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Q+A: Sir Peter Gluckman interviewed by Corin Dann

Q+A: Sir Peter Gluckman interviewed by Corin Dann

Sir Peter Gluckman: Time to reignite the GMO conversation

Outgoing Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman says the time has come to reignite the debate over whether New Zealand should allow genetically modified food.

Speaking on TVNZ 1’s Q+A this morning, Sir Peter told Corin Dann that debate needed to be more constructive and less polarising than it had been in the past.

“The science is as settled as it will be; that is, it’s safe, that there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies. That does not mean that society automatically will accept them. And what we need is a conversation which we’ve not had in a long time, and it needs to be, I think, more constructive and less polarised than in the past,” he said.

“We’re facing issues of biosecurity; we’re facing issues of predators and the desire to be predator-free; we’re facing the fact that our farming system needs to change because of the environmental impact of the greenhouse gas emissions, the water quality issues, etcetera. We are, fundamentally, a biologically-based economy.

“Now, the science is pretty secure, and science can never be absolute. And everything about life is about rational decisions with some degree of uncertainty. But the uncertainty here is minimal to nil, very, very low. I think it’s a conversation we need to have.”

Sir Peter finished his nine-year tenure as Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor on Saturday 30 June 2018.


Q + A
Episode 1816
Interviewed by Corin Dann

CORIN Good morning to Sir Peter Gluckman, who’s finished up as the Prime Minister’s Chief Science Advisor after nine years. And he was, of course, the first scientist to take the role. Good morning to you, Sir Peter.

PETER Good morning, Corin.

CORIN I wonder if we could just start first with this issue around your report on meth testing, which was such a dynamic report, in that it changed the game so much, in that it showed these standards were ridiculous, really. You mentioned in an interview yesterday that you had raised some concerns with the previous government.

PETER Well, they had raised it with me. The Prime Minister’s office had said to me, was it worth us looking at it? We had a discussion about it, and then a few weeks later, they came back and said, actually, this was probably in 2015 or 2016 – I can’t remember exactly when – they said, ‘Look, we understand Ministry’s working on it through Standards New Zealand.’ And we had many other things on our plate. I have an office of two people and myself. So we moved on, were focused on water and social investment.

CORIN Fair enough. In hindsight, you would have obviously preferred to have a look at it?

PETER But in fact they raised it, and in hindsight, we had never had any correspondence with anybody about it.

CORIN So it wasn’t a case of you pushing them and them not responding to you wanting to do it?

PETER No, no, no, no no. They raised it and then realised that in fact there was work going on in their ministries, I think.

CORIN There were a number of reports and issues over the years under National where you raised concerns, I’m thinking, around alcohol and then particularly the impact on adolescents, boot camps – these sort of recommendations where the government didn’t take your advice. Was that frustrating?

PETER Yes and no. I mean, everybody in the world of science advice, around the world, understands that it’s part of the democratic process. And what we can do is provide the evidence as we have it – and it’s not always black and white – but we can provide the evidence, but ultimately, in a democracy, the values-based decision-making of the public and public opinion of the political contract, I guess, ultimately must take the evidence into account. Doesn’t mean they have to follow it.

CORIN So you just put up the evidence, and then it’s up for the politicians to deal with it?

PETER Well, I think there’s two kinds of thing we try and do. The first thing we try and do is explain complex systems. So most of the things that governments really need help from the science community over are remarkably complex. The water system, the climate system, the agricultural system. That’s what we can try and do is explain both to the public and to the policy maker and to the politician. What are they options that then emerge? Complexity always means there are multiple options. There’s never a simple magic bullet. And then we can explain what are the implications of the options. But in the end, policy-making is about making choices which affect different stakeholders in different ways. That’s the job of the political process.

CORIN It must be incredibly frustrating with something like the criminal justice system, where the evidence you’ve looked at shows clearly that the prison system is not working, that we have too many remand prisoners – there’s the Three Strikes Policy – yet when it comes to the politics of this, there are certain political parties which are just not interested.

PETER Well, I think Laura raised this in the previous segment – the whole question of, ‘How do we have complex conversations over difficult matters in a constructive, collegial manner. Because this is a matter where, clearly, people come to it with different personal perspectives. We have put the evidence on the table, and I would hope that over time – we said that when we released the report – it would hopefully promote a conversation where people would look at the evidence across all the political parties, and with the public, and perhaps reflect that perhaps we’ve gone too far into the retribution model of justice and not enough into the restorative, rehabilitative and particularly preventive form of justice which other countries, such as Finland, Germany, have done. And the evidence there is, in my view, that we could have a conversation, that if people would just reflect and if we could have some of the structures that Laura referred to, maybe we could do better.

