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.
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
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.”