Greg Bruce meets Dame Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister's chief science advisor.
I asked Dame Juliet Gerrard if she ever relies on gut feeling. I said it seemed like gut feeling would have been required a lot in the early days of the pandemic, when we didn't know anything about the virus.
She said: "I think scientists call gut feeling 'a hypothesis'."
That sounded quite witty for a scientist, so I asked if she'd used that line before. She said she hadn't. She said: "It was a glib answer, but I think there's something in that. That's what scientists do: They read a lot, and they have a hunch; and they think: 'Okay, so how am I going to test that hunch?'"
That's not the typical image we have of science, which we perceive more as taking place in a lab filled with beakers and test tubes and related chemistry-type equipment. She picked up a badge. She said: "That's probably the image of science, isn't it?" The badge featured a beaker and a test tube and related chemistry-type equipment.
More recently, though, the image of science has been corrupted further by the rise of conspiracism and the social media-driven amplification of related stupidity. At a time when we are threatened existentially by the pandemic and the climate crisis, when we depend on science to chart a path for our survival, this undermining of science can't be good for us.
I asked her whether there was an issue with the way the public perceives science and scientists. She replied: "The New Zealand Attitudes and Values Survey has a question in there about how much people trust science ..."
I said: "I like how you're answering this question about science with science."
She said: "I'm a scientist. That's my frame of reference. You're right: the anti-science brigade use 'reckons'. You could answer it with reckons but somehow you need to measure whether people trust us or not. I don't know another way of measuring it other than using science."
"I guess my job is to feed as much evidence into government policy as possible. If people don't want to look at evidence, that's hard isn't it? We've seen that play out in the States."
Her point about the New Zealand Values and Attitudes Survey, I think, was that its results indicated trust in science is high in this country, much higher, for instance, than trust in politicians. Having said that, the survey also showed that belief in conspiracy theories is much higher than trust in politicians.
What do we talk about when we talk about science? And what do we hear? Words - and the way they are used - matter. When Gerrard, whose title is Prime Minister's chief science advisor, took a tour of the country and asked people where they felt an evidence base was missing, many told her she should not be focusing only on science but also on engineering, art, humanities, mātauranga Māori. But, she says, she does focus on those things - they're all part of the evidence base with which she works, which informs her advice to the Prime Minister.
On closer examination of the badge she showed me, I could see some words printed at the bottom. I squinted, and read them aloud: "Science, bitch."
I looked up at Gerrard. She said: "The comma's quite important there."
New Zealand's plan for the pandemic was what Gerrard describes as a "flu-type plan" that moved in stages: first trying to keep it out, then trying to stamp it out, then trying to manage it. By looking at what was happening overseas, she says, we quickly realised managing it doesn't work: the countries that were trying to manage it were locking down shortly after, by which time they'd sustained many deaths and stress on their health systems.
Policy was having to be written extremely fast, so she was spending a lot of time in Wellington, looking at policies that had been tried overseas, what had worked and what hadn't. "I produced a lot of graphs," she says. "I call it the 'wandering round the Beehive with graphs in my handbag' stage."
She says: "We weren't the world's best-prepared country for a pandemic but we understood that we weren't prepared, and scrambled, and actually that's what was needed."
The country's high level of trust allowed us to get the pandemic under control: "The government trusted the scientists and the public trusted the Government. Overall, there was a high trust environment. You can have the best science advice in the world but if nobody trusts it, then it's hopeless."
"I think it's been really interesting because, internationally, presenting the uncertain science and the evolving, ever-changing evidence base for Covid has not gone well, but in New Zealand we have managed collectively to build enough trust that it has gone well. So a lot of people are really interested in how that was done."
She says our informal culture has helped. In the UK, for instance, there are several layers between scientists and politicians. Here, the Prime Minister was just calling Gerrard and saying "Talk me through it." Most of their communication was like this, she said: "There was no time for formal briefings."
The Prime Minister's command of the science has been one of the features of the Covid response. "She was incredibly keen to understand everything," Gerrard says. "She's not someone who just takes a script and reads it out. She's someone who writes the script and interrogates it. She wanted all the details of what was going on, so I spent a lot of time explaining the science and she understood the science. That's why she was good at communicating it.
