A week or so ago Nature published a little essay by New Zealand’s Chief Scientist, Sir Peter Gluckman, with the title ‘Policy: the art of science advice to government’. It is a good piece, and there is not much that I could dispute in what he proposes. He offers ten guidelines, and I’ll just list them. They are self-explanatory.

1. Maintain the trust of many

2. Protect the independence of advice

3. Report to the top

4. Distinguish science for policy from policy for science

5. Expect to inform policy, not make it

6. Give science privilege as an input into policy

7. Recognize the limits of science

8. Act as a broker not an advocate

9. Engage the scientific community

10. Engage the policy community

It would be interesting to hear what our own Chief Scientist thinks about them as guidelines, and my guess is that he would agree that they are useful. What interests me most, however, is what you do when the guidelines intersect. There you are, acting as a broker not an advocate, and your local academy now complains that you are not giving science the sort of privilege it should be having. Or you engage both the scientific and the policy communities, and they set upon each other.

Sir Peter is not really very forthcoming in how he deals with such issues. He does give an account of how he once proposed a measure to add folate (Vitamin B) to flour-based products to help to prevent defects like spin bifida in newborn babies, a recommendation that the government did not accept:  in my first media interview as science adviser I was asked how I felt about my advice not being heeded. I pointed out that despite strong scientific evidence to support folate supplementation, a democratic government could not easily ignore overwhelming public concern about the food supply. 

The failure here was not political; rather, it was the lack of sustained and effective public engagement by the medical-science community on the role of folate in the diet. As a result, the intervention did not get the social licence necessary to proceed.

The clash here is between people who want a mandatory nationwide response to the problem, and those who, in this case, want us all to be responsible, and if we are pregnant to take Vitamin B. The rest of us don’t need it. The catch is that a woman may not even know that she is pregnant, while the folate needs to be taken from the moment of conception. That leads to the argument that the best way to achieve good outcomes is through mandatory supplementation of flour-based products. The fluoride debate was very similar. Sir Peter may be right, but I am a tad concerned that he expected the medical-science community to take up arms for the cause.

I was of course keen to see what he thought about the ‘climate change’ issue, but it doesn’t get much attention. He talks about ‘post-normal science’, whose issues are urgent and of high public and political concern; the people involved hold strong positions based on their values, and the science is complex, incomplete and uncertain. Diverse meanings and understandings of risks and trade-offs dominate. I would have thought that global warming had to be one of these issues, but the closest he gets in a decent list is add reduction of agricultural greenhouse gases.

He does talk of  the dangerous temptation to use science to justify value-based beliefs and a lack of literacy about what science is (a process). For example, much of the debate about climate change is not primarily about the data. Rather, it is about intergenerational economic interests. I would have written that some of the debate is about the scientific argument, some about the data, a lot about the models, and quite a lot about risks and trade-offs. ‘Intergenerational economic interests’ seem to me, anyway, a bit of a sideshow.

And he does say, and every sceptic I know would agree, that exaggerated presentations about the causes of storms and floods can erode the credibility of the underlying argument about global warming. The sceptics would probably add that the underlying argument is not very strong anyway. I wonder how he put the problem to his Prime Minister.

Finally, he sees the policy community as surprisingly sceptical. I wish it were more so. My own awareness of the policy community is that too many of the academics in it (and some become public servants) see the research they are doing or have done is overwhelmingly powerful, and should lead at once to implementation. Having been on the other side, I can see how complex the real world of policy really is, with advice based on research having to take its place in the queue with the status quo, the current political situation of the government, the matter of timing, the budget, competing interests or claims from other parts of government, and deals that have already been struck inside the government of the day.

Nonetheless, it is an essay worth reading. I’ll have to leave it to New Zealanders to say whether nor not Sir Peter has been effective in his role, and if so, the extent to which his guidelines helped him!

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • JohnM says:

    The major points in Gluckman’s Nature essay that you list above are quite different to how acts in reality.

    He has a poor reputation in New Zealand. He won’t discuss, won’t meet and certainly won’t debate anyone who might be construed as a climate sceptic. He seems to think that although he’s not a climate scientist he can pontificate as much as he likes, and when challenged to provide evidence to support his claims there’s silence from him. To him the IPCC is the holy word; blessed be the word of the IPCC.

    He and Ian Chubb, Australia’s Chief Scientist make a good pair.

  • Gus says:

    In the US all food is “doctored.” You can’t buy bread, milk, juice that wouldn’t have something nasty added to it. Presumably, it’s for our own good. Was there any one science adviser responsible for it? I doubt it. In a large, very large society, like the US, with 50 state governments, 435 federal Representatives, 100 federal Senators and an independently elected President, with his own (nominated) cabinet, every decision passes through great many stomachs. Senators and Representatives have science advisers of their own. And then, there are lobbyists, representing various industry and social interests, with their science advisers. The President may or may not listen to his science adviser, they usually don’t anyway, as they tend to be arrogant people who are neither scientifically literate, nor have much appreciation for it. Big money is involved and exchanged. At the end of the day, the decision may very well be based on contributions to electoral fund, not on any scientific argument.
    So, who made us accept all the gunk that goes into our bread flour, milk and toothpaste? Well, health insurance companies, for starters. Preventing beriberi, scurvy, tooth decay and what not is… how they save money, it is how they make money too. Eventually, they made their wishes known, through lobbying, supporting, and bribing and we ended up with the stuff. And it’s not such a bad thing.
    What of “climate change” then? Well, it’s fraud, of course. There’s not a shred of genuine evidence in support. But there’s big money in it. General Electric, for starters. They make turbines. The current market for power turbines is pretty much saturated. The used ones in the existing power stations are being replaced every now and then, but as they’re very well made and highly optimized for longevity, this is not often. But now think of all the new wind turbines being placed all over the country to “save the planet.” Because wind energy generation is so inefficient, you need great many wind turbines to replace one conventional power station. In Texas alone they have about 4000 wind turbines. Multiply this by 50 states and you have the whopping market for 200,000 turbines to fill! Can you see GE board swooning at the prospect? A couple of millions for Obama’s re-election, another couple to Sierra or some such enviro-establishment and you are set for life! And GE is not alone. Tesla, battery makers, solar panel makers… this is the new industry that the Democrats want to latch themselves onto, seeing as they had little success with more traditional industries in the past.
    Science? Who needs to bother about science. We’re talking massive re-alignment of wealth and political power.

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