Sunday, January 8, 2012

Sir Peter Gluckman's Advice Ignored

I have just finished listening to a repeat of a Chris Laidlaw interview with the Prime Minister's science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, and found that his his views on Science and how it can be supported in the New Zealand context made a lot of sense. I didn't hear all of the interview but the following points he made stood out for me:
  • Science can be both the cause of many of the world's problems and the solution.
  • New Zealand's minimal increase in productivity can be related to a lack of investment in research and development. 
  • We shouldn't restrict our scientific research to what can be directly related to economic development because "blue sky" science still has relevance. There are two types of science "applied science" and "yet to be applied science" and what can be seen as random scientific discoveries can often result in producing useful but unintended applications.
  • While there should always be some management of research spending the current system is not working well, there are too many scientists competing for a limited pool of funds that is controlled by overly restrictive criteria.
  • We need to increase scientific literacy in the general population and the media could take some responsibility in promoting scientific developments and understandings, there is a public interest in science that is well communicated.
  • While scientists are human and there will always be an element of sociological influences on how they interpret data and the relevance of outliers, the conclusions of peer reviewed science are generally sound. The fact that around 98% of scientists support anthropogenic climate change, for example, is hugely significant.
  • We have a choice of making significant changes and sacrifices now to mitigate the causes of climate change or leave it to following generations. Sir Peter advises that we should be acting now as delay may make the issue beyond effective action.
  • New Zealand's leadership in researching the management of agricultural livestock emissions is worthy of recognition.
When comparing us with smaller sized nations with stronger economies (like Denmark and Singapore), a major difference between us is the level of commitment to education and research. Successful smaller economies generally spend over twice as much on R&D and as Professor Shaun Hendy says "...while it is often argued that New Zealand cannot afford a first class innovation system,  I would argue that we cannot afford to not have a first class innovation system." It is not about our lack of ability to do so but our lack of commitment.

When science and technology are so important for the success of our economy and our future survival it concerns me that the current government has actively downgraded these areas educationally. Although our technology and science curricula are world leading and innovative they are not supported well through professional development for teachers or resourcing (all our advisors have been sacked and there has been millions spent on the flawed National Standards and literacy and numeracy instead).

Sir Peter also supported an increase in funding to early childhood education (which he regards as an investment, not a cost) and perhaps the government's partial reversal of its earlier cuts can be partly due to his influence. The intransigence shown around not funding 100% qualified teachers is still a concern, however. 

While it is worthy to note the leadership shown in researching the emissions of livestock it is concerning that farmers do not get the standard of support and incentives that they should to improve their practice. The limited influence of MAF and the dominance of industry advisors has led to many farmers supporting commercial interests at the expense of the environment and sustainability. It is one thing to have the science and research, but if it is not reflected in farming practice there is little point in doing it. The government must take a lead in this area and ensure there are incentives for the agricultural industry to change to more sustainable practices, especially when there is strong evidence to show National's support for industry self regulation as an answer is not reflected in reality.

It is a pity that this Government is inclined to only support science that fits with their ideology and publicly reject and diminish the relevance of science and scientists who don't fit with their vision. The internationally viewed dismissal of scientist Mike Joy's research was shameful and after reading Merchant's of Doubt over the holidays it concerns me that the active rejection and discrediting of sound science in the US is also happening here. 

Saving for one's retirement is a useful analogy for how we should regard investment in R&D and education. The more we are able to invest now, the less we have to spend at a later date. Investing in education, science and technology is an investment in a more secure and sustainable future.

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