Published online 28 May 2009 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2009.526

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Getting science into policy

New Zealand's first ever chief science adviser talks about how he will make an impact on government decision-making.

GluckmanPeter Gluckman.University of Auckland

Last week, New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key appointed Peter Gluckman as the first chief science adviser in the country's history. One of New Zealand's most eminent scientists, Gluckman is an expert in how fetal development affects subsequent growth and health.

And yesterday, the New Zealand government announced a budget that included a modest increase to the research budget, but that replaced the previous government's ten-year NZ$700-million (US$437-million) agricultural research fund with a four-year NZ$190-million scheme to be matched by industry. Here, Nature News asks Gluckman about science funding and his plans for the job.

What do you think of the decision to scrap the ten-year 'Fast Forward' fund and replace it with the smaller, four-year scheme?

I think that this is an unfortunate conflation of party politics, and that there are two aspects to science funding. One is how much money, the other is how science is funded. There was considerable uncertainty as to what extent the Fast Forward fund was about funding science as opposed to funding technology development for industry. I'm not saying the latter is not important, but I think there has been a conflation of issues.

Clearly, New Zealand needs to invest better in science than it is now, but the first thing to do is to make sure that the money we spend now is being spent as well as possible. I think there's a general belief that there is a lot to do to improve the system within current funding.

You're the first person appointed to this post. What scope do you see for the role?

First, I should say I think this is an overdue position. There's no doubt that most Western countries have recognized the impact of high-quality scientific advice on policy. Although it's done in slightly different ways in different jurisdictions, fundamentally, countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia all have a post that serves this function.

The role has different parts. The first is to provide high-quality scientific advice, and that obviously requires me to consult with the scientific community on matters that the Prime Minister and I think are worth looking at. The second is to give input into science policy, but high-level policy, not the nuts and bolts of how a funding system operates. A third function is to deal with the scientific issues of the day. I've been fortunate so far to have had a high level of trust from the public regarding my comments on scientific matters.

How will your role compare with those of other scientific advisers around the world, such as those in Britain or the United States?

One thing that is a little different is the role extends to promoting the public understanding of science and to giving the public of New Zealand a better understanding of the role of science in the country's future. I think it's fair to say that science has not been given a high status within the New Zealand community; that the quality of science journalism in New Zealand is generally weak; and that the public's understanding of issues of the day — from climate change to stem cells and influenza — could be significantly improved. I think it is really quite remarkable that the government sees that aspect of the role as a priority for its senior science adviser, and it is something that I applaud.

This is a part-time post, and you will step down as director of the Liggins Institute for Medical Research at the University of Auckland. What will you be spending the rest of your time on?

I've done 22 years as an academic administrator, as well as being an active scientist: head of department, dean of a medical school and then director of a new research institute. Twenty-two years is long enough in academic administration for most people. I'm enjoying my research more than I have done in a decade. Paradoxically, I think the combination of doing this post — which involves thinking about the role of science for developing New Zealand and making sure apolitical advice of a high quality affects decision-making — is compatible with me continuing my own research interests as long as I avoid conflicts of interest in funding.

Do you have any priorities for the role?

Yes: that science is seen as an integral part of policy-making. There are different elements in how a government makes decisions on any matter where science is relevant. One is what the science shows. Another is the public's acceptance and understanding of what that science is. I think we've seen situations where there are limits on what society will accept from science, and I think we have to be cognizant of the social contract between science and society. In some ways I see my role as being an interpreter to help deal with those issues.

You've said you don't plan to be a lobbyist on behalf of scientists.

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I can't be. The minister of science [Wayne Mapp] clearly must deal with the operation of the science system. To be blunt, New Zealand is not in a great fiscal situation, nor are most countries. But the fact that the Prime Minister has announced this appointment and allocated it a budget, even under the current economic situation, says that he is determined to see New Zealand become more of a knowledge-based society.

Scientifically, New Zealand punches well above its weight. The issue is how can we turn that into social and economic development? We have not done well as a scientific community in this country to show government and the population how science can make New Zealand a better place. That's what I want to achieve. 

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