So, what’s a prime minister’s scientific eyes, ears and brains actually meant to do?
Well, there’s more to the role of being the Prime Minister’s chief science adviser than Peter Gluckman originally reckoned when taking on the position last September, and the workload’s larger than envisaged.
A major piece of work that is being explored by his advisory committe, which effectively has a stand-alone direct ‘think-tank’ link to Prime Minister John Key, is how to improve the use of scientific advice in policy making within the public service. He’s also looking to improve the quality, integrity and utility of research procured both within and externally by Ministries.
Reporting on his first year’s activities, Gluckman says the role’s clearly filled a void, with some areas emerging as more prominent than expected. These include:
- domestic respresentation in many forums.
- the importance of the role internationally.
- the role the office could play in assisting science-related agendas that cross departments and agencies.
This is in addition to the office’s role in raising the awareness of the role of research, science and technology to the country’s productivity agenda, enhancing New Zealand’s social and environmental well-being, and developing the nation’s global interests.
“Science increasingly deals with issues of uncertainty and probability, rather than absolutes,” Gluckman says. “Offices such as this have a key but difficult role in translating complex issues for public and political understanding.” Such first year issues for Gluckman have included methamphetamine precusors, the morbidity of adolescence and global warming.
“The challenge is to maintain the balance of providing advice without entering the policy arena,” he says. “It is important for this office to be seen as apolitical.”
Gluckman says he’s given over 30 public lectures (and has only been able to accept a few of an overwhelming number of invitations to participate in events).
His significant speeches are on the advisory committee’s website (http://www.pmcsa.org.nz/), and have focused on the role of research science and technology in New Zealand.
“Why we need to do it, how we should do it, how we should take it to scale,” he says.
Other projects on the go, with a project jointly carried out with MoRST and the Royal Society, is what the real issues in science education may be. This is expected by the year’s end.
Gluckman’s also started a process of discussions to identify a strategy to improve the quality of science dissemination in the media. (Note to Peter: waving a magic wand to help journalists become much more technologically savvy would be a very good start!)