Of a scientific persuasion

ANTHONY HUBBARD
Last updated 11:16 01/12/2012
Sir Peter Gluckman
CRAIG SIMCOX/Fairfax NZ

Sir Peter Gluckman is pragmatic in realising the limits of what he can achieve. But he is still keen to make an impact on government policy, and the education of young New Zealanders.

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The life of the Government's top scientist is full of trouble. Take the problem of alcohol.

Sir Peter Gluckman published a huge report on adolescence which included a raft of ideas about liquor. This was an attempt to bring science to bear on our binge-drinking culture.

The Government ignored it. This was not his first disappointment.

"I remember on the first day of the job," the eminent biologist says from Singapore, "it was the day they rejected putting folic acid into bread. I mean, that's an area of my own expertise!"

So the chief science adviser began at a time when his own advice had just been rejected. But Sir Peter had been warned.

A former British chief scientist, Lord May, told him, "You are going to win some, you are going to lose some. The key thing was not to get upset about it; it just goes with the role."

But of course the professor wouldn't be human if he didn't have his private thoughts and feelings.

"Of course I do! Of course I do! Of course I do!" he says in a rare bout of vehemence.

"I try, and I'm not saying I do it perfectly - nobody's perfect, you know that - you try to do the things you believe in within the terms of reference of the job."

So what has he won and what has he lost? He's certainly won the support of the prime minister. Sir Peter "has done his job extremely well and continues to do so", Mr Key said through a spokesman.

The scientist has also cemented his job in the political landscape. Labour leader David Shearer says he will keep the post if his party is elected. He says he "has a very healthy relationship with Sir Peter Gluckman" and respects him and his work.

The alcohol issue, however, shows the political limits of Sir Peter's power. This is clearly a field of thorns for politicians and scientists. Research tends to collide with deeply felt beliefs.

Sir Peter's 2011 report on adolescence found "clear evidence that increasing the purchase price of alcohol and restricting its marketing and availability" reduces the harm that alcohol does to the young.

His findings broadly agreed with the alcohol blueprint recommended by Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former head of the Law Commission.

But "the prime minister has completely ignored the advice from his chief adviser, as far as we can see", says alcohol expert professor Doug Sellman, director of Otago University's National Addiction Centre, and a leading critic of the Government's alcohol legislation.

"The PM gets advice from all sorts of places, and he's obviously taking advice from the alcohol industry over his science adviser."

Sir David Skegg, president of the Royal Society, New Zealand's premier body of science and scholarship, makes a similar point.

Sir David is generally very positive about Sir Peter's work, but says "one area in which we have not yet seen as much progress as I expect Sir Peter himself would have wished is in the application of scientific evidence in framing public policy".

Sir Peter's 2011 report "reviewed international evidence on how to limit the harm resulting from misuse of alcohol", Sir David says.

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"Yet senior ministers have continued to express their personal 'gut feelings' about what will or won't work, while dismissing key recommendations from the landmark Law Commission report."

So what does Sir Peter say?

"I need to answer that not just in a minute," he says.

"No 1 is, there are many cases in which scientific evidence will be ignored. Another example is folate in bread.

"Now science and scientific knowledge is not the only thing that makes policy. We don't live in a technocratically dominated society, we live in a participatory democracy . . .

"My argument has always been that the evidence has to be put on the table as values-free as possible and then governments have to use all their decision-making skills. That's why we elect politicians, to incorporate all the values components in.

"I didn't win that battle. Of course not. It's as simple as that."

But there are victories as well as defeats. Sir Peter's 2011 report also recommended changes in the treatment of adolescent mental health, and John Key picked up several of them in a $62 million four-year programme of reforms in April.

Mr Key explicitly linked the changes to "an important report" by his scientific adviser.

Sir Peter takes this as an example of science being better used in forming policy - and that is one of his primary aims in the job.

As for the defeat over folic acid, "that was not a failure of government, it was a failure of the scientific communication process", he says.

Putting folic acid in bread can cut the risk of babies suffering neural-tube birth defects such as spina bifida - but "the public had been alarmed at the concept of medicalising their food supply", Sir Peter says.

"And the scientific community did not explain and convince people why that should be done."

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Everyone agrees Sir Peter has done a good job boosting the profile of science, not just among ordinary people but among officials and politicians.

"Compared with, say, five years ago, the public's much more aware of the role of science in society and our economy," says Victoria University physics professor Shaun Hendy.

"I think a lot of that's down to Sir Peter's high profile and the enormous amount of energy he displays in talking to the public."

Sir David says Sir Peter, along with the late Sir Paul Callaghan and others, "has done much to raise the profile of science and technology in New Zealand.

"I am sure there is now an even greater awareness among politicians, officials and the wider community that science has an indispensable part to play in ensuring New Zealand's future prosperity."

Of course there is traffic both ways. It was Mr Key who invented the post of chief scientific adviser. The politician wanted to increase the role of science in government and spend more money on science.

Mr Key's enthusiasm for science is obvious, says Professor Charles Eason, chief executive of the Cawthron Institute, a private research facility in Nelson. "Having someone like Sir Peter close to John Key can't be a bad thing."

