Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Helping to muster best brains for NZ

Five years ago, Sir Peter Gluckman was appointed the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser. Does he feel he’s made a difference? Jamie Morton reports

Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Dean Purcell
Sir Peter Gluckman. Photo / Dean Purcell

One of the things Sir Peter Gluckman can do is get people in a room to talk.

Those were his own words, to the Weekend Herald, five weeks after his appointment as the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser in 2009.

Nearly five years to the day, the assertion stands.

This month, high-level science advisers from 44 nations will arrive here for a two-day summit in Auckland.

The force behind this unprecedented meeting of minds, ultimately aiming to provide better scientific advice to governments, is Sir Peter, our science envoy to the world.

Here in New Zealand, he has helped muster our own best brains and turned them against the biggest hurdles facing our economy, environment and wellbeing.

He's tried to better inform debates around issues as varied as earthquake recovery, fluoride, climate change and childhood obesity.

In his shadow have followed several new departmental science advisers, most recently our first chief education scientific adviser.

There have been panels, boards, lectures here and abroad, reports.

"These are all things I'm involved in, but I'm not looking to stand up and say these are the things I've done, because my role is to nudge the system: it's for politicians to shift it."

That aside, there was no doubt the role of science to benefit the country had changed "dramatically" over the past five years, he said.

Sir Peter describes his role as promoting the use of science within and beyond Government, advancing evidence in policy making and pushing New Zealand's international interests through science.

Put simply, he sees himself as a bridge between two markedly different cultures: science and policy.

His job title is now somewhat misleading, because advising the Prime Minister is the least of what he does today.

A typical working week often stretches well beyond 60 hours; a typical day might be a mixture of attending meetings or preparing speeches and reports.

He makes it clear he's not a lobbyist for the research community, and this was something he admitted "upsets them from time to time".

In driving what became the Government's set of 10 National Science Challenges, he foresaw the biggest challenge would come from the science community itself.

"Science has been very individualistic and competitive, and here we are saying we want you to hold hands and work together across institutions."

Survey results released this week by the New Zealand Association of Scientists suggested a sector sceptical and dissatisfied with the challenges.

President Dr Nicola Gaston said it was a "huge shame" there was not more transparency around them.

Her predecessor, Professor Shaun Hendy, said Sir Peter's close involvement in the $133.5 million challenges had been to the "detriment" of his role, which he believed should be kept separate from issues of funding.

Sir Peter, however, saw the challenges as a "new, baby process" that needed time to develop.

"They'll be criticised in five years time if they are not producing science that is benefiting New Zealand's interests."

Does he believe his work has also left the average Kiwi better informed about science? "I hope so. I think the debates are getting more mature. The very polarised views on things like climate change and GMOs [genetically modified organisms] have been replaced by much more balanced statements."

Sir Peter thought it inappropriate to speculate on how much longer he saw himself in the role, or when and by whom he might be succeeded.

Of the future of science and policy in New Zealand, though, he could say this: "There is not a challenge ahead - not one thing that this country faces - that does not have a science and technology component."

- NZ Herald

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