Juliet Gerrard has replaced Sir Peter Gluckman as the Prime Minister's chief science advisor. The Auckland University professor loves pulling protein apart like Lego to build new materials. She says science can only be one aspect of policy making.
1 What's your No 1 goal in your new role as the PM's science adviser?
To build trust in science. I'm keen to open conversations with the media about how we can give the public a balanced view, rather than a polarised debate of this scientist v that scientist which fails to explain complex issues. We also need to be more honest about what science can do and when. We might achieve a breakthrough that could lead to a cure for cancer in 10 years' time but that gets distilled into the headline 'Scientists find cancer cure'. We've cured it so many times, according to the news, that it undermines trust. We need to find a way to get people interested in the story without overselling it. I had practice persuading the public of the value of basic research chairing the Royal Society's Marsden Council for six years and hope to build on that.
2 Do you plan to offer the Prime Minister unwelcome advice, like your predecessor Sir Peter Gluckman's research on meth houses?
Being able to deliver unwelcome advice is crucial. Politicians don't have to take that advice but the independence of this position must be a top priority. The role is structured to support that: I don't work directly for the government — I'm essentially on a secondment from my job at the University of Auckland. My tenure, like Sir Peter's, is out of sync with the electoral cycle so we serve two separate governments. I'll also have contact with other MPs, including from the opposition.
3 What do you see as the most urgent scientific issues in New Zealand right now?
As I've toured around the country listening to researchers, I've developed a list which includes climate change, alternatives to plastics, artificial intelligence, digital futures and how to better connect scientists with kaupapa Māori. There's also a strong need to focus on social issues. Our team of science advisors includes Ian Lambie in the Ministry of Justice, Stuart McNaughton in education, John Potter in health and Richie Poulton across social services.
4 Do the social sciences count as real science?
The scientific process is similar in many ways but in social science the way you ask the question is particularly important. It's easy to work out the melting point of a compound but measuring the outcomes of something like early childhood education is harder. How do you measure personal resilience? The answers are less absolute.
5 Have you met the Prime Minister yet to prioritise your work plan?
We are meeting soon to discuss it.
6 What do you see as Sir Peter's key achievements as the PM's chief science advisor?
Sir Peter has done an amazing job of carving out that role since starting nine years ago. He's defined the place of evidence-informed policy and shown its value. He's a leading academic thinker on how you give science evidence to politicians and now heads an international network for government science advice, putting NZ on the map.
7 What are the dos and don'ts of advising politicians on science?
Understand that science is just one thread in policy making. While scientific evidence may point to a certain solution, the public might not be ready for it because of other factors including emotional or cultural issues. It's up to the politicians to weigh those up. If the science is inconclusive you've got to be honest. If a decision has to be made urgently, the best you can do is distil out where the weight of evidence lies; you can say a majority view suggests X and a minority suggests Y and indicate what might change as new evidence comes to light.
8 As a woman in a top science role, will you be expected to be a gender leader?
The Prime Minister put it well when she said that as a woman I have 'an extra responsibility' that Sir Peter didn't. Science is not only very male but very white as well so we need to encourage diversity. As a working mother I was well supported at Crop and Food. The only time I experienced barriers was in academia. Older men actually said, 'You don't have time to do this job because you've got a toddler and a baby'. That just made me more determined. But since then universities have been making efforts to address gender imbalance which I've benefited from. Male colleagues have even supported me in being promoted ahead of them because they could see it's an important issue.
9 You were born and raised in England. Why did you immigrate to New Zealand?
After I did my PhD in chemistry at Oxford I went backpacking. I fell in love with Australia and New Zealand and wanted to move Downunder. It just happened that the opportunity came up here first. My two children were born here; they're in their 20s now. My daughter's my social media coach. I'm keen to make use of this powerful medium. I'm active on Twitter and post images on Instagram to highlight how beautiful science can be.
10 Your expertise is in proteins. What do you love about them?
I've been hooked on proteins since my PhD and never managed to shake it. My first job in New Zealand was actually as a carbohydrate chemist but I lapsed and went straight back to protein. My boss wasn't too happy but he forgave me when we got some cool results. When I first started out, scientists had just got to the stage of being able to understand how these amazing molecules work in the body. Now we're able to take them out of the body, pull them apart like Lego bricks and build new shapes out of them.
11 What new materials have you built out of proteins?
We've worked out how to turn fish eye lenses, a waste product, and milk proteins into a really strong spider silk-like fibre that we've tested for potential skin care and medical use through the company Hi-Aspect. Learning how to turn science into a commercial product and bridge the gap with investors has been a real challenge. I've resigned from the company to take up this role.
12 What do you do in your spare time?
I recently bought a rickety bach on Great Barrier Island to challenge myself to do something outside my comfort zone. I live in an apartment in town and love to wine and dine so going off the grid will force me to learn some new skills.