By Grant Jacobs 24/09/2018

While writing about the demise of Jacqueline Rowarth’s role as head of the New Zealand Environment Protection Agency (NZ EPA), Peter Griffin (former head of the Science Media Centre) also covers progress towards a NZ Science Commission. His piece provides an useful opportunity to revisit this initiative, raised during the election, and how it seems to be going sideways since.

Is an opportunity to lift and safeguard New Zealand’s decision making at a time policies worldwide are on rough ground being missed?

Could a skeleton Science Commission be set up to establish the concept as a new feature of the political and policy landscape, and flesh it out later?

A foil to the populist scourge

I won’t be alone in pointing out the usefulness of an established, independent source of policy evidence.

It would be great to see New Zealand lead the way establishing infrastructure that stands steady against the current tide of populism and all that goes with it, that other governments around the world are struggling with. As a small adaptable nation we likely have a better opportunity and chance to do this than most.

But our current politicians seem to want to squander the opportunity, despite it being on the table during the election.

The ‘meth houses’ fuss might be an example of ‘populist’ thinking overtaking an issue, how it can be politically exploited, and how solid evidence and advice can mitigate it.

Consider how this might have played out had their been an independent body that could have tabled for general, wide release a critique of it at the time?

If look closer you’ll see smaller examples of this peppered through many policies offered by all political parties of all stripes. We allow, if not encourage, our politicians to do this. After all, political parties by their nature are ideological beasts at various levels.

Better than relying on the current crop of politicians, why not use the want for better policy to put in place infrastructure that can help ensure this, that can go on into the future to aid better, sound policy that’s independent of who governs?

But let’s first go back to the start. (Readers who wish bypass the back story can jump to the section Benefits of a Science Commission.)

An army of chief scientists

Peter Griffin reminds us of Megan Woods’ thoughts about the profile of science advice in NZ from before the election,

[…] But Labour ministers have expressed a desire to raise the profile of scientific advice within Government agencies.

“There is a ready army of chief scientists who are in Government departments,” Labour’s spokeswoman on science and innovation, Megan Woods, said before last year’s election, at a panel discussion in Wellington organised by the Public Service Association.

“There’s nobody, beyond a few pointy heads like ourselves, that knows who they are, what they do, what departments they are appointed to.”

What about now, and who are these chief scientists?

Who are the chief scientists?

You can find them listed on the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor’s (PM CSA’s) website. Here’s who holds what post at the time of writing,

Prof Margaret Hyland – Retired June 2018 – currently recruiting
Prof Hamish Spencer – Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment
Prof Rob Murdoch – Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment
Hema Sridhar – Ministry of Defence
Prof Stuart McNaughton – Ministry of Education
Dr Alison Collins – Ministry for the Environment
Dr John Potter – Ministry of Health
Prof Ian Lambie – Justice Sector
Prof Ken Hughey – Department of Conservation
John Roche – Ministry of Primary Industries
Prof Richie Poulton – Ministry of Social Development and associated agencies
Prof Simon Kingham – Ministry of Transport
Vince Galvin – Statistics

As you can see, quite a few government departments have chief scientists. The range of appointments also gives an idea of how widely science advice can be applied. You can also see from the titles that these people are dominantly drawn from senior academic ranks.

(It’s worth noting that the NZ EPA is not included in this list. Since I drafted this, Gary Evans has been appointed as Chief Science Advisor to MBIE. Only three of the advisors are women.)

Towards a science commission… or not?

Reporting to whom?

Continuing with his reportage on Megan Woods’ thoughts on science representation in NZ Peter Griffin writes,

Gluckman’s role as the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser was held “too closely in the executive”, she [Megan Woods] added, preferring a change in the office to mirror the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, who reports to Parliament rather than the Prime Minister.

I’ve written on this previously, with similar thoughts. I’m not against the PM having a dedicated advisor. It seems to me Prime Ministers can have what advisors they feel are useful to them. If the PM wants a science advisor, by all means let them have one. Whether or not the PM has a ‘personal’ advisor, there’s a need for parliament as a whole be advised on issues parliament is dealing with. There’s also a need for the public to be in on the discussion.

