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The Nation: Juliet Gerrard - PM's new Chief Science Advisor

On Newshub Nation: Lisa Owen interviews Juliet Gerrard, the Prime Minister's new Chief Science Advisor

Lisa Owen: Professor Juliet Gerrard is about to step into the role of the Prime Minister's Chief Science Advisor. She’s taking over from Sir Peter Gluckman who's held the role since it was created in 2009. His term officially ends today. Recent reports from the office have chided justice policy makers for being driven by panic rather than data and sparked a backlash against the previous government for its handling of meth contamination issues. Professor Gerard joins me now, good morning.
Gerrard: Good morning.
How do you see science helping to shape social policy?
So that’s a really big question. And lots of people have pointed out I’m not a social scientist. And at the outset, it’s probably worth saying that no one person is going to be an expert across all policies. But happily Peter Gluckman built a team of departmental science advisers including four really excellent social scientists so they will be working with me. So, there’s Richie Poulton who advises the Ministry of Social Development, there’s Ian Lambie that does Justice, there’s Stuart McNaughton who does Education and there’s John Potter for Health. So my job is to work with them and really see where they see the advances could be made.
I want to look at a recent example where science did shape policy, and this was the meth testing of houses. How concerned are you that bad science made it into social policy or shaped social policy?
So, I think bad science is quite an emotive term. I think policy makers are trying to use the best information available. And the value of the Science Advisory Network is to make sure that they have that information. So I’m not going to comment on detail on the meth issue because that was something that Peter and his researchers did a lot of work on. But clearly the policy wasn’t in line with the best scientific evidence and an over-precautionary approach was taken.
Yeah, well, I assume you’re interested in it in so much as you want to prevent it from happening again, so…
So, it’s been a really useful case study for me to see how the scientific evidence was turned into policy and how it was reviewed and the political reaction to that.
So how did it go wrong and where did it go wrong?
So it would have been helpful if the scientific evidence had been ahead of the policy decision-making. So my top priority is to understand the programme of government, see where the science advice is going to be needed, and to make sure we get that expert opinion ahead. Obviously that’s going to be easier for some issues than others.
So, what are you saying, that the policy around testing the levels, well, the levels that were set, how did policy come before science in this case?
So, science is slow and methodical, traditionally. And policy has to be made in response to urgent issues. And so the challenge of science advice is to, really, marry those two timelines. So the policy makers, we hope, will ask for the best evidence, and sometimes the evidence isn’t clear cut. And then what we can do as science advisors is honestly present the weight of evidence and give the essence of the debate, arguments for and against, and maybe the majority view.
So do you think that science around that testing was still evolving at the time the policy was set, that there’s more information to come?
So, again, I haven’t been briefed on the details of that, and Anne and Peter who did the research would be much better placed to answer that question. But it would be interesting for them to do a retrospective and see if there was a mistake that was made early on in terms of how the science evidence could have been presented at a different stage.
So, you talked about the Departmental Science Advisors. How well do you think those positions are working currently?
Well, that’s my top priority, is to talk to them one-on-one, and I’ve already chatted to a couple of them. I think all of them have very different arrangements in their different Ministries. And I’m keen to really strengthen the group, and really use that group as a sounding board for issues that cut across different ministries, rather than focus on one.
So are they being used enough, and are they being used in the right way? Because I know that Sir Peter Gluckman’s report of 2017 said that he felt there was a failure to engage them appropriately, and he actually said that in some cases departments claimed to have the support of the Science Adviser, whereas that support had never actually been sought.
So that’s one of my first jobs, is to get their impressions of that, and to collectively look at where there might be weaknesses in the Science Advice Portfolio, and where we could add more value and help policy.
And what are your initial thoughts?
I only start on Monday, so come back to me on that one.
I know. I’m sure you have done, as a scientist, a lot of research before you moved in, or you moved in and took this job up. So do you have any thoughts on where you might want to make changes in respect of those advisers?
