The Professor is a little tetchy. It does not pay, I quickly deduce, to butt in with a question based on something he's said. Not until his discourse is finished. Methodically analyse one issue, then dissect the next.

Our meeting turns out less an interview than a rehearsal of themes that the Prime Minister's Chief Science Adviser wants to put about. I feel like one of his students - or his secretary.

Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, the country's first Chief Science Adviser, is five weeks into the job but already rattling cages.

His hypothesis is that science holds the keys to solving most of this country's pressing problems - economic, social and environmental. But there are obstacles to which he clearly has been applying his fierce intellect.

Scientists need to stop playing Oliver Twist over research funding, or exaggerating what they can do and creating expectations they cannot meet, he told an audience of scientists midweek.

The public's appreciation of science's potential role also needs addressing and the media bears some of the blame.

And he questions whether the contestable model of research funding, which pits 20 institutions in seven centres against each other, is - on its own - appropriate for a small country.

"While competition may seem the best way to get the most out of science most countries also have a strategic model," he tells me. "With only 4 million people, we can't be the best in the world at everything so we need to think strategically."

John Key appointed Gluckman to advise on matters of science and science policy. Similar posts in overseas governments are high profile, high powered and well resourced. Gluckman's is a part-time position. Technically, he heads an advisory committee but it is "a little bit of my time and two policy analysts".

Gluckman is the closest we have to a rock star scientist who is based in New Zealand. Research teams he has headed have advanced international understanding of the links between pre-natal nutrition and subsequent development. Further work linked a high fat diet during pregnancy and breast feeding to the early onset of puberty in the child and later obesity.

He is known also for his ego - he's an entrepreneurial academic who knows the value of publicity and is unafraid to use his profile, and connections, to drag in the research dollars.

His critics say his Oliver Twist comments are a case of poacher turned gatekeeper. As Dean of Auckland University's medical school in the 1990s, he often complained about the time wasted begging for funds before he set up the Liggins Institute within the university as one of the Government's new Centres of Research Excellence. Its success in attracting funding is attributed almost as much to Gluckman's profile and networking skills as the calibre of its research into early human development. He also helped create Neuronz, an investment vehicle to take promising research to trials, backed by high profile venture capitalists.

Gluckman was prominent in the Knowledge Wave and subsequent talkfests about boosting economic and social performance. He remains fixed on the goal. "Science will and must be the mainstay of the transformation of New Zealand" he told AgResearch, "indeed it is the only way we can make a quantum leap in productivity [and other challenges we face]."

Accepting the job has meant resigning as director of the Liggins Institute to head off any conflict of interest, "but I wasn't going to give up being a scientist".

He continues to lead an international research programme in growth, development and metabolic diseases with partners in Southampton and Singapore.

He heads a joint venture with AgResearch examining the links between early life nutrition and later development in animals and humans. He has just published the world's first textbook for medical students on evolutionary medicine, with colleague Alan Beedle and long-time Southampton collaborator Mark Hanson.

Part of his adviser's brief is to promote public understanding of science. It worries him that so many treat science with ambivalence, even scepticism.

But if his is to be the public face of science, it won't be a warm, fuzzy one. The trim white beard, brown eyes and ready smile may suggest a wise elder statesman, but my icebreaker - that becoming the PM's science adviser does not seem the act of a scientist in late-career wind-down - seems to prick a nerve.

"I'm not going - I continue to be an academic," he retorts.

"I will always be an active scientist until my brain rots."

He doesn't suffer fools then. Half-baked media coverage of science in this country is very much in his sights. The furore which led to the Government backdown over folic acid in bread is "a very bad example.

"Nowhere did the media try to give a balanced view of the science."

"Science is often portrayed in terms of breakthroughs and controversies as opposed as a process that leads to knowledge."

Science can provide the evidence that leads to sound Government policy but unless the public understands it the science is largely useless, he says.

He plans an early meeting with media bosses and science journalists.

In the small and highly competitive New Zealand research environment, Gluckman understandably has his detractors. The institute's success in obtaining grants obviously means others miss out at times. Scattered around the research community are scientists who left the institute disillusioned by his controlling influence.

"He would argue you have to have a strong face on these things to bring in money," says one ex-staffer. "But quite a few people left frustrated that he was taking credit for things and they couldn't establish themselves."

Another wonders whether other institutions will perceive a conflict of interest in him having the PM's ear while remaining on Auckland University's payroll. "Other institutions may see him as speaking for Auckland - they didn't elect him."

Gluckman insists, however, that his role is not that of lobbyist for the research community. And institutions like AgResearch and Otago University have welcomed his appointment.

It's clear too that, for all the institute's success in garnering research funds, the money hasn't gone into a lavish working environment. His office is best described as rudimentary, his desk piled high with papers.

"I've got a lot of transitional things on my plate at the moment," he explains.