I wrote that I felt that at some point the advice, reports, etc., could be given to all: parliament, media, public. It’d help people see parliamentary decisions in the light of the evidence base for the issue.

Speaking out independently and Gluckman’s final fling

Following this Peter Griffin writes of more recent thoughts,

Now Minister for Research, Science and Innovation, Woods says she is happy with the independence of the chief science adviser role, held since July 1 by Juliet Gerrard, professor of biochemistry at the University of Auckland.

She points to Gluckman’s hard-hitting report on meth contamination in state houses. But that report was released just weeks before his retirement and after a change in Government.

“The chief science adviser and departmental science advisers are among the best scientists in New Zealand and I’m confident they’re committed to providing quality, independent advice to help inform better policy outcomes,” Woods says.

I agree with Peter Griffin in that Gluckman’s final reports look to be things Gluckman felt he struggled to get out during his tenure. (Some accounts have it that an earlier reports on the meth testing of state houses was pushed back by politicians.) Perhaps with the change of government he felt he could try again.

On that note, I can’t help noticing Gluckman’s last report (3rd August 2018) was a return to the folic acid in bread issue that he opened his time as PM CSA with. Going back to where he began. I wonder if it felt like unresolved business. The case for folate in bread was widely covered on Sciblogs (3 links) at the time. It was kicked back by industry lobbying, some of it quite misleading. I recall one claim being that folate tastes awful, when in fact it’s tasteless—see 4.2.4 at the folic acid PubChem entry. I was also struck by that when I checked at supermarkets I found that some of the cheapest breads included folate: it seemed to me a demonstration that objections over cost weren’t right.

I’d quibble with Woods’ ‘best scientists’ line. The relevant thing is that they be the best science advisors. In some respects I feel (most of) those that are the best scientists—best at their research—are better to be supported doing that.

Mostly professors

I worry a little about the tendency to pick professors for advisors. The academic meritocracy doesn’t necessary means their skills and inclinations best fit an advisory role. Some who moved to professional science management earlier in the careers, for example, might be excellent advisors, as might some who skills looks better placed as communicators rather than necessarily researchers. Similarly, those with commercial experience may be useful for some roles. (Having said this, it’s possible that few non-professors put them name forward, feeling they are disadvantaged or unlikely to be considered seriously.)

Professors are easier to ‘sell’, however, in an ‘argument from authority’ kind of way. Media can be guilty of something similar.

Advising and honest brokers

A common, strong, motivation amongst scientists is helping the public. I suspect many don’t fully appreciate the extent that this altruistic spirit runs through scientists and their work. It’s one of the motivations behind some of my writing, too.[1] Having that motivation in itself doesn’t necessarily make them the best advisors, however.

A key element of advising isn’t saying what you think is ‘right’, but advising ‘what is out there’. Those opposed to various issues often recast advisors as giving personal opinions, when in practice good advisors don’t: they carry an honest broker role first, with any recommendations only after that, and clearly identified as recommendations or opinion as the case may be.[2]

Kicking the bucket?

Griffin’s reporting continues,

“At the moment, there’s no funding to create something akin to a Parliamentary Commissioner. From discussions with Professor Gerrard, I know she is also eager to have more direct engagement with the public.”

I guess I’m a cynic when it comes to statements by (some[3]) politicians. This reads (to me) as saying “we can’t” when surely she means “we won’t”.

Minister for Research, Science and Innovation Megan Woods’ statement that there is no funding, to me, flies in the face of the cost of recruiting the many policy advisors the government has sought. Policy advice is a good thing (provided it’s well managed), but it feels like they’re missing an opportunity.

Set up a skeleton Science Commission by having the commissioning advisory experts go through an initial skeleton structure that can grow into Science Commission over time.

This way they might establish something that might go on into the future, that might bring a better evidence-based approach in subsequent governments. There seem to be a lot of benefits it might offer.

Benefits of a Science Commission

Benefits for all, including politicians

Potentially a Science Commission might offer a lot of benefits to a lot of people, politicians included.

