Professor Sir Peter Gluckman, New Zealand's first prime minister's chief science adviser, is soon to step down from the top role he's helped shape over the past decade. He talked to science reporter Jamie Morton about his time being John Key, Bill English and now Jacinda Ardern's go-to for science advice.

Looking back to your appointment in 2009, did your vision for the role match up to what it transpired to be?

Yes and no.

At the time I was first approached about doing the role, both on their side and on mine, it was seen to be rather a set of technical inputs.

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But even before I took on the role, in refining the terms of reference, it probably morphed by mutual consent.

There was guidance and advice from Robert May, who had previously been chief science adviser in the UK, around how to promote the use of evidence in policy-making.

If you look at what I've done, far more has been about that than about technical reports, so in a sense the role has had a systemic focus.

What we've been trying to do is build up an appreciation in Wellington about the value of evidence in policy-making, and that got reflected, ultimately, in the first appointments of departmental science advisers.

There are now a raft of them and we have a role of science advisers in the budget process.

People looking at your tenure might not see that, but more some of the areas you've looked at and reported on, like folate and climate change.

Yes.

There are two kinds of reports I've done and I think it's worth detailing them because they do highlight the specific role of a science adviser at different levels.

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There are those which are fundamentally designed to explain complex systems to policy-makers and to society, and these usually don't have a magic solution.

"I'm not saying I haven't enjoyed all of the interaction I've had with people, but the amount of effort you have to put in can be exhausting," Peter Gluckman says. Photo / File

If you look at our reports on water, climate change, or prisons, they're all really trying to explain that these are complex systems and they need to be understood in a way that allows for a multitude of different options to be chosen.

Then you have the more specific, kick-the-tyres reports, where we are looking at a specific issue - the [meth contamination] issue was an obvious example of that.

Fluoride is another specific thing we were asked to look at, along with folate, which we are about to release another report on.

How have you decided what to focus on?

From discussions between me and the prime minister, or the prime minister's chief of staff.

Some have been suggested by him or her, and some of them I bring forward after identifying an issue that needs to be looked at, then there's an agreement reached over whether we do or don't.

There's not been any real disagreement between myself and the successive prime ministers on issues to focus on.

What did the science-policy environment look like when you took on the role?

There was nothing there.

In the first two or three years, it was just about explaining and showing the value of why evidence was worth focusing on.

Actually, when I say there was nothing there, that's not quite fair.

There were departments that reached out to academics, and there were some scientists buried within ministries like the Department of Conservation and the Ministry for the Environment.

But if you think about the general level, about how the Government thought about addressing complex issues, there was really no systematic way to do it.

And now we have a whole team of science advisers.

Yes, but I'd like to see more.

We clearly need one in urban affairs, one in biosecurity, one in energy and related matters, and one in the demographic area.

And I've been like a broken record in pointing out that, even though we have a chief technology officer, we also need a science adviser for digital matters.

By the far the biggest impact on society over the coming years is going to be around digital transformation, and there are many aspects of it which are technical and which need to be thought about.

Aside from all of the work you've done at that high policy level, has much of it flowed down to make ordinary Kiwis more knowledgeable about science?

I hope so.

I mean, we could all do more, but being the first one in the role, I had to largely focus on determining the role internally.

It's not for me to comment on, but I suspect there will now be an increasingly outward-looking focus to the role as well.

I've tried to do it, but frankly, there's only so much that one person with a very small office can do.

What has the role taught you about what New Zealanders think about science?

We are lucky that most New Zealanders understand science has a particular place in understanding the world around us, and within us.

I think New Zealanders, by and large, trust the science community, that the science community has earned that trust, and that the bulk of people do understand that science is key to economic, social and environmental development.

"We should be trying to think of ways to greatly improve the engagement of everybody in science and innovation, because it's absolutely essential," Peter Gluckman says. Photo / File

But there are still issues around higher education, research funding and innovation which could be better explained and dealt with.

Do you think we in the media have done a good job of getting science out into the public?

Funnily enough, I'm going to give you some credit there.

