By Grant Jacobs 22/10/2017

Now that New Zealand has a government, we can look to what they might do. Several parties offered to reorganise the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor role, and to introduce a Science Commission. How would you like to see this role work?

I’m going to offer a few suggestions to encourage people to put their ideas forward in the comments below. (Don’t be shy!)

As just one example, the Green Party promised to,

  • Support[s] upgrading the position of Chief Science Advisor to an independent Commissioner for Science.
  • Create a cross-party group responsible for science

The political party’s statements on this can fairly be describe as vague! Perhaps readers might have a stab at defining something more concrete? (The party’s policy statements are linked in the Sources section at the end.)

I’ve previously written on this topic earlier this year, in A Science and Technology advisory body for New Zealand?

I guess there are two main aspects: what shape the organisation should take, and what it’s activities might be.

Bringing a few (but not all) of the points from my earlier piece forward in bullet-point fashion, and adding a few stray current thoughts:

  • The commission have some independent funding that allow them to work on topical issues on their own initiative
  • All output be fully available to all. Note this goes beyond just parliament, or the Prime Minister. Note also I’m not suggesting that the advisor role to the Prime Minister be disestablished, just that a commission’s role should be wide.
  • Be able to make recommendations to government. There’s an important difference between giving background information, and offering recommendations.
  • Material on issues being debated in parliament should have some way of being included in the debate, i.e. parliament does not get to ignore the advice given!
  • Be able to serve as a source of information when urgent advice is needed. We’ve had a number of “scares” that have, ultimately, relied on informal sources of advice, such as Siouxsie Wiles’ advice on the Fonterra “botulism” scare. A commission could be charged with being able to tap into the scientific community for advice.
  • That the commission be able to use external and international information if it thinks fit. (I see far too many calls that we “must” make unique “New Zealand-only” reports. In practice most science issues are international and not formed around national polity boundaries. It is a waste to not simply use the better-funded efforts from overseas.)

What do you think?

What kind of structure do you think would be suitable?

It’s worth remembering that, as Peter Griffin noted in his piece earlier this week, A change of government: 5 things it could mean for New Zealand science, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman indicated some time ago his intention to step down from the role of Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor he has had for nine years.

When Sir Peter first set up in the Office of the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor, I have to admit his title gave me a vision of a person hovering about the Prime Minster, whispering sage-like into his ear! I jest, of course, but the title at least seemed narrowly focused. His activities have since revealed a wider remit, including a large number of public-facing statements, the initiation of other ‘Chief Scientist’ positions in New Zealand government branches, and his role in promoting science advice to governments.

Other articles in Code for life

(I’ll edit this later: the WordPress editor has a mind of it’s own at times…)

A Science and Technology advisory body for New Zealand?

A Science and Technology advisory body for New Zealand?

Fixing our genes

Fixing our genes

Towards tackling milk allergy

Towards tackling milk allergy

Is GM corn really different to non-GM corn?

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


(I have not reviewed all sources in full: I’m only human! I’m listing these in part so that others with more time might have leads to follow.)

NZAS & PSA pre-election science discussion panel – link to full video

Who will scientists vote for?

Election 2017 – SMC science Q&A with political parties

Election 2017 – Party Policies – Science and Research (this links on to the more detailed policy documents).

The future of work (PDF file. Labour Party: remember that this large document was presented before Jacinta Adern took over leadership of the Labour Party).

New Zealand Green Party Research, Science and Technology Policy (PDF file)

(The absence of a NZ First document here is simply that their Policy page doesn’t offer anything specific to science, and the links from the pages don’t lead to much that is interesting.)

A change of government: 5 things it could mean for New Zealand science

Featured image

Left portion of the masthead of the Office of the Prime Minister’s Science Advisor.

0 Responses to “What do you want in a science commission?”

  • Hi
    thanks for the opportunity to comment. I always feel that having one person in this capacity is problematic. It would be better to have a panel of advisers possibly elected there by various bodies. To be refreshed at say 2-3 year intervals. Could also allow junior upcoming scientists who have earned their colours from winning say the Marsden or Rutherford recently.
    We need a robust group of people who hold NZ science education, development and progress as core beliefs – ie people who wish to promote science learning and innovation without political and financial influence.

