Ahead of The Gluckman Symposium – and nearly a year on from stepping aside as the first Prime Minister's chief science advisor - Professor Sir Peter Gluckman spoke with Herald science reporter Jamie Morton.
World experts will be in Auckland next Thursday for a symposium recognising the long and distinguished career of one of New Zealand's most influential scientists, Professor Sir Peter Gluckman.
Hosted by the University of Auckland's Liggins Institute, the Gluckman Symposium will acknowledge his work in fetal and neonatal development, the origins of health and disease, and science policy and diplomacy. The day-long programme features five plenary sessions and winds up with a panel featuring colleagues from New Zealand and overseas.
Can you tell me about the symposium and why it was organised?
I turned a tragic age in February and went down to part time at the university, and I think they've decided to celebrate my some extraordinary number of years there.
They are doing a career retrospective - so it starts way back when I was working with Sir Ed Hillary in the Himalayas in 1972, and ends up dealing with what I do now.
So they've got people flying in from around the world, who I have been involved with in parts of my career at different times.
It worries me a little bit, what they might say. I think there'll be some nice things said but I'm sure I'll pay the price for it.
Something I should address: there has been some criticism on social media that the panel [comprised of Professor Frank Bloomfield, Sir Bill English, Professor Mark Hanson, Professor John Challis, Emeritus Professor Michael Heymann, Professor Yap Seng Chong, Professor Wayne Cutfield and Sir Peter himself] is lacking in diversity. How do you respond to that?
Well, A, I didn't organise it and B, they are some of the people who have come from overseas to the meeting and they are the people I work with in different contexts - and Wayne [Cutfield] was my first fellow, so I think that's a bit unfair, given the situation.
Hosking: So much of this climate change 'action' is just hot air
YouTube executives ignored warnings, let toxic videos run rampant
You'll have to ask [organiser] Frank Bloomfield why he set it up the way he did, but it was nothing to do with me.
There's nothing that could be done, retrospectively, to address it?
It's not for me to organise the meeting, so I can't do anything - talk to the organisers, not to me.
That's just not a fair comment. It just happens to be the people who are flying in from overseas to come and be involved. I can't change those things, you know.
It's not like there's not a lot of women on the rest of the panels throughout the day.
What's been keeping you busy over the past year?
There have been two things going on.
One is I'm president-elect of the International Science Council - I become president in 2021 - and that organisation, which is the peak science body of the world, is newly formed from the merger of two previous organisations.
That's taken a lot of my time in terms of strategic planning and creating a new organisation and its new mission.
So the International Network for Government Science Advice, which I still chair, is actually part of the International Science Council and I'm still doing a lot of workshops around the world, and helping governments set up the science advisory mechanisms.
On another side, we are setting up a think-tank at the University of Auckland.
That's the Centre for Science in Policy, Diplomacy and Society (SciPoDS). Where are you at with that?
Well, we are doing a very soft launch of it because we're still getting underway and we have our first visitor [Dr Vaughan Turekian] next week to that centre.
He was the science and technology advisor to [former US Secretary John Kerry] and then to [former secretary Rex Tillerson] and is now head of policy and international affairs for the US National Academies of Sciences.
So this will be something permanent in New Zealand that will carry on what you've helped to foster, internationally.
I hope so – but I think it's more than that.
I think there is a need for some deep, reflective, long-term thinking around how evidence links to policy, society and diplomacy - and we want to be at the centre of all that.
Have you been keeping in touch with the current chief science adviser, Professor Juliet Gerrard, or have you been deliberately putting your old role at a distance?
Look, Juliet is the chief science adviser so it's not for me to get in her way.
We have the occasional chat, when one when one should talk to the other and share information, or where something overlaps.
But no, I have moved on and Juliet is the chief science advisor.
I've obviously got a legacy interest in it, if you understand what I mean.
I want to see it succeed and further develop - but the reality is I'm busy focused on the global development of science advisory mechanisms, and thinking about some of the big issues where science and society collide.
There's one big issue that's related to what you just said. The last time we talked, you said one of your big concerns was the governance and oversight around digital technology. We've seen this come to the fore with what just happened in Christchurch, and Facebook's role in it. Do you have any view on what's being discussed at the moment - and do you think the Government is on the right track in pressing for greater action on it?
Well I think there are multiple dimensions to that question.
I was on the OECD advisory board on the impact of digitalisation and well-being, and a report that myself and Kristiann Allen produced last year touched right on these issues, of personal security and public safety… and what social media is doing to social cohesion.
It's actually one of the new areas of focus at the new centre – it will look specifically at these issues, which we were so long [exploring] before this tragic event occurred.
There are several things going on here.
