Gluckman on science in small countries, part I

By Grant Jacobs 02/11/2009

Anyone for a NZ Science Party to make politicians face evidence?

Reading from the website for the Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisory Committee I found myself agreeing with many of the points in Sir Peter Gluckman’s speech to the Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, on Monday 14 September 2009. (Sir Peter Gluckman is Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister of NZ.)

Rather than simply agree with the lot, I’d like to add some personal thoughts from my own experience and previous ruminating by quoting excerpts and responding to them. Not all of my responses will be entirely serious.

To make this manageable, I’m going to present this as a series of short posts, dealing with one excerpt at a time. So, the excerpt for today:

I asked Bob [Lord Robert May, former Chief Science Advisor, UK] what the most effective thing he had done was, and he was unequivocal in that it was putting evidence into policy. He achieved this firstly by suggesting that independent scientific input be available to every department of state – there is now a scientific advisor to every department bar one – and secondly by establishing the basis of a cabinet protocol that requires a summary of the source of evidence and its quality to accompany cabinet papers going forward. The role of the CSO is to monitor this.

Just prior to the last election in NZ I was watching the smaller parties parading their wares–not always sound and reliable wares it has to be said–and I realised I’d missed an opportunity for some fun. For the painful sum of a thousand dollars I could have set up a ‘NZ Science Party’, aiming to sit in the house and force the other parties to face the evidence-based aspects of whatever issue was at hand, but with few political agendas beyond that. A collection of independent advisors of sorts, if you will.

My NZ Science Party was, of course, one of those over-a-glass-of-wine (or three) ideas. It would have been fun to try it and see how much public support there’d be for a science-based party. (Just saying, though.)

You get the impression that the public are distinctly sick of the sillier tirades in the house, the game-playing, the muck racking. To be fair, the media inflate these against the more tedious stuff, which will make up the bulk of the day. One hopes.

Part of my inspiration for this NZ Science Party was sitting there wondering just where even the serious parties got their policies from. You’d swear some were made up as they went along.

Certainly some parties took their sweet time releasing a policy statement. I made a decision that any party without a policy less than a month out was out of the running. No time to check the policy and surely they aren’t serious or organised if they leave it too late. My recollection was that was a close-run thing. I guess some would say few political policy statements would make sense or have real substance anyway. Which is perhaps of the essence here.

Anyway, essentially the idea was to hold parliament to a summary of the evidence relevant to the issue on the table. Importantly the evidence-based aspects should be delivered to the public as much as to the MPs or ministries (hate that word, sounds like a religious organisation).

So. Anyone for the next election?

(And, by the way–and seriously by the way–regards Sir Peter’s point about having scientific advisors associated with policy: an excellent move. Anyone know what department is the exception to the rule in the British government in not having a science advisor?)

0 Responses to “Gluckman on science in small countries, part I”

  • You also need 500 paid up members to form a political party… unfortunately, the way things are going there may not be that many scientists in the country!

    You raise a good point, though, about evidence based policies in this country. I like what I hear Sir Peter saying about the UK and I would support something similar here. However, that will only happen if people (incl scientists who understand the evidence) actually bother to join the political parties and seek to promote evidence based policies – given the small size of all parties (relative to other countries) it is quite possible to be able to influence policy. I’ve done this myself with UF over the past 4 years (unfortunately, I was not so good at influencing voters 🙁 ). I’d love to see more scientists involved with all the parties.

  • You also need 500 paid up members to form a political party…

    Ah well, it was only a fun idea anyway… 🙂 Then again, perhaps we could rig this up through the Royal Society and make it the Royal Society party. (Seriously, I would think they can’t take political stances.)

    Just out of curiousity, is a sponsor allowed to pay the 500 fees, or subsidise them, or do the members have to pay out of their pockets?

    that will only happen if people (incl scientists who understand the evidence) actually bother to join the political parties

    What Sir Peter is pointing to are paid positions within (or assigned to) departments in the UK, not “political” posts, so you wouldn’t need to people join a party as my over-a-wine-glass political party idea would require. It’s a different approach. From what I understand, the departments are essentially obligated to at least consider at what the advisors assigned to their department say.

    I’ve done this myself with UF over the past 4 years

    Care to spill the beans on what UF is and what you’ve been doing? 😉

  • Anyone know what department is the exception to the rule in the British government in not having a science advisor?

    Well the department that fired a guy for talking-about-drugs-in-a-way-he-shouldn’t-have might not have one for a while!

  • Also, short of forming a party is the option of carving out a niche as the ‘go to’ website/blog for analysing the science of NZ political parties. Now would be a good time to start, you’ve got two years til the election!