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September 19, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

Faliure To Comunicate Science In The Media – Who is your Science Advisor and What Does he do?

A few times in this column I have mentioned the prime minister’s Chief Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman—usually when he writes giant reports on topics I had planned to write a column about next week!

He has an amazing habit of beating me to the post. But petty quibbles aside, I’ve been really glad to see an independent voice representing science in our parliament these last two years. He recently released a report of his two-year term in that office. So I thought it would be a good time to answer the question: Who is this guy anyway?
The office of science advisor exists for a number of purposes. The most important parts of the job are: Providing independent science advice to policy makers, making statements to the public on science matters, and the promotion of science among the general public.

All well and good, but what has Sir Peter actually done in this role? In his eyes, some of the most important things he’s done have been advising policy makers on what science says about situations and choices they may make. He, as well as myself and others, want to see a much stronger emphasis on the use of evidence in choosing and implementing policies. At the moment there’s a huge amount of misinformation, and opinion masquerading as fact when politicians debate issues, and it would be better for everyone if we had a clear indication of what the evidence does and does not support. Well… better for everyone but politicians, perhaps!

A lot more of Sir Peter’s time in this role has been taken up with communication with the public. To me, this seems like the best thing he has been able to do. I have seen attitudes towards science and scientists change positively in New Zealand in my life time, and I guess part of that can be attributed to Sir Peter’s work. People no longer have this dominant image of a nutty professor, or a desperately dull nerd when they think of scientists. More and more they are beginning to realise the relevance of what scientists can do for them, and how we influence the economy and their lifestyles.

One interesting point Sir Peter raises in this report is that “… all other small advanced countries, which I see as logical comparators, have succeeded in transforming their economy via increased government-led investment in basic and strategic research and development.” It’s no secret that New Zealand has an extremely low level of investment in scientific research, but it’s interesting to hear research framed so explicitly as a driver of growth. He also notes that we have in the past tended to focus our research in single areas, and that other countries’ attempts to do this have been quite unsuccessful. That struck me as a nifty bit of work filling his role—he’s advising policy makers on the science of science policy!

So that’s a little of what a chief science advisor does! I look forwards to many more interesting reports from this office.


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