By Grant Jacobs 30/08/2018

New Zealand’s Chief Science Advisor (CSA), Professor Juliet Gerrard, has been asking where research can most effectively influence policy – one post-it note at a time,

(Posted 21st August ~10:45pm, NZST; click on image to open tweet.)

The comments after this piece are open for readers to offer their thoughts on where science should best influence policy. Please do!

As I’m currently off-shore so I can’t attend these meetings. Besides, I always have too much to say… I’ll add my contribution below and hope readers will join in.


She posted a photo to give me (and others) some idea of what’s happening –

(Taken from the PMCSA website twitter feed, 21st August. Click on image to see tweet.)

Some people have written 3 or 4 words. Others have crammed a mini essay onto a post-it. These must be the people who, when sitting exams, thought, “how much can I fit on this page” and proceeded to write in about 5 point font. That’s about this big.

Some notes even have ‘PTO’ on them. Ha! Why, yes, there’s more paper on the other side. Scientists are so into lateral thinking…

She has built quite a collection. Here’s a photo of her office wall –

(Click on image to see full version. You may need to use the ‘back’ button to get back to the article after you’ve clicked the image.)

Scientists are people with great curiosity. I’ve tried reading the post-its but most of the writing is just too small. The curious part of me would love to the full collection, to see what people are thinking for myself.

Here are the themes Prof. Gerrard has identified (the larger white notes), from the left:

  1. Sustainability
  2. How is/will NZ meet its UNDP sustainable development goals?
  3. Alternatives to plastic
  4. Water quality
  5. Climate change
  6. Biosecurity
  7. Public health e.g. diabetes
  8. Antimicrobial resistance
  9. Evidence for harm reduction on legislation of cannabis
  10. Mental health
  11. New Zealand’s framework for science in emergencies – to include, communication of risk
  12. Connecting the Innovation Economy
  13. Well being
  14. Artificial intelligence
  15. Data governance and data sovereignty
  16. Diversity in science – beyond gender
  17. GE regulation
  18. 1080
  19. A variety of environmental toxicology concerns
  20. Fluoride
  21. Asbestos
  22. Incorporation of kaupapa Māori
  23. Science education
  24. Earning the trust of the public
  25. How do we science

I’d add a few thoughts about some of these points to encourage discussion—perhaps in a later post—but first my own thoughts. I’ve got to get a word in here!

Priorities, priorities, priorities

Prof Gerrard is asking for what issues she might prioritise. What should come first?

I can think of dozens of things we might do; I’m sure you can, too.

While each theme is important in their own way, it seems to me that thinking ahead what we’d like is for research to contribute to policy in an on-going way. With this in mind, my over-arching priority is a science commission for parliament.

A science commission

As a small nation New Zealand has the ability to lead with new ways of doing things. A Science Commission can provide an on-going way to aid evidence-based policy, assist MPs and parliament, and temper populist-style politics that the world is presently suffering.

It might provide a means for all of the issues to be better considered by parliament. It’s important to stress that I can imagine this benefitting politicians, too, as well as the country as a whole. This isn’t about ‘favouring’ science or scientists.

There’s much more to this than a post-it.  I’ve a piece dedicated to this coming up. I’ll link it here once it’s done.

We have a chance to build something that might go on into the future, something that can potentially help everyone, including individual MPs faced with policy challenges from the public, and the public themselves. Done well it could be something that might, in time, set New Zealand apart, something to be proud of. A stronger, saner form of policy formation. I’m actually quite disappointed that the incoming coalition didn’t make this a priority from the very start of their tenure.

As I’ll explain in my follow-up piece there appears to be some reluctance from politicians on this. I believe the scientific community should push back firmly on this. It’s an institution (for want of a better word) that is sorely needed in these ‘post-truth’ times.

Dear readers…

Go to it. The comments are open to all.

(Keep those contributions polite, of course.)

I’ll challenge you to make them post-it sized. Or at least offer a pithy take before warbling on!

While you’re here, check out the new-look website for the Office of the CSA. It features her staff, the departmental science advisory network, news feed, her twitter stream, and more.


The Otago Daily Times noted that quite a few people were concerned with countering claims made on media and social media among other issues,

Hot topics identified by the audience included supporting science teachers, potentially making ”trade pathways” for scientific careers better known, and educating politicians so they did not mistrust scientific data.