"It was just a pleasure to work with her on it. She's got an incredible memory and she's very good at synthesising a lot of detailed information, so she was on top of it."
Gerrard is arguably the most powerful scientist in the country, certainly the one with the greatest access to power. At the peak of the pandemic, during the first lockdown last year, she was in contact with the Prime Minister multiple times a day, talking, texting, answering questions, providing information, talking through new research, helping inform and guide the country's response.
I asked her how it felt to be in such a position. I said: "I can almost feel the power radiating off you."
She laughed and said: "That's menopause."
Not everyone trusted the science or the Government. Most prominently, there was the anti-lockdown group Plan B, although their dissent didn't concern her as much as the fact that in the early days there was none. On the Monday morning, after the country had first moved to level 2, she says: "I switched on the news and was scanning everything and thinking, 'Where are the dissenting voices?'"
"Science works by someone putting up an idea and someone contesting it. It doesn't work terribly well in the age of social media, and it doesn't work terribly well in a crisis, that model, but there is an extent to which if we hadn't had dissenting voices, that would have been more of a concern.
She doesn't agree with the Plan B people, she says, but tension and disagreement is the normal state of science. "The report we're doing at the moment [into fishing] no one agrees with."
But Plan B's dissent, she says, was not to do with the science; it was to do with values. "How much you value the last few years of a person's life is actually the crux of the difference. You could go point for point on science details but I don't think that would change their mind."
When asked how she reacted to the news that we were first locking down in March last year, she says: "I guess because I'd been in all those conversations and seen the debate and seen it evolve, I didn't have that teary moment - or maybe because I'm British."
For the duration of the lockdown, she says, she was working from the moment she woke up to the moment she went to bed. "I just locked down in my apartment on my own and essentially answered the phone all day."
By design, though, she was supported in her role by a big network of experts and advisors. "When I first took on the role, I set it up as a bridging role - not to be the expert, but to be the bridge to the experts - and everyone was fantastic ... everyone just dropped everything and said, 'What can we do?'"
The Ministry of Health's chief science advisor, Ian Town, was a particularly close contact. "Ian Town's phone now defaults to me, not his wife," she says, "Which needs fixing."
When asked how she reacted to the news that we were locking down again last week, she says: "I let out a great big sigh. And then gathered some energy to get back to my apartment and get across all the information as it appeared."
Her role is not so big this time around, she says, because the systems for gathering and conveying information are so much better. For example, the genome sequencing capacity wasn't geared up for rapid turnaround this time last year but is now an automatic part of the response to any case. And a second chief science advisor has been seconded to the Ministry of Health to support Town.
"My very long days are just long days this time," she says.
Her job for the last year has been almost exclusively Covid-focused, which while important and urgent, has a cost: "I guess the thing that most scientists would cite as a worry is that this is exactly what we need to do for climate change, but we're not."
"It's the long-term tragedy of the commons vs 'My granddad might die tomorrow,' isn't it? People are really bad at seeing long, slow, emerging threats and really good at scrambling to address a crisis."
Pre-pandemic, the work her office did had more of a long-term focus - for instance, the blockbuster report "Rethinking Plastics in Aotearoa New Zealand", released a year ago, the recommendations from which are being rolled out now.
"When we did the plastics report, one of the things we hoped we could do was use plastics as a way of explaining to people, in a way they cared about and could see, that if everyone pitched in, you could solve a problem, and wouldn't it be great if we could do that for climate change?"
"I mean, the plastics problem's big but when you looked at things like the Colmar Brunton survey saying 'What's the most pressing social or environmental issue?' everyone said plastic. Objectively, you might say climate change, but I guess people feel responsible for plastic personally, because you can see it, it's washing up on the beaches, they understand that the fish at the supermarket is full of plastic. So there's a personal motivation and a huge social licence to do something about plastic. Somehow we need to use that as a spearhead almost to say, 'Look, if we all pitch in, we can solve environmental problems in the same way that we all pitch in and stop Covid in New Zealand.'"