So, I think it would be really great if they functioned as a group rather than a collection of individuals. So my initial thoughts are to formalise that group so that it’s a body of experts. And also to make sure that those experts are connecting into the rest of the scientific community.
What will your role be? If you see bad science infiltrating social policy, what can we expect from you as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Adviser?
So it’s an independent role, and that independence is absolutely critical. So it’s my job to speak out if we see that. But obviously in the area of social science, I’d be working with social scientists.
Because I’ve looked at the job description and it’s the same job description from when this job was first started —you’re appointed by the Prime Minister and are, quote, ‘terminable at the will of the Prime Minister’. Is that conducive, do you think, to a strong, independent voice?
So, that’s something we really need to look hard at, how this position’s been constituted. And I know there’s been calls out there for science advice to be structured in a different way. My position is with the University of Auckland, which gives me some surety that I can still pay off my mortgage if I get terminated, as you put it. But most of it’s about the integrity of the individuals in those roles, and making sure that they’re prepared to speak out.
So your job also says that you may propose matters for inclusion in a work programme. How much say are you going to have on the work that gets done under the umbrella of your office?
So, the first job, while the Prime Minister’s on leave, is for me to go all around the country and talk to lots of different scientists from different institutions, and see what they think are the high priorities. So, I’m keen to start as many conversations as I possibly can. And then at the end of August, I’m scooping up all those issues, all my conversations with the Science Advisers from each Ministry, and we’ll prioritise a programme of work. And I’m sure the Prime Minister has ideas, but I would expect that what comes out of those conversations would form a large part of that programme.
Because previously we’ve had what’s been called the ‘Science Challenges’, and there’s 11 areas which have been identified, including stuff like focusing on obesity, housing supply. They’re, currently, I think, under the five-year review. Do you think priorities have changed since those eleven areas were identified, and do you think that you would like to put other things into the mix?
So, first of all, I’m not the Minister of Science. So that would be her decision to decide what the National Science Challenge priorities ultimately are, in conjunction with her officials.
But you’d assume you’ll offer some advice or have some input?
If she calls for advice, yes. But it wouldn’t be on where the funding went, it would be some sort of foresight exercise about where we should be looking. And you would expect a series of National Challenges to evolve with time as new scientific issues pop up on the horizon.
So, if they do, as you say, evolve over time, have you had a look at those, and can you see an area that we should be evolving into?
That’s not something that I’ve immediately looked at. So, those challenges are relatively new. But certainly, if there are areas, we’ll be looking at that. One that often pops up is artificial intelligence, so, who in New Zealand is looking at that. So that would be one area where, as I go round the country, I would expect people to be saying, ‘You know what? We need a group of people really thinking about the implications of this.’
I was interested, this week the Supreme Court has ruled that South Taranaki can go ahead and fluoridate its water, and this is after a six year court battle. The local Mayor has said that, you know, it was a battle and local council shouldn’t have to deal with it, it should be a central government issue. Is that something that your office would be interested in looking at?
So there’s an enormous range of issues that we could look at, and we need to put those in priority order. Obviously the Prime Minister will have a say. From my perspective, I’ll be looking at the places where there’s still work to do in terms of science evidence. And I think there’s a pretty good consensus on fluoride that the scientists are happy, and it’s a political argument now. So we can probably add more value looking at an issue where the jury’s still out on the science and we can come up with new information, rather than—
And what do you think those things are? Where the jury is still out, where you can do more work?
So, that’s going to be my top priority. I don’t have my personal shopping list of things. But obviously there’s work to be done internationally in the space of clean energy, there’s a lot of work on mental health, there’s also whether we should focus on issues that are particular to New Zealand or international, so, obviously, earthquake resilience, things like that are going to be important. And then there’s topics that bubble up all the time, my inbox is full already. One of them is waste, so how do we get rid of waste? People are very worried about that. So those are the sorts of issues we’ll be thinking about, and the prioritisation will be the important part.
Well, the best of luck. First day on the job on Monday, is it? Professor Juliet Gerrard, thank you for your time.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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