Politicians can be faced with tricky questions they’d rather defer. Deferring to a Science Commission briefing can provide a way to not have to offer an immediate answer—with all the faults they can have—while keeping the issue ‘alive’. What you’d hope to get back is evidence-backed material that can serve as a sound discussion starter, rather than the more typical anecdotal and emotion-laden political tit-for-tat.

Similarly, the public might be able to ask for starter material directly, or a Commission arise to an identified need.

Ideas to think about

Some points to consider might be,

  • The (sole) mandate of the Commission should be to evidence.
  • The Commission has independent funding that allows them to work on topical issues on their own initiative.
  • Output should be fully available to all. This goes beyond just parliament, or the Prime Minister.
  • Be able to make recommendations to government. There’s an important difference between giving background information, and offering recommendations. This calls for two different types of content: background information, and advisory briefs.
  • Material on issues being debated in parliament should have some way of being included in the debate ‘in the chamber’, i.e. parliament does not get to ignore the background or advice.
  • 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’. The Commission could be charged with being able to tap into the scientific community for advice on the government’s behalf.
  • That the Commission be able to use external and international information if, and as, it thinks fit. I see 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 use the better-funded efforts from overseas.

These are thoughts to consider, an invitation to discussion.

Keep evidence and advice, and support of research separate?

The first idea may be debatable but worth thinking about (“The (sole) mandate of the commission is to evidence”).

Many point to the Royal Society as an organisation that might serve the purpose of a Science Commission, but in addition to encouraging “public awareness, knowledge, and understanding” the Royal Society also is a funding and support agency.

My experience in science communication suggests it might be clearer to those outside of science if the agency offering evidence and advice doesn’t also have other roles.

There is a place for commissioning reviews of existing studies. This wants to distinguished from funding primary research; it’s aim is to offer ‘the state of play’, what’s known (not opinion), what isn’t, and so on.

This is a topic in it’s own right, one that I’m not going to explore here. It’s worth mentioning the parallel with regulatory agencies and their (systematic) reviews of issues that are independent of the primary research. There is a place for more public-friendly summaries of these surveys. (I’ve previously tackled some on GMOs.)

A foil to the populist scourge, revisited

I opened this piece suggesting that I won’t be alone in pointing out the usefulness of an established, independent source of policy evidence.

I wrote that the ‘meth houses’ fuss might be an example of ‘populist’ thinking overtaking an issue, how it can be politically exploited, and how solid evidence and advice can mitigate it.

As Richard Easther wrote online,

This meth-house situation is a toxic mix of science denial, profiteering, self-interest, sleaze and nasty political expedience.

This, despite earlier warnings that the advice had been taken in a wrong-headed way.

A point of difference with a Science Commission is that the evidence and advice can be offered to everyone from an independent source enabled to do that, allowing everyone to be part of the ‘discussion’. (Including journalists, for that matter.) Potentially it’s a real enabling force for a democracy that want sound policy.

It might help discussion on issued to be focused around evidence, not rhetoric, emotional appeal or power-plays.

Given the struggles other countries are facing with—let’s be polite—‘suspect’ policy, this doesn’t feel a good issue for politicians to be pushing aside.

Leaving things as it stands has the current politicians saying ‘trust us, we’ll get it right’. Yes, but every political party says that, and it leaves the public vulnerable. It seems a weakness of democracies, not helped the ease of playing popular appeal.

An open, independent infrastructure that presents ‘the state of play’ on current issues from one resource might go a long way to mitigating this, and encouraging a better focus on evidence-based policy in an on-going way that isn’t dependent on who is in power next.

Further thoughts

I’ve previously tackled the Science Commission several times. A few links can be found in the Other articles on Code for life section below.

As I write, the PM CSA has this as her pinned tweet:

Four principles to make evidence synthesis more useful for policy
Reward the creation of analyses for policymakers that are inclusive, rigorous, transparent and accessible, urge Christl A. Donnelly and colleagues. (Open Access)

It’s well worth reading. Wouldn’t this be boosted by an infrastructure body devoted to just that?

A few extra thoughts can be found in the Footnotes. (Some commentary on the featured image and the title are in the final section.)

What of Peter Gluckman?