    • My suggested terms of reference:

      1. Review Govt’s processes for generating and utilising scientific evidence, and reporting on this to the House of Representatives;
      2. Maintain register of internally and externally commissioned research by government, together with a pre-analysis plan with timelines;
      3. Request, and then publish, policy outcomes of each research project;
      4. Investigate any matter where scientific misconduct may have occurred;
      5. Report, on a request from the House or select committee, on any petition, Bill, or any other matter which may need scientific input;
      6. Inquire, investigate, and report on any scientific matter that has had or may have a substantial effect on the well-being of NZers.

  • A few thoughts about this, itemized below:

    1. The Commission needs to be populated by Scientists., who are independent of political parties. I disagree with the Cross-party Commission because most who might represent their parties will not be practicing scientists; most will be either an MMP, or a party political advisor. There is usually cross-party membership in Select Committees that frequently need to consider the ‘science’ embedded within proposed legislation. The Commission needs to be completely independent, not only of party politics, but also the PM’s Science Advisor.

    2. The Commission needs to have the capacity to consider the ‘science’ that relates to legislation, independent of any policy. It also needs to have the capacity to examine critical issues, for example water quality, GMOs, or Science Education, that could lead to recommendations for new legislation, or changes to existing legislation.

    3. The Commission should have the capacity to make recommendations to Parliament, especially to Select Committees; Select Committees and other Parliamentary groups should be obliged to listen.

    4. The current PM’s Science Advisor role should be maintained, but add liaison roles with the Commission; perhaps the Science Advisor could be an ex-officio member of the Commission.

    5. Membership in the Commission should be gender equal and should include a couple of Early Career scientists. As you suggest, Marsden or Rutherford recipients might be a good start, but the person also needs to have an interest in science policy. Our CRIs are also excellent places for potential candidates, at both early or later stages of their careers.

    6. The Commission will need to invite “expert witnesses” to contribute to deliberations, and/or reporting, including international representatives who could provide expertise on science or policy models from the international sphere.

    7. Reports should be Open Access

  • Great points already made. I’t would also be useful to give a Science Commission a role in monitoring global best practice in public science expenditure, national structure and operation to ensure that, over the long term, we get the best bangs for our severely limited bucks. This should not be an invitation for regular restructures that governments love and scientists hate, but we do need to optimise the funding and execution of science on a national basis with our limited resources.

    The suggestion that the Chief Science Advisor be an ex-officio member of the Commission is a good one and reduces risks of fragmentation of relevant activity and advice streams.

  • Below are a few replies I have gathered from Twitter, added here to help discussion (which tends to get splintered across different social media!) and to keep as something of a record. I haven’t “selected” these in any way. They’re short because that’s the nature of tweets.

    David Eccles‏ @gringene_bio Oct 22
    Replying to @sciblogsnz
    A female scientist with at least a couple of well-cited papers would be a nice start. I liked Sakuntala’s idea of a Rutherford awardee.

    Christopher Thompson‏ @dewithiel 22 hours ago
    Replying to @sciblogsnz
    A new, less compromised, chief science advisor would be a useful start. For example was Gluckman involved in the appointment of Rowarth as chief scientist at the EPA?

    André Hock‏ @transparency_a1 22 hours ago
    Replying to @sciblogsnz @hendysh
    Nothing like the PMs science adviser >>>All environmetrics got worse! Record increase in climate emissions, water quality =I want a refund !
    Robin Capper‏ @robincapper 22 hours ago
    A PM who listens to advice and acts on it should improve things too
    André Hock‏ @transparency_a1 22h22 hours ago
    Fingerscrossed ?

  • I wonder if it might be an idea to identify and agree on what problems exist in the science area, before making changes and adding layers of bureaucracy.

    • I wonder if you’re thinking of a different kind of commission? There’s advice to parliament about science issues in all kinds of matters that arise, and, separately, advice about the science “industry” itself. My reading of your suggestion is that you mean the latter; the commission in question is about the former (well, mostly!).

  • Don’t forget that the Royal Society is charged with a function:
    6e. to provide expert advice on important public issues to the Government and the community:

    • The Royal Society certainly is a source of people that can advise on topics, but I think it’s worth thinking if a commission should be able to draw more broadly, and with a wider remit, and one that is more related to parliament.

      I’m a bit cautious about the extent to which the Royal Society engages well outside of the major academic/research institutions (including from personal experience).

  • A friend suggested that the Science Advisor role might want to be rotated, and that it be made more transparent as to what the role involves.

    My impression is that the original appointment was (in a sense) created without precedent in NZ from the top office. (Other countries like the USA have science advisors; the precedent might lie there.) I guess what this suggestion suggests is a need for the position to be moved to something more formalised to the public eye at least that’s suitable for an on-going role in the years to come.