He is a workaholic - "I'm the first one in and the last one out" - but even by his standards these are chaotic times. One task involves handing the institute reins to former student Professor Wayne Cutfield, now internationally known for his expertise on child hormonal conditions.

Health sciences specialist Gluckman has rapidly schooled himself on climate change. A paper posted on the Chief Science adviser's new website on Thursday makes clear where he stands. "We do many things in life that are based on the balance of probabilities ... The collective wisdom of the scientific community is that action is needed now."

Gluckman has found everybody wants a piece of the PM's adviser. It is, he says, evidence that "the science community and knowledge-based industries see real value in the post".

Yesterday was his investiture as Sir Peter. A knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit, he accepted a knighthood following the Government's restoration of titular honours.

"Add to that my son got married last weekend which added a bit more chaos."

Does he find time for outside interests? "My wife [Judy] would say 'what hobbies?'," he laughs. "If you ever come to my house you'll see it's piled up with books. A lot of it is about popular science and evolution."

He does have a hobby - nature photography - which took him to Antarctica last summer. A trip to East Africa is planned next year.

Being the first Chief Science Adviser gives him some scope (within the PM's tolerance) to establish the parameters of the role. He attempts to explain it by defining what it is not. He will not be a lobbyist for the research community. He is wary of becoming the media's "go to" man for comment on every scientific issue.

"I'm there to give the Prime Minister high quality advice on what the he wants advice on. Beyond that I'm there to promote public understanding of science and public engagement in science, and how we can maximise the benefits of science."

He clearly has ideas on policy and structural issues "but I'm not going to tell them to you. If the Prime Minister asks my advice I will give it." He will not toss his toys if that advice is ignored. Scientific evidence will sometimes be rejected for economic, social and political reasons, he says.

"I don't have a problem that governments are going to make decisions which go against science. I would have a problem if my advice was misconstrued or if scientific advice was manipulated - but I have had assurances on that."

His first assignment is to advise Key on pseudoephedrine. His report, to be released shortly, looks at whether alternative decongestants are as effective and whether reducing access to pseudoephedrine will help to reduce the supply of methamphetamine.

In the pipeline is a major project around adolescent development and the transition to adulthood. "New Zealand has a pretty horrible record - high teenage pregnancies, a high rate of suicide, youth crime and acting out behaviour. But we also have a lot of knowledge around it."

He plans an advisory group to consider what works in the transitional years. "Too often there has been cherry picking of selected data by non-scientists. And yet we have extraordinary depth of expertise in this area."

He is also calling a meeting of business, science, financial and Government agencies to look at breaking down barriers between research and knowledge-based industries. "One of the things I can do, with the Prime Minister's blessing, is get people in a room to talk."


In the field of human growth and development, Sir Peter Gluckman has an international reputation for his contribution to understanding the roots of ill health.

He tested British researcher David Barker's theory that poor nutrition in the womb could "hard-wire" the developing child to conserve fat - making it vulnerable to obesity and heart disease later in life.

Further research linked a high fat diet during pregnancy and breastfeeding to early puberty in children, and adult obesity.

His name is also associated with the "cooling cap", now used internationally to combat brain damage in oxygen-deprived newborns by circulating water around the brain to lower temperature. The device was developed from an idea Gluckman had with the late Professor Tania Gunn in 1982.

He is a fellow of the Royal Society and the only New Zealander elected to the US National Academies of Sciences' Institute of Medicine and the British Academy of Medical Sciences. He was awarded the Rutherford Medal, the country's top science medal, in 2001 and last year became a Knight of the New Zealand Order of Merit.


In a midweek speech to AgResearch scientists in Hamilton, Professor Gluckman challenged scientists to get their own house in order rather than just blame the system if science is to best help New Zealand.

Among the salvos:

"We face the consequences of 20 years of a funding system that has had all sorts of perverse incentives that have harmed the capacity for science to make its appropriate contributions.

"We have replication and duplication of effort where it is unnecessary, even within the same institutions.We are reluctant to focus the research effort.

"We insist on an egalitarian approach that gives equal weight to many disciplines and makes it hard for new ones to emerge.

"We use scarce competitive funds to sustain efforts that have passed their peak and yet we also fail to see the need to sustain some areas of science that may not be sexy but are essential-an obvious example is our lack of ruminant physiologists at the very time we need them in [the effort] to reduce methane emissions.

"We have a research system that is more driven by review - some of it of doubtful quality and often not really by peers - than any other in the world.

"We have too many funding sources and yet no ability to sustain research at the one place where New Zealand has a true competitive edge - that is at the inter-disciplinary boundaries. Innovation arises at these boundaries - yet the funding system with its vested interests effectively makes such research impossible.

"We have a funding system that says new ideas may have to wait three years to get funded - innovative ideas must be lost in such an approach which was introduced to simplify a bureaucracy.

"The science community needs to reflect on these issues as much as the various arms of Government."