At one level, you've got the complexity of the interface between the platform companies and international jurisdictions.
To what extent are these things controllable at a national level? And how, given the very different perceptions of the cyber-world across the world, can one get a global approach that will actually work?
Secondly, you've got to ask deep questions about how the social media phenomenon has exposed a lot of underlying behaviours that we're not seen before.
A lot of ad hominem attacks. A lot of vicious polarisation.
And of course, the way the social media system works is it enhances polarisation, so now we have a fundamental problem.
In fact I've just got a book in press which will come out in October on this issue, of what does this mean for society moving forward?
Because social media, in one form or another, is not going to disappear - and what they're doing in the way they operate, they are inevitably polarising people into groups.
And also because of the way they operate, they have brought out a lot of latent behaviours and attitudes which would not otherwise happen.
So there are some very deep issues here. I'm not sure they are going to be solved just by Facebook removing its live-streaming technology, or things like that.
They're fundamental issues which are deeper than that and which I don't think we yet know how to handle.
These are also questions not of the technology, but all of the sociology underlying the social media phenomenon – or of the changing nature of human society which is empowered by this new technology.
Given everything you've researched around this, I take it you weren't surprised by Facebook's criticised response to the Christchurch terror attacks. But were you nonetheless frustrated?
It depends what you mean by frustrated. I certainly wasn't surprised.
I mean, what we have here is a fundamental change in the power structure of the world going on, involving data companies.
The fact that governments have been really slow around data governance and digital ethics - and the fact that it is made difficult because it transcends national boundaries – is just highlighting that the political world is not designed well to deal with this particular issue.
The issue has been coming for a long time. New Zealand still doesn't have a proper data governance and ethics structure.
And even if it did, how would it have handled this particular issue? This is a global issue which manifested, in this case, in a particular country.
Have you been keeping an eye on the National Science Challenges and are you happy with how they are being run at the moment? I assume you would have read with the interest the mid-way review into the challenges, which found some positives, but also some shortcomings?
I haven't kept a close eye on it, to be honest.
My comments would remain as before. These were important opportunities for goal-focused research, I am not sure that the way they have evolved has necessarily kept that goal in mind… to make sure that it's - I hate to say it - that moon-shot type of research.
I mean some [challenges] have and some haven't - they are a mixed bag and I think they need robust reviews.
Did you have any view on last month's School Strike 4 Climate? As a scientist, it must have been heartening seeing these kids trying to take greater control of their destinies?
Well I think you almost put words in my mouth.
But it's heartening to see the kids understanding that climate change is real and an existential threat to their future, along with all of those issues that surround it, and the inability of the global policy community to really come together.
Clearly, the world is frustrated with the American position - but equally Australia and even Europe, where coal energy use in increasing rather than decreasing.
I think the kids are on the right track and I don't think this is something that should be left to another generation, as some people would like to do.
Also last month, you were named Blackland PR's 2019 Communicator of the Year Award [for debunking the meth test myth]. Did you feel that award was earned or deserved?
It was unexpected recognition from people outside our system, which is always nice and appreciated.
Was it deserved? That's for others to say I think.
They talked about the methamphetamine report, obviously, and other things that we did, and I said in my response that it was really a team effort. It wasn't just me and others were heavily involved.
So yeah, okay, I might have got the award, but the team felt it was a nice recognition of trying to talk honestly about very difficult issues.
That meth report was among a quick succession of reports that dropped just before the end of your tenure.
Well that's because we had a deadline, didn't we?
Were there any reports that didn't quite make it, and that you really wanted to get your teeth into?
I wanted to do a lot more on the environmental and conservation roadmap.
It wasn't just about predator free New Zealand, but it was more broader, in terms of things like myrtle rust and kauri dieback disease and all of the other aspects of our flora and fauna, and what is needed there.
But honestly, we just didn't have the bandwidth to get that last report complete and started, really.
I think there are some big issues there that we need to be thinking about lot more deeply.
We need to understand how New Zealand is going to protect its biodiversity more broadly, rather than just looking at the headline species.
So what's ahead for you for the 10 years? Are you looking that far into the future?
Well I hope I still can, even despite my age.
I mean of I've still got six years on the International Science Council, and I want to get SciPODS and the think-tank to the point where it can really be the intellectual hub of New Zealand.
Our major goal is to make it the second home to some of the best thinkers in the world, and who want to come here and actually engage with New Zealand.
What about your family life? You've been a busy person these past few decades, and you've got grandchildren who you'd like to see more of?
Well I hope they'd like to see more of me, is more the point.
Unfortunately, even though I've walked out of a busy life, this transition is busier than ever.
Hopefully, in a year's time, things will have settled.