I think some of the [major newspapers] have done well, and the Herald has done well in this regard, but does that have a broad enough readership?

I think the failure of NZ On Air to adequately support science is sad and New Zealand science doesn't get a look in on traditional electronic media.

We are one of the few countries that don't have a TV programme focused on domestic science.

But I think there is potential on social media, which hopefully can be better developed.

The last time we spoke, you'd given a talk about science and policy in a post-truth world. Is the post-truth issue something that still worries you as you leave this role?

No, because I still have other places and platforms where I can work on that issue.

In a funny way, I'll have more time to focus on those kinds of issues than I've had for the last nine years.

Have there been other areas that you wished you could have spent more time on?

Well, there are some areas that I think need urgent attention, and which hasn't happened.

Governance and oversight around digital technology is an issue we need to think far more about.

It's easy to see the technological side of it, but we have to think about the social licence around these technologies.

Respected biochemist Professor Juliet Gerrard takes over the reins from you in the next few days. What have you told her about the job and its biggest challenges?

The core job is just trying to keep your focus, because there are so many things you could focus on.

Juliet and I have had a good relationship over the last few weeks and I think she'll be an outstanding appointment.

Clearly, there'll be a difference in styles and personalities - or just different experiences, at least.

But the bottom line remains that we need to keep working and building trust between the science and policy communities, or between the science community and society.

That's an ongoing process that will never stop.

Gluckman speaking at the launch of Green Paper for vulnerable children at Auckland's Aotea Square in July, 2011. Photo / File
Gluckman speaking at the launch of Green Paper for vulnerable children at Auckland's Aotea Square in July, 2011. Photo / File

Are you happy to see the greater efforts being made to make science a more diverse sector?

It's almost become a cliche that half the world's population has been largely excluded for a long time, and I think New Zealand's been doing its bit to try to reverse that.

Mātauranga Māori [Māori knowledge] has been a very innovative programme, but we also need to think more about our more recent migrant populations and how they are included, too.

We should be trying to think of ways to greatly improve the engagement of everybody in science and innovation, because it's absolutely essential.

How are you feeling about getting back to the Liggins Institute and having more involvement there?

The Liggins Institute is in good hands with Professor Frank Bloomfield and if I can help him continue to elevate its programme of research, which is becoming increasingly impactful, I will.

I'm also going to help set up a centre of science, policy and development at the University of Auckland, as I think there's a lot that can be built off the work we've been doing.

Is your wife happy about getting to see more of you?

I hope so. I hope that she wants to see more of me.

But at the same time, you won't really be slowing down.

No. But it will be different.

It will be a chance to be more reflective.

Is there anything about the role you won't miss?

Yeah, there will be.

To understand Wellington, you have to be talking to an awful lot of people in Wellington.

Aucklanders - and I'm a born-and-bred Aucklander - fail to understand how complex policy-making is, and the large range of people in Wellington that need to be in the loop.

Gluckman chats with an aspiring scientist Connor McCormick, then 13, in 2011. Photo / File
Gluckman chats with an aspiring scientist Connor McCormick, then 13, in 2011. Photo / File

It's not a simple process.

I'm not saying I haven't enjoyed all of the interaction I've had with people, but the amount of effort you have to put in can be exhausting.

You also won't miss being phoned by journalists when you're on the other side of the world and it's the middle of the night, I take it.

I think that's still going to happen somehow, I suspect that won't stop.

But actually, there are things that cropped up in that space - earthquakes, and so forth - which one has to deal with, and which break into your cycle of thinking.

I'll be less involved in that kind of thing and that may be a bit refreshing.

There's one thing I'd like to add.

I've worked for three different prime ministers from two very different governments, and I have to say I am genuinely grateful to all of them.

I've never felt that any of them thought I was partisan, and I've never felt that any of them were not respectful of what we are trying to do.

It doesn't mean they didn't have their political leanings - of course they do, it's democracy - but I've actually been impressed.

It's been a privileged position, and I've enjoyed it, but now it's time for somebody else to do it.