CORIN And what do you do, though, with the politicians who see this as a political opportunity with law and order – that they can get votes?

PETER Well, that’s the nature of a democracy. Democracy is flawed, but we have no better system. And what a science advisory system can do is provide the evidence on the basis that it will help, over time, governments and societies make better decisions. But we don’t live in a technocracy, and I wouldn’t want to. I mean, the whole richness of a society is the different views, but I think scientific evidence has a different position. It’s a privileged position providing the information about what we know, what are the limits on what we know, what we don’t know, so that society as a whole can make better decisions. I would not be arrogant enough to argue that just because the science says this, therefore it must automatically be that the government must do that. There are many other dimensions in play – political, philosophical, ideological, fiscal, diplomatic – that have to be brought into the picture.

CORIN Well, let’s look at one of the big issues that New Zealand faces in terms of science, and that is genetic modification. If we go back 20 years, there was a massive public debate, a lot of concern about the impact on the food chain if we adopted genetic modification into food in New Zealand. Has the science been settled? Is there any risk from genetic modification in our food supply?

PETER The science is as settled as it will be; that is, it’s safe, that there are no significant ecological or health concerns associated with the use of advanced genetic technologies. That does not mean that society automatically will accept them. And what we need is a conversation which we’ve not had in a long time, and it needs to be, I think, more constructive and less polarised than in the past. We’re facing issues of biosecurity; we’re facing issues of predators and the desire to be predator-free; we’re facing the fact that our farming system needs to change because of the environmental impact of the greenhouse gas emissions, the water quality issues, et cetera. We are, fundamentally, a biologically-based economy. Now, the science is pretty secure, and science can never be absolute. And everything about life is about rational decisions with some degree of uncertainty. But the uncertainty here is minimal to nil, very, very low. I think it’s a conversation we need to have.

CORIN Let me flip it around. Is there a risk, in your view, to New Zealand if we do not embrace GMO technology for things such as not just food production but pest eradication, for those types of things?

PETER Well, I think we’re going to find ourselves— I mean, my judgement is, over the next 20 years, advanced life science— genetic technologies will be increasingly used around the world. They are being now. If we are to remain a biological economy, we will have to have another conversation about it.

CORIN One of the issues that the Environmental Protection Agency raised in its annual report was about science denial, and that it still felt there was a fair amount of distrust of scientists. Is that a bit disappointing for you, given your role being, over the last nine years, I guess to try and get the public more engaged?

PETER Well, I think, over the last nine years, the public has become more engaged – not just because of the science advisory mechanism, but because of the public scientists we have out there, the cluster of people who are being far more prominent in the media, particularly amongst women scientists. I think that our surveys show that trust in science actually is very high in New Zealand, as it is in many countries around the world. I think where science communication has moved to realise that it’s not just about pushing facts at people. It’s about explaining the processes of science, how we come to know what we need to know and what we can know. And perhaps the thing I’m proudest of in that regard as the development of the Participatory Science programme, which is piloted now with young people around New Zealand, or the three areas of New Zealand, to show them they’re not going to be scientists in the future, but to understand the importance of science in their lives.

CORIN I think you’ve actually raised this issue around the digitalisation of the internet, the polarisation, the ability for people to be in silos, get the science they want. Look at the fluoridation debate. How can it be that the Supreme Court rules that way, yet Free Fluoride believes it’s a victory? We’ve got two people, two— lots of…

PETER Well, there are people coming at it with very fundamental world views. There are people who are going to come at it and say, ‘Whatever the science says, I’m not going to change my view that it’s medicalisation of the water supply, and I object to that on philosophical grounds.’ Now, I can present, as we have done in our reports, all the evidence that fluoride is safe. People who want to present that it’s not safe will go to extreme situations to find data from contexts that are totally inappropriate to New Zealand to show that it’s not safe. There’s always a point at which you cannot deal with that except through the regulatory and democratic process of saying, ‘The weight of evidence says the following; this is how scientists come to that view; it’s been subject to extensive analysis.’ And then at the end of the day, the democratic process has to decide whether to use that knowledge or not. I think it’s tragic that we cannot get beyond that, but there are people who have this deep world view that it’s medicalisation and will object.

CORIN Sir Peter Gluckman, we have to leave it there, but thank you very much for your time. We do appreciate it on Q+A.

Please find attached the full transcript and the link to the interview

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TVNZ 1 and one hour later on TVNZ 1 + 1.
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