No Easy Fight for Science

By Michael Edmonds 01/12/2012

“No easy fight for science” is the title of an article in today’s Christchurch Press which looks at the work of Professor Sir Peter Gluckman and his role as chief science adviser to prime minister John Key. In it Sir Peter is quite frank (though always politic) about some of his successes  and challenges as chief science adviser. It is clear that when science is ignored for the expediency of politics it frustrates him but it comes with the territory. He was warned about this by former British chief scientist, Lord  Robert May, who once told him “You are going to win some, you are going to lose some. The key thing is not to get upset about it – it just goes with the role.”

This advice has come true – while Sir Peter’s advice on adolescent mental health has resulted in $62 million dollars being used to reform adolescent health programmes, his advice regarding policies has largely been ignored; in spite of “clear evidence that increasing the purchase price of alcohol and restricting its marketing and availability” could reduce the harm it does in the young.

While according to the article “everyone agrees Gluckman has done a good job boosting the profile of science” the article does include some criticisms, though more about the lack of funding for science in New Zealand, than of Sir Peter himself.

Professor Graham Le Gros of the Malaghan Institute describes how “for the past 20 years scientific discovery in New Zealand has been under-funded, under-acknowledged, fragmented, underused and in danger of being morphed into some form of entertainment industry…”

There is also criticism of the new Callaghan Innovation from Jeff Tallon, a physicist and superconductivity researcher. To quote the Press< “the institute, he says, will not do basic research. Rather it will be a broker of technical knowledge, a middle player between industry and university … this will mean that Industrial Research Limited, the country’s primary physical science researcher and star of dozens of research triumphs, will disappear into the institute’s maw. (Professor) Callaghan would have been shocked by this…”

Sir Peter’s response to comments like these is caution, suggesting that the new institution is “all part of strengthening and developing the science and innovation ecosystem.”

If you can get hold of it, it is an interesting article.

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