Gluckman on a year as Chief Science Advisor

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman has just released a report looking at how he progressed in his first year as the country’s Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister.

As someone who keeps a very close eye on how science is covered in the media and has the help of a media tracking service to do so, I can say that Sir Peter Gluckman has attracted a stack of headlines in the last year. There’s been nothing particularly scandalous, nothing massively controversial. The climate sceptics called on him to resign, but that’s really a badge of honour.

Instead it has been serious coverage on the back of Sir Peter tackling serious science-related issues. There were really four of them in the first year that got a lot of public attention:

Metamphetamine and whether pseudoephedrine (a precursor to methamphetamine) should be restricted (it was).

Climate change (a paper on the issue by Sir Peter didn’t go down well with the sceptics but showed the CSA was willing to tackle a major issue of global significance).

The powderkeg of youth – an interim report looked at the public health issues facing society when it comes to youths who are physically maturing faster than they used to and increasingly getting into trouble with drink, sex, drugs and obesity.

Improving public-private collaboration on science – a report on the issues the science sector faces in boosting innovation by encouraging collaboration between publicly-funded science research organisations and New Zealand businesses.

All of those issues got a lot of airplay thanks to Sir Peter’s involvement in them. In that respect, he has proven the effectiveness of the role already. Numerous scientific issues are getting attention and being debated that may not otherwise have been. Few scientists in New Zealand have the power to put science on the national media agenda – Peter Gluckman is one of them. The key statement in his report issued to day for me is the following:

Science increasingly deals with issues of uncertainty and probability rather than with absolutes, and offices such as this have a key but difficult role in translating complex issues for public and political understanding. These have included in the first year issues such as methamphetamine precursors, the morbidity of adolescence, and particularly global warming. The challenge is to maintain the balance of providing advice without entering the policy arena. It is important for this Office to be seen as apolitical.

The media to its credit has used the CSA to good effect. The numerous TV and radio interviews and feature stories and news articles focusing on Sir Peter have generally added to rational discussion of the big issues. I’m thinking in particular of Sir Peter’s repeated appearances on Q&A, Radio New Zealand and in Listener articles.

There are lots of contentious areas the CSA didn’t go in the last year (at least publicly) but its a small office so he has to pick and choose his topics carefully. One big issue a quarter seems about right.

I think we are better off for having a Chief Science Advisor and especially one that is so forward in discussing the big issues in public lectures and in the media. Tackling specific issues through literature reviews and research reports is one thing, but generating informed debate about science is just as important. I feel we’ve had a fair bit of both from the CSA in the last year.

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