Sir Peter, like many other scientists before him, says we must spend more money on research if our economy is to get healthy growth.

In this year's Budget, the Government boasted it was increasing spending on science, innovation and research by $326m over four years.

Sir David says the fact that there has been a "modest" increase in funding for science and innovation, despite the current environment, "may well reflect Sir Peter's advocacy behind the scenes".

At the same time, Sir David notes, "the much-needed step-change in our national investment in research and development has not yet occurred, but that is hardly surprising in view of the global financial crisis".

Professor Graham Le Gros, director of the Malaghan Institute of Medical Research in Wellington, says despite the fact that New Zealand's health and economy was built on scientific discovery, for the past 20 years scientific discovery in New Zealand has been under-funded, under-acknowledged, fragmented, under-used and in danger of being morphed into some form of entertainment industry requiring celebrities and the like.

"Sir Peter Gluckman is playing his part in the rehabilitation of science in New Zealand, but he is one person and there is an enormous task ahead if New Zealand is to regain its position and economy through the strength of its scientific discoveries and innovation."

And there are of course fierce critics of the specific form of the Government's increased science spending.

Physicist and superconductivity researcher Professor Jeff Tallon has a problem with the Government's new Advanced Technology Institute, now named "Callaghan Innovation" after Sir Paul Callaghan, who died in March.

The institute, he says, will not do basic research. Rather, it will be a broker of technical knowledge, a middle player between industry and university.

But this will mean that Industrial Research, the country's primary physical science researcher and star of dozens of research triumphs, will disappear into the institute's maw.

Sir Paul would have been shocked by this and "would not have lent his name to any institution that lost its focus on science and research", Prof Tallon says.

Sir Peter, however, advises caution. The institute was "all part of strengthening and developing the science and innovation eco system".

"There's no magic bullet here."

However, the institute is still being established and there is no chief executive, he says.

"Until the model starts to operate and gets fully refined we shouldn't be jumping to conclusions."

It's difficult to determine how much Sir Peter has achieved when much of his work is done behind closed doors. Some of his work has been specific and very public, as when he politely quashed amateur earthquake forecaster Ken Ring, who caused alarm in Canterbury last year by predicting another big quake in September.

More often, Sir Peter works out of the limelight, operating as a "post box", a "broker", and a "sounding board".

"There are bits and pieces where I've made suggestions which have been acted on and other times when I've suggested, 'Well, you may want to rethink about that a bit'."

One subject close to his heart - and distant from the heart of many Kiwis - is school science.

The statistics suggest New Zealand pupils turn off science in droves, dropping the subject as soon as they can.

How to make it more engaging for the young?

Sir Peter did a report on the subject in April 2011, which argued that ordinary people need to understand a lot more about science, and non-traditional science subjects, if they are to be well-informed citizens.

"It's far more important that people understand the science of climate change than that they understand Boyle's Law [that the pressure of a given mass of an ideal gas is inversely proportional to its volume at a constant temperature]," he says.

So what happened to Sir Peter's report? Did it just lie gathering dust particles?

Not according to Education Minister Hekia Parata. She says in the past two years the ministry has been introducing a new science plan to improve how it is taught.

"It is guided by the Gluckman Report."

As always, Sir Peter says, there is no quick-fix and no silver bullet. The prime minister's science adviser is condemned to take the long view.

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Not everyone likes Sir Peter, but his critics prefer not to go on the record. Two eminent scientists voiced harsh criticisms of him, but declined to repeat them in public.

"This guy is politically almighty," says one. No scientist could afford to get offside with him.

The complaints boil down to two: That Sir Peter won't support scientific causes that don't interest him; and that he was exceptionally good at furthering his own research interests when he was a scientist.

Sir Peter says: "All successful scientists are good at pushing their own barrow in a contestable system - by definition.

"Clearly I was unusually successful as a scientist in a small science system. Clearly that does create some potential for jealousy ... I mean, I'm not sure I like the cliche but it's the tall poppy thing in one form or another, it's been pretty rife in New Zealand science."

Now, he says, his job is not to push any scientist's barrow, but to be a broker between the science community and the Government. This does not mean making specific recommendations or pushing one policy line.

In 2009, for instance, he reported that "the vast majority of the world's climate scientists consider it very likely ... that the global current warming trend is of human origin and is associated with increased production of the so-called greenhouse gases."

But he has not recommended specific policies.

The Government has, of course, been accused of watering down its climate change policies.

Sir Peter says the Government's approach to global warming "is no longer a scientific matter".

"That's a policy matter around economics, around intergenerational equity, around what does a small country do when the main emissions come from big countries. I've got nothing more to add to that than you do, as a citizen."

Sir Peter has clearly had an impact on the Government, but deciding exactly how much is difficult.

He is only one of many forces acting on the Government. He points out that his entire office amounts to 1 1/2 fulltime staff. And he must work quietly.

"I achieve a lot more," he says, "by being modest and behind the scenes than going out and marching down the street."

Moreover, "I know I've done a good job and that's all that matters. And if the prime minister of the day thinks I've done a good job then that's the only other thing that matters."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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