At the end of a blog dated 26th June, 2018, Peter Gluckman writes,

I now will be putting more effort into the further development of the International Network for Government Science Advice (INGSA) which has grown rapidly over the past four years and now has over 5000 members in about 80 countries with chapters in Africa, Latin America, Asia and developing chapters in Europe and North America.

I will be helping to establish a centre, within the University of Auckland’s Public Policy Institute, which will focus on science-policy interface. We are going to call it SciPoDS – the Centre for Science in Policy, Diplomacy and Society. I will also be continuing to assist our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade and, in particular, continuing to act as the coordinator of the Small Advanced Economies Initiative.

The work looks great. The INGSA effort in particular is something I can relate to, having travelled in various parts of the world with their very different approaches to politics and policies.


As others have noted, science advisors need to have the confidence of scientists. (This piece on Jacqueline Rowarth might serve as an example.) An aspect to this is that they must be a ‘fit’ to the science advisor role. It’s a bit of a different role to that of a scientist or a critic.

Talking about contentious issues is an issue it it’s own right, a topic that deserves several articles, if not an entire book. Speaking of books, Jess Berentson-Shaw has written a small book, A Matter of Fact: Talking Truth in a Post-Truth World. If (when?) I get to finding my own copy of this, I might find time to review to review it on Sciblogs.

Megan Woods is on Twitter (@Megan_Woods), as is the Prime Minister Chief Science Advisor (Professor Juliet Gerrard, @ChiefSciAdvisor).

Numbered Footnotes from the text:

  1. It’s a reason I spend far too much of my time trying to help out on issues that have become ‘tangled’. I actually prefer to be writing about some of the great science that’s being done, but with the public being affected by poor policy, misleading claims, and so forth, you feel obliged to pitch in, and help sort things out.
  2.  In all contentious topics, there are a few who academics who offer their opinion first (or solely), which is problematic as their opinion is not properly set in context of what is known. The best-known examples of this to non-scientists are probably a small number of academics who offer unorthodox ideas on climate change, but the same is true for GMOs, vaccines and other contended issues. I think there’s a place for calling out these exceptions a little more openly so that people are better aware that these views are unorthodox, and perhaps why (if that is possible; it’s not always clear why these people offer the views they do). Academics are generally reluctant to do this, so the burden falls on communicators and advisors.
  3. Most?

Other articles in Code for life

What do you want in a science commission?

A Science and Technology advisory body for New Zealand?

Sticky thoughts on where research can most effectively influence policy

USA Court ruling on glyphosate— the role of IARC and Eugenie Sage’s call

Regulating GMOs: time to move forward

Deleting a gene can turn an ovary into a testis in adult mammals

About the featured image

President Nixon being ‘advised’ on the lunar Command Module. Source Wikimedia Commons. Public domain (NASA, not copyright unless explicitly noted otherwise).

I have a silly sense of humour. Before I saw Nixon’s face I thought: here’s a bunch of science advisors peering into the Command Module (i.e. Cabinet) saying, “What the flippin’ heck’s going on in there??!”

Some might see my title as a double entendre, which it’s second meaning being a poke at Nixon and politicians like him. That wasn’t the intention, but perhaps in hindsight that’s not an entirely bad idea—?

(I also like to leave ‘easter eggs’ for those that read this far! Well done to anyone who made it to the end! It’s been a long effort for me to.)

0 Responses to “A foil to the populist scourge: towards a Science Commission for New Zealand?”

  • Further to Megan Woods saying “there’s no funding”, we now have the ODT reporting that the government has a 5.5b surplus:

    No funding?

    Robertson is quoted as saying, “This gives us the space required to make the critical infrastructure investments that New Zealand needs,”

    I’d say that a Science Commission is something that NZ badly needs, and would be a very wise investment in the future at a time governments worldwide are struggling.

  • A month has gone by without comments, which might suggest there is not a groundswell of enthusiasm for this idea you continue to advocate.

    My view is that the opinions of scientists should be tested in the existing fora. There is no shortage of “peak” science groups, such as sciblogs, the SMC and the Royal Society, that regularly get coverage for the views of their members. Why don’t these groups perform the role you think is missing?