Fellow Sciblogger Alison Campbell has written on the need to support science teachers on BioBlog. Among her too many roles she also works in this space.

I’ve previously written about the non-academic science careers. There is a need for graduate students to better understand the career options, and be better linked to them. Some suggest the training might be tweaked in reflection of that only a minority of graduates go on to academic careers.

The trust issue is important but has some ‘gotchas’ that I will try to tackle in a later piece. I’d like this one to focus on encouraging readers to discuss their ideas, not just mine.

On that note, I hope to see you in the comments.

Other articles on Code for life

USA Court ruling on glyphosate— the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call (I hope to bring more on this in a later piece)

Regulating GMOs: time to move forward (including a list of issues to consider)

Public opinion of gene editing and enhancement (results of a survey and the implications)

Natural Health Products bill gets quietly dropped (the government quietly dropped this needed bill; little reported on in media)

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are ‘natural’ An attempt to point out that, among other things, both our ’natural’ foods and GMOs are not really ‘natural’.

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals I was startled to learn that ovaries may not be permanently defined to be ovaries in some adult mammals.

Haemophilia – towards a cure using genetic engineering Using ‘designer’ zinc finger proteins to insert a working copy of a missing gene.

About the featured image

Taken from the PM CSA’s Twitter feed (she posted this in reply to me so I might see what is happening); used with permission.

0 Responses to “Sticky thoughts on where research can most effectively influence policy”

  • I have two thoughts:

    First: For a long time I have realized that for subjects like climate change, we know enough science. The challenge is the effective communication of the science. As I have studied in this area I’ve realized that implicitly, the phrase “the communication of science” has the deficit model of science communication underpinning it, and that is another challenge. Nowadays I think the public engagement with science, which is a more sharing model, is the important challenge. Research into the engagement of citizens in science is one area of research I think important.

    Second: One of my students, who had worked for a Senator in the Philippines, made a comment reminding me that the powerful love science when it supports their policy position and ignores it when science doesn’t: just the self-confirmation bias. I think research into ways that scientists can be honest brokers of science and development of institutions to support this aim is important.

  • The second is part of what a Science Commission would tackle, and part of the reason I suggested it. Part of the idea is to provide a common starting point for sound material that public and political discussion can draw from.

    For the first, I often feel there is too much meme-like thinking in science communication, with people touting ‘one way’ to do things. Yes, the deficit model has limitations, but it also has it’s place. And so do a dozen other communication styles. I came to this thinking before I started at Sciblogs (I started as one of the founding writers, over nine years ago). Part of what inspired it was about a half-dozen independent accounts from people who’d gone from creationism to science. That’s about as big a shift as you could make. They told stories of a long road, where everything from one-liner jibes to discussions to deficit-style writing got them there, each playing a role in different steps of their journey. In particular, they all noted that what finally turned the barrel for them was being able to take away a (deficit-style) piece to read it in their own time. Of course, they had to get to the point that they would read it, but they all said this played an important role.

    (There’s a difference between social media content and writing work in this, that I also think is often overlooked.)

    From this, I don’t agree with the overly simplistic (to me!) pitch that everything should be ‘dialogue’.

    There’s a place for dialogue, of course, and lest readers here get me wrong I do dialogue too.

    Recently I’ve been talking to one gardening blogger behind the scenes (who is largely with the science but is perhaps over-cautious), and one person opposing glyphosate and trying to set up a lobby in NZ (she”s from outside NZ; her writing suggests she is most likely drawing on poor sources of information).

    The important thing, I think, is to recognise what you are doing, what audience and circumstances the different styles reach and ‘fit’, and learn to use them appropriately. For example, at times, very short meme-like responses can be effective. A thing to remember is that you’re not trying to ‘win’ in one go—each person’s road is a long path, over years. You’re trying to see where they’re at, and point them along in the right direction with other encounters or material taking them further.

    Hmm. This should be a blog post, shouldn’t it? 😀

  • All of your points are fair enough and I agree.

    Personally, I see value in many of the approaches that are being taken to broaden the range of communications; we have classic scientific papers, popular science papers, popular science books and blogs, Story Collider speeches, graphic novels, dance your PhD videos and on and on. Each approach has value and brings a different audience to an appreciation of science. Or at least I hope it does. These different approaches also bring art and science together. That is another important topic.

    Here is a video showing what a musician can do with π.

    Song from π!