After six years chairing the Marsden Fund Council, in June 2018 Dr Juliet Gerrard was appointed the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor. When not working on Covid-19, Dr Gerrard's other projects involve public-facing evidence for and against legalising cannabis in time for the referendum and looking at the future of fishing using science and data to improve environmental aspects.
I moved around a lot. That was one of the distinctive features of my childhood. I lived in lots of places in the UK, including Nottingham, Wales and Grimsby. My father was quite restless, always looking for the next opportunity and mum reluctantly followed. My brother and I changed schools quite often, and we attended a collection of rough and tumble comprehensive schools.
Everyone always says that it must've been hard but, when I think back, I don't think of it as particularly difficult. I got used to going to new places and meeting new people, which has served me well in life. With each move, I never wanted to go but, as soon as we got to the new place, I was fine. People often say that moving around a lot is the worst thing for education, but that wasn't the case for me.
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I went to see a career counsellor once and I must have ticked the "want to travel" box, so air hostess was suggested. But I didn't have a particular direction in mind, I just knew I liked science. I focused on chemistry because I found it easy and I enjoyed it. Oxford was very different to what I'd known at school though, and I was surrounded by very ambitious people who were much more focused on study. There was virtually no choice about papers, the content was very prescribed, you just went down this chute and a chemist came out the other end.
You certainly couldn't take your foot off the pedal in terms of study, but the holidays were long and I made the most of them.
One year I did that scheme where you have a work permit in America over summer. I flew to New York and took a bus to California. I didn't have the money to stop anywhere along the way, so it took 96 hours and was the longest bus trip of my entire life. In LA I worked in a MacDonald's, but I didn't like it so I moved to a restaurant called Sizzler. At the time it felt like a big upgrade. On another holiday, between my two degrees, I took a job cooking on a prawn trawler. We slept all day and worked all night, just me and two Australian fishermen. It was a pretty tough environment. I had to sort and size the prawns, then I'd cook breakfast, but I got to see amazing parts of the Whitsunday Islands.
It wasn't a very sustainable way of fishing, and I'm slightly horrified now, when I think of all the things that came up in the trawl. Stingrays, baby octopus, all sorts of fish, lobsters, scallops - and we threw everything back except the prawns and scallops. I would hesitate to do that now.
I did my PhD in collaboration with Shell, driven more by what interested me than where I was going, then I ended up moving to New Zealand to take a job with Crop and Food in Lincoln. I enjoyed that role but there came a time when I wanted to return to academia. I think that was the hardest moment in my career. There are obvious challenges to being appointed when you're a recently divorced mum of two toddlers but eventually I got a job at Canterbury, and those challenges did me a favour because I was determined to make a good stab of it. Because I had to live in Christchurch till the kids left school, that forced me to focus. I couldn't look for greener grass, and it was good for me to be anchored.
I'll always use humour if I'm asked a sexist question in the workplace. The one I get most often: "Did you just get that job because you're a woman?" My favourite riposte is: "Maybe I did, but they probably got theirs because they're a man." If you look at statistics, that's the way it's more likely to play and I think that's a nice way to reframe that question.
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Chief science advisor wasn't a job I'd thought about, not until the call came out of the blue one afternoon. I'd just finished chairing the Marsden Council and I was enjoying going back to research when a no-caller ID phone call came through and I was told I'd been shortlisted for the role. I had to go away and think, was it something I was interested in? My initial reaction was no. Then I asked them to tell me more about it and I did some research. I looked around the world and checked in with couple of chief science advisors from other countries. How did the role look in other places? The more people I spoke to, the more encouraged I felt.
Five people were interviewed, and it was pretty gruelling. Then two of us went and had a one-on-one with the PM, for a chemistry check. Being a personal advisor role, it's important we get along. The whole process took about a month, from the phone call to sitting on the PM's couch in The Beehive.
My approach is to draw on as many science voices as possible. My four principles are to be rigorous, transparent, accessible and inclusive. I'm not setting myself up as an expert but the pathway to experts. During the Covid crisis I have learnt a lot about it, but I'm not a modeller, an epidemiologist or a medic. I'm not an infectious disease expert but I have an open line to talk to people who are and, if they see something important, they use me as conduit to the PM and senior decision makers.
We were first alerted to how serious Covid might be back in January, when the UK's chief science advisor called a few of us together and said, "this could be global pandemic ... let's start talking about what works and what doesn't". That was really valuable and we funnelled information up to our governments.
I was part of a phone call a few weeks ago, chaired by Kelvin Droegemeier, the equivalent of my role at The White House. He convened an hour-long call with various science advisors from around the world and, at one point, he said, "I'll hand over to New Zealand now. You are smashing it. Could you tell us, how have you done that?" What we're doing has been noted internationally, and I was certainly proud to be able to report that what we're doing is working.
People do get very energised - that's the nicest way of putting it - and my inbox does fill up with some quite strident opinions. In among those I also see some great ideas and I'm always pleased to receive good information. But the occasional person has just recently engaged with the issue and they've had an idea that is not new, and that can be frustrating. My man-splaining threshold has become quite low, so I go for a walk and calm down, then reply to the email I wished I got, rather than the one I actually got. But the majority of people have been incredibly supportive.
As long as I think I've done everything I can do each day to move things forward, I'm happy. I'm really good at sleeping and I'm also better rested because I'm travelling less. There's always a sense of heightened anxiety, waiting for daily numbers and while they don't tell you everything, plotting charts and watching trends these past few days has been fantastic as our numbers of new cases have dropped to a handful each day.