The UK Government's chief scientific adviser - a role that partly inspired the establishment of such a position here - says he is impressed at the way science is being used to boost New Zealand.

Professor Sir Mark Walport is among 44 international advisers visiting Auckland this week for the high-level Science Advice to Governments summit, which New Zealand's Sir Peter Gluckman helped organise.

Since being appointed the Prime Minister's chief science adviser by John Key five years ago, Sir Peter has helped bridge the gap between science and policy, drive large-scale initiatives such as the National Science Challenges, and inform discussions around issues such as climate change, disaster recovery and fluoride.

Mirroring the UK model, several similar positions have been set up to assist specific government departments, most recently our first chief education scientific adviser, Professor Stuart McNaughton.


The position of chief science adviser often comes with controversy: on some issues here, Sir Peter has come under criticism from quarters in and outside the science community, and in the UK, Sir Mark last year drew flak after wading into debate about bees and pesticides.

In Europe this year, an ongoing stoush over genetically modified crops led anti-GM groups to call on the European Commission to sack its chief science adviser, Professor Anne Glover.

In the UK, the role stretches back half a century to Sir Solly Zuckerman, the former scientific adviser on the Allies' bombing strategy in World War 2 who later became the government's adviser in the 1960s.

Sir Mark said what Baron Zuckerman recognised back then - the need for good science across all government policy - was just as important today.

"My job, today, basically is to advise the UK Government on all aspects of science - engineering, technology, and social science - for the whole of government policy," he told the Herald.

"Sir Peter Gluckman has done a very good job, and I think New Zealand is one of the countries that has good embedded scientific advice."

The concept was increasingly critical to modern societies, he said.

"If you just think about the world in which we live now, almost every aspect of our lives in facilitated in some way by science, and we just take it for granted."

A lot of his job is dedicated to what he calls "horizon scanning" - identifying the big issues down the track - and has been looking at public interaction with the internet, and the risks and benefits of big data.

Sir Mark, a medical scientist, stressed he was apolitical, as Sir Peter was here.

"The government employs me because it wants my scientific expertise - it doesn't want a yes person, it wants someone who will actually provide the scientific evidence that they need for the best policy."

Governments were focussed largely on two areas - their economy and the wellbeing of their people - and big impacts to infrastructure could affect both.

"It is the infrastructure that tragically you immediately discovered the important of with the earthquakes in Christchurch," he said.

"When you suddenly lose your infrastructure, society very dramatically stops working, and science is very important to this."

Following the Christchurch earthquakes, it was Sir Peter that pushed among the issues, the need to recognise the disaster's psychological consequences.

Sir Mark played an active part in driving discussion following the floods which ravaged the UK in 2012, damaging 8000 homes and businesses, particularly about how climate change would only bring more extreme weather.

He has also fronted the media to combat scepticism about climate change, and last year told The Independent: "This is not something on which human beings can vote, it's not your opinion that matters, it is actually the truth of it, there is a correct answer. While there are many questions we can vote on, this is not one."

In July, Sir Mark spoke with The Telegraph about the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, describing emerging infectious disease as a "global grand challenge".

He reaffirmed that point to the Herald this week.

"One of things about the modern world is, because we are very connected, people are flying around in jets all the time, infections can move around the world, and potentially very quickly."

While all nations had their unique challenges - he singled out our own threats from earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - global problems like climate change and disease outbreak would only bring he and his international counterparts closer together.

"There's a very good network of scientists around the world, and the important thing is not be constantly re-inventing the wheel; there will always be new opportunities for us to be working together."

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