Science is at the heart of almost everything this country must do to meet the health, social, environmental and standard-of-living ambitions of every New Zealander, says Sir Peter Gluckman, the first chief science adviser to a New Zealand Prime Minister.

In a call to New Zealanders to change their attitude to science to regain the "positivity and innovative strength" of the 60s and 70s and lift the country's productivity, Sir Peter told an audience at the crown's AgResearch institute in Hamilton yesterday he could not think of one challenge society and the planet faced in which science was not part of the solution.

"I believe the issue of public understanding of science is central to science being part of our national strategy for building."

The Liggins Institute professor said he would not be giving many public speeches in his new job and he pulled no punches in this one.

He said New Zealand had become ambivalent towards science, the science community had increasingly focused on survival rather than contribution and had "worn out its credibility in pleas to 'just give us more money'," and businesses came too late to science to solve problems.

Competition between scientists and their organisations for science money and resources in a lightly populated country "at the end of the world" had been at the expense of collaboration, Sir Peter said.

The media, mass and science, also got a serve for failing to inform the public about science "appropriately".

"We seem to have forgotten that science and technology, particularly in the agricultural sector, played an essential role in getting this nation to the social and economic pinnacle it once reached, and in my view is absolutely central to us again moving ahead."

Sir Peter emphasised he was not in the job to be a lobbyist for scientists, universities, or crown research institutes (CRIs). "I can only be a lobbyist for New Zealand. I am in this role to help the PM and his advisers use science best to advance New Zealand."

Nor was he a policymaker, he said.

The positioning of science had changed. "We are not high priests pontificating on the world, we are people who use ways of developing knowledge to build knowledge on which others can act.

"But not all knowledge will be accepted and I think the social contract between science and society is such that science ... is also about assisting the acceptance of that knowledge."

Scientific progress could conflict with cultures and ethical values of society but familiarity reduced fear, Sir Peter said.

A strong message in his speech was that the importance of science could go far beyond its use in agriculture.

"Research can greatly enhance the quality of return in our health, education and social welfare systems, to name a few. Science can have enormous value in sustaining our environment."

Sir Peter cited a new report from the Royal Society in London which showed basic research had "enormous" flow-on effects to the service industry, from banking to retail to mathematics and social science.

"The leverage of this less quantifiable gain can be enormous. After all, 70 per cent of our economy is inside the service sector.

"There is an even more fundamental reason, we need to see a change in the whole attitude of New Zealand if national productivity is to rise, whether we are scientists, farmers, or truck drivers."

He warned that taxpayer money was scarce: "No public funding of research should occur without evidence of true scientific evaluation."

Sir Peter said he found it "extraordinary" CRIs did not have external, independent, high-quality advisory boards providing audits and suggesting strategic opportunities.

Also hard to comprehend was a state funding system for science which made money for innovative opportunity projects available only every three years.