront houses and a dairy farm re-cultivated with terraced rice paddy fields. Overall, a pretty informative and entertaining use of five minutes of prime time TV I thought.

However, Seven Sharp viewer Mario McMillan wasn’t happy. He complained to TVNZ then to the Broadcasting Standards Authority.

alleging that the claims made in the item about the impacts of climate change were presented as ‘fact’ and ‘inevitable’, which he argued was misleading because they represented ‘extreme projections… with a very low likelihood as actual outcomes’. The omission of ‘less alarmist’ viewpoints misled viewers to believe the projections were ‘uncontroversial or incontrovertible’…

The BSA recently threw out the complaint:

These claims were clearly framed as predictions and analysis and sourced to the experts interviewed in the item. Guideline 5a says that the accuracy standard does not apply to statements which are clearly distinguishable as analysis, comment or opinion. The reporter mostly used terms such as ‘could’ and ‘might’ throughout the item and the presenter used open-ended language in the introduction (see paragraph [6]), indicating that these were theories only, which by their very nature are disputable.

The judgement makes for interesting reading and while I think it was the right one, I’m a little concerned by some of the BSA panel members’ thinking. Consider this:

…We note that the parties pointed to a range of conflicting research in support of their respective arguments, indicating the complexity of the issue and that climate change is not a black-and-white topic, but one which attracts a wide range of views and a divergence in scientific opinion. In light of this we think it was acceptable for the item to take a deliberately simplistic, light-hearted approach, and to deal solely with the predictions of the scientists referred to. It was presented in an entertaining way, in an attempt to distil one contribution to a complex debate down to basics and to engage with the audience.

So if the issue is extremely complex, just opt for a simplistic, light-hearted approach, eh? Really? Then there is this…

In our view, given the nature of the programme and the topic reported on, reasonable viewers would have interpreted the predictions with some scepticism. Climate change is a highly contentious issue attracting a wide range of differing opinions, meaning viewers were unlikely to draw any solid conclusions solely from the information presented in the item, particularly taking into account the light-hearted and jovial style of presentation.

So because the tone isn’t super-serious, viewers shouldn’t draw any solid conclusions? If that’s the case, we’ve got a bit of a problem in the age of news-lite where the tone is increasingly “light-hearted and jovial”. Just where are news consumers supposed to get information they should take seriously? Isn’t this what we rely on our public broadcaster to deliver in prime time current affairs shows?

This sort of logic opens the door for decisions that could just as easily go the way of climate sceptics in future. Heck, its all so complicated, what’s the harm in having the Climate Science Coalition on to explain how the climate scientists don’t really know anything? Viewers can go somewhere else to get the full story!

False balance

The BSA board agreed on the issues of responsible programming and accuracy, but wasn’t unanimous on the decision relating to coverage of controversial issues – there was a differing minority review that suggests the piece was not balanced:

In the Seven Sharp item there was no acknowledgment of any opposing viewpoint. While asking the question, ‘Is it just a sign of things to come? the programme presented only the views of the particular experts being reported. There was no acknowledgment that there is disagreement or that there are alternate views. This programme portrayed an unbalanced, and at times, overly simplistic view. That the issue is complex and attracts a wide range of views and a divergence in scientific opinion cannot in my view justify an unbalanced, deliberately simplistic, light-hearted approach.

Here again we find a broadcasting standards body struggling to apply the all-important balance requirement to a science story. For climate change, vaccination or mobile phone radiation, the important thing is the balance of evidence. Reflecting that balance is what is important. In the case of climate change, the projections for temperature increase have been endorsed around the world by scientific bodies and by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Are they certain to happen? No, but the uncertainty was acknowledged in the piece.

TVNZ was confident in where it was coming from. It’s complaints committee wrote that it:

…does not agree that the issue of human caused global climate change is a controversial issue. Most governments of the world accept that global climate change is occurring and have taken steps to address the issue.

TVNZ made the right call, in my view, in resisting the temptation to go to a climate sceptic token comment about how the models are flawed and the scientists are being alarmist. However, if we turn it around, lets say Seven Sharp does a one-sided interview in a funny, informal way with a climate sceptic. Would the BSA deem this to be okay, because viewers wouldn’t be expected to take it seriously and it should be assumed they can find elsewhere the information endorsed by the vast majority of experts?

If that is the case I think we are in for trouble ahead. After all, the BSA can’t rule on the accuracy of the science so can’t really take into account the fact that climate change predictions for 2100 are widely endorsed by scientists and peak bodies.

I’m not arguing for false balance – climate scientist given equal time with climate sceptic. I’m arguing for the balance of evidence to be properly reflected. That should be the same no matter what angle the news show is